Linda Boff

Chief Marketing Officer of GE

As CMO and Chief Learning Officer of GE, Linda takes an employee-first approach to creating a customer-first culture by helping her teams grow more comfortable with data. Her "employee-first is customer-first" philosophy has sparked a larger conversation about how GE develops talent that can evolve the brand through the digital age.



General Electric (GE) is the digital industrial company using data and advanced analytics to transform the way industrial companies operate plants and deliver products.


Customer-first companies are employee-first companies

Back when Linda Boff ran Global Digital Marketing at GE, she spent three weeks visiting companies around the world to try and learn what makes a customer-first organization tick. What she found surprised her. “By and large, the companies that consistently delivered great customer experiences were actually putting their employees first, and, in doing so, they empowered their employees to act in the best interests of customers.”

The best-in-class organizations she spoke to gave employees the resources and freedom to make in-the-moment judgments about what each customer needed, rather than just issuing a universal set of procedures and policies. “We visited leaders in hospitality. One of them, a veteran of the industry, gave employees allowances of $2,000 to delight customers at will. The other, an up-and-comer trying to transform the hospitality space, set up employees to see customer feedback in real time.” Even with wildly different brands and target customers, both saw employee autonomy as an important ingredient for serving customer needs at scale.

Inspired by what she observed, Linda brought the case studies back to GE where she sparked a larger conversation about developing talent who could grow and evolve the brand through the digital age. Now, as CMO and Chief Learning Officer of GE, Linda has fostered her own spin on the “employee-first is customer-first” thesis by helping her teams develop a deep appreciation of and comfort with data. Here are her three key lessons.

The companies that delivered great customer experiences also put their employees first.

Be idea-led and data-informed 01

GE has been a data-centric organization for a while, and it’s inculcated that approach in all of its employees. “As a company that helped popularized Six Sigma, we recognize that data makes it possible for us to keep the brand accessible and interesting. Right now, data allows us not only to target leaders and influencers but also see how they engage with GE.” Data tells Linda and her marketing team whether their campaign’s message resonates with their target audience, and if not, gives them a chance to pivot.

But Linda believes data is only as useful as the ideas it informs. Nowhere is this more clear than in higher level brand campaigns. Measuring the impact of brand initiatives can be trickier than more bottom-of-funnel activities, so Linda has built a team that can practice patience and live in the gray area.

“The more tactical a marketing effort is, the easier it is to measure. The data around pure branding activities is imperfect, and upper-funnel awareness is nearly impossible to measure in short bursts of time."

It can sometimes take multiple quarters or even a year to see the full impact of a new, risky awareness campaign. But the payoff is massive. Campaigns like Connect Volcano earned Linda the 2017 Grand Brand Genius Award and helped cement GE’s brand as a digital industrial company. “On the brand side, I believe in being idea-led and data-informed. I don’t think it’s effective to try and drive consensus around an idea by looking at data alone. That’s why everyone on the team really needs to have a gut sense for the brand and the vision, so they can put something fresh and innovative out in the world. Then, the team can always fine-tune it based on the reaction because, in the digital world, that reaction is inherently measurable.”

By ensuring that employees both live and breathe the brand and know how to use data, Linda finds that the customer ultimately gets the best outcome–and the team is satisfied that their work has an impact.

I don’t think it’s effective to try and drive consensus around an idea by looking at data alone. That’s why everyone on the team really needs to have a gut sense for the brand and the vision, so they can put something fresh and innovative out in the world. Then, the team can always fine-tune it based on the reaction because, in the digital world, that reaction is inherently measurable.

- Linda Boff, CMO and Chief Learning Officer at GE

Bring outside perspectives in for better feedback loops 02

Living and breathing the brand doesn’t mean everyone on the team has to be a GE lifer. In fact, when it comes to building her team, Linda likes to have a mix of marketers—some who have developed this gut instinct from many years at the company, and others who are new to the brand and can offer a fresh perspective on the market. “I have a team of terrifically talented people, and many of them came from outside of the GE. It’s really important, especially for technology companies, to hire people that can adopt a market-first mindset rather than rely on the product-first thinking.”

From Linda’s perspective, companies trying to solve technological gaps often focus exclusively on trying to improve their product without really understanding what different markets want and how to offer the product in a way that makes sense for each market. 

“We need marketers who can use data to interrogate what is needed in the market, and use that to inform the product, rather than just focusing on the product and then trying to find a way to sell it.”

As a customer-first B2B company, GE’s market-first thinking also means focusing on the markets where their customers sell their products. “We really do believe customers determine our success. That has to come with a certain level of respect for what they are trying to do with their business. We have to start with what will make our customers successful in their marketplace—not just how we can become successful in our marketplace.”

Demand integrity but make it easy 03

All of this talk about using data to understand customers and personalize their experiences, of course, leads people, and marketers in particular, to an uncomfortable issue: where’s the line between being customer-centric and being creepy? As Marketing increases its use of customer data to target and customize campaigns for diverse markets, Linda believes that employee judgment around ethics and privacy is more important than ever. “Data without judgment is dangerous. Given the amount of information we have available to us, marketers have to be really careful that we use it in a way that benefits our audience, or else risk that our messages feel intrusive.”

Linda thinks about this a lot and has made integrity a key component of her employee-first approach. “There is an explicit company-wide commitment to the ethical use of data. As Pollyanna-ish as it sounds, having integrity as an underlying principle of our brand helps us make better decisions. At GE, it’s part of our spirit and letter. On the marketing team, that guides us to use data and insights to give people something that will actually benefit them, rather than what will solely benefit us.”

It’s not enough to just demand integrity, though—GE has had to create an environment where goals are aligned to that ideal, which often means resisting the urge to measure everything. Part of that requires sitting down to decide in advance what data is absolutely necessary to the business and what isn’t.

“It might sound pablum, but I think marketers and leadership have to remember that not all KPIs truly matter to the business strategy. At GE, we have to get crystal-clear about what data and what tools will enable us to execute on our plan. Then, once we figure out what we want to measure, we have to find the very, very best data people—I call them data entrepreneurs—who can figure out the best way to go about measuring it.” With only this select set of metrics visible to marketers, ethical data use becomes second-nature.

According to Linda, access to the right data, combined with a culture of integrity and market-first instincts, allows her team to understand and act on the business needs of its customers. This combination is GE’s secret sauce, and what makes it possible for the brand to resist the corporate inertia that has led many of its peers to fade into irrelevance. It’s also why GE continues to invest in its people. “It is and will always be a priority for the company to develop resilient leaders who can step into their customers’ shoes.”

Data without judgment is dangerous.

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