Never Swerve When Driving the Bus

Carl Bass, president and chief executive of Autodesk Inc on why it is critical to be clear about the company’s direction.

Carl Bass, president and chief executive of Autodesk Inc on why it is critical to be clear about the company’s direction.

Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

The first real place where I was in charge was at a start-up. We all knew what we needed to accomplish, but I would say early on I was not a comfortable manager.

It was certainly nothing I ever wanted to do in life. I was much more interested in getting stuff done. I think of myself as the reluctant CEO, or somewhere between reluctant and accidental.

Tell me more about the reluctant part.

I’m a mathematician by training. That’s what got me excited back in the day. I wasn’t interested in managing, but as I started to do it, I got more comfortable. I think it’s that first leap that everybody takes.

For me, it was the transition from being someone who was a little bit the student who liked to throw spitballs.

So you make that transition to being the teacher, and you have to be in charge, as opposed to being the person who can cause trouble, instigate and provoke, which I always found a much more comfortable place to be. At some point, you go even further, and you become the administrator, and you’re setting policies.

What made you think, OK, I can do this, or I want to do this?

What I started to realise along the way was the difference between a small company and a big company. In a small company, most of the people are aligned. You can wake up any day and head in a different direction. A bigger company takes more work and more steering.

And the analogy for me is that a small company’s a ball-peen hammer; you can move it back and forth really quickly. Big companies are more sledgehammers. It takes a lot to move them, but when you do you can actually have a big impact.

So you start realising that a lot of the work you’re doing, which might not feel that satisfying in the short term, is really necessary so that you can swing the sledgehammer and have a bigger impact.

What do you consider some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

I remember a time when we were trying to decide something in a meeting, and one of the guys said to me, “You can’t be so wishywashy. You’ve got to come out on one side or another. Not everyone’s going to like it, but I want to know what you think.”

And it was an interesting moment because I didn’t particularly view myself that way. But the need to be clear about your position really stuck with me. I think there are plenty of times when you have the freedom and even the need to go and explore ideas. I think there are other times when you’re expected to be very clear.

Another thing I’ve thought about as I’ve run a larger organisation is that, as CEO, you’re the one who’s driving the bus. And if you’re erratic while you’re driving, everyone gets pretty nauseous.

It’s really important to be as clear as you possibly can be and not just wake up one day and say we’re going this way and the next day we’re going that way.

What are some things you do to foster teamwork and innovation?

I think it is important to find people with different world views who are willing to challenge you. And you have to create an environment where they can do that, rather than having any fear about expressing ideas. You have to go out of your way to say, “I want to hear your opinions.”

It’s not uncommon in meetings for me to say, when I know something’s very controversial and important, “For the next 20 minutes, I want to hear from everybody.”

At the heart of it, people have to be willing to take on and hold a point of view. One of the things we do is try to be very clear about decisions, because there’s this built-in tension between hearing people’s opinions and people thinking everything’s a democracy.

In some meetings, I will say upfront that this is my decision and my decision alone, but I want to hear other opinions.

We’re very clear at the beginning of every meeting about whether it’s a personal decision, or more of a discussion to reach consensus. I think it’s a really valuable thing to understand because otherwise people can feel frustrated that they gave out their opinions but they don’t understand the broader context for the final decision.

I think one of the main roles for a leader is to get as many opinions as possible on the table. But the flip side of that is you have to be clear when you’re asking people for information and opinion but not turning over the ability to make the decision to them.

Tell me about some broader leadership issue you’re wrestling with now.

This is my current fascination: it’s this whole idea about keeping companies entrepreneurial and innovative and cutting-edge. The thing that I worry about a lot is how companies measure themselves. The analogy is that you can see light from a star that burned out a long time ago – it’s 100 light years away, and three years ago that star died.

The same thing is true in companies. We measure ourselves around revenue and profits and financial metrics that perform long after a spark is gone. You have this funny feedback mechanism in which you’re getting the results from something that happened a while ago.

Maybe the thing that generates all the revenue was a great idea that happened in a dorm room. There’s a lot of stuff that’s gone on since then, but do you know whether you’ve had another spark?

So a lot of my time these days, as I’ve gotten a little bit older and more reflective about how you manage a big organisation, has been about trying to identify whether real things are going on.

I’ve been spending a lot more time trying to quantify or figure out if what we’re doing is right, or whether what we’re really doing is just celebrating the result of things that happened a while ago. I think it’s really easy as a leader to confuse what the results are today with the actions that happened a while ago, because then you just start coasting.