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7 Lessons-in-Leadership from Autodesk’s CEO

High tea and lessons in leadership, business and strategy...

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Autodesk CEO
Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk's CEO

Being hosted for a month at Autodesk’s One Market Street office in San Francisco was a real treat.  Even better, was having an opportunity to meet many of the C-Level leadership team that manage this global, public-listed company.  Autodesk has an annual revenue of more than US$2.6 billion and over 10,000 employees.  Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk’s CEO, is a mechanical engineer with a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering and Computer Science.  He has worked at Autodesk for over two decades in a multitude of roles. Here are some of the lessons in business, management and strategy that I learned from Autodesk’s CEO during a delightful high tea.

LESSON #01: Where to start, but at the top…

For a company this scale to be motivated and inspired to perform, the high-level leadership team needs to be visible, responsive and consistent in following through on company cultures and behaviors.  Andrew indicated that the C-Level team in a company must be both diverse of thought (cultivated through diversity in gender, races, backgrounds, experiences, etc.), and committed to each other as a team.   The C-Level team needs to have a clear and consolidated view of the company’s strategy.

LESSON #02: Which leads to strategy…

Company strategy is about defining the bigger picture.  Company strategy is about where you see your company in 10 years, not 2-3 years.  It involves identifying the type of service that we think will be required, understanding what aspect/s of that service we want to offer, and confirming to whom we want to offer these services.

Knowledge and deep understanding of the company’s strategy is NOT limited to the executive level staff.   Andrew firmly believes that one of his core responsibilities is to “sell” the company’s strategy from board level to the most junior of staff.  In this way, a change in CEO, management, or board will not result in the strategy constantly changing.  Whilst the details of a particular strategy need to be dynamic to overcome arising challenges, the vision must remain consistent for long-term, meaningful progress.

LESSON #03: How to have a business strategy that stays ahead of the curve…

Although this is seemingly esoteric in nature, money and resources must be allocated for this future scoping and planning.  Out of 10k employees, Autodesk employs over 250 staff in its research division.  Defining an end-game and having direction allows the company to consistently stay ahead of its competition.  Externally, it marks the company as being a leader and a trusted advisor within a particular market.  Internally, it allows for all parts of the company to be aligned towards a common goal.  For example, most companies, organisations and researchers that are supported by Autodesk Foundation and Autodesk Research are linked to the requirements of Autodesk’s business strategy.

Additionally, Autodesk has a Futurist division which reports directly to the company EXCO on a regular basis with explorative future scenarios and possibilities.  This information empowers the leads to direct their current and short-term projects in order to track their shared vision.  

LESSON #04: With strategy, comes company structure…

Andrew believes that most effective company structure, is one whereby each division within a large company operates with the excitement and aggression of an individual start-up.  This is directly opposed to the strategy adopted by many other companies, wherein the aim is to break down the silos that exist between departments in order to supposedly improve efficiencies.  Andrew’s structure attempts to form independent vertical structures with the required agility, authority and accountability to make decisions that will allow them to exceed their specific targets.  Placing an inordinate amount of emphasis on an integrated business structure tends to encourage competition amongst divisions – and often detracts from the intention and KPIs of their specific function. 

In cross-functional projects, teamwork is essential. However, in order for these projects to be effective, the role of the decision maker must be made clear.  To avoid multi-disciplinary teams being unfocused, a single point of authority and accountability must be identified.  This person must be empowered to make decisions – whilst taking cognizance of the expertise of the team.

LESSON #05: How to keep up with a dynamic strategy and an aggressive company structure:

At Autodesk, re-organisation, is not a taboo word, and is not reserved for company sloughs.  Review of work demand and available labor resources are undertaken on a regular basis, with the intention to shift staff and boost teams where required.  This continuous realignment of company resources in accordance with the company strategy allows the company to be agile and resilient.  A further benefit is that staff are constantly upskilling themselves and become more marketable as they are experienced in multiple functions.

LESSON #06: How do staff adapt to this agility…

Having a strong rapport with your manager is great.  However, Andrew believes that for career progression we need to rethink this dynamic.   As an employee, your focus relationships should be 1) your relationship with your own career (take the reins in your own journey); and 2) your relationship with the company you are currently with (what value can you add).  As a manager and leader, it is your responsibility to provide options and opportunities for your staff, as well as good feedback: you need to tell your employees what they need to hear, and not what they want to hear.

LESSON #07: And communication…

Autodesk promotes an open-door policy and responsiveness.  All staff members feel comfortable to approach any of the leadership with their queries – or their thoughts and suggestions.  In return, the leadership is required to seriously consider the communication and be responsive.  I had a query for Andrew regarding part of Autodesk’s strategy.  Before the night was out, I had received a response that made me feel that I had been heard and understood.  Besides the obvious benefits of expanding the pool of ideas being looked at, this policy ensures that each employee believes that they are a brand ambassador for the company.  The loyalty to the company of each of the employees that I worked with was unquestionable.

The lessons above show a commitment to creating a sustainable and evolving business that places emphasis on agility and being able to change in order to stay ahead of the curve.  It was a pleasure and an eye opener to be a pseudo-part of this organisation for a month.

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