Leadership by Design: Autodesk's Carl Bass

Carl’s presence fills any room he enters, not because his ego pushes others out, but because his demeanor welcomes and connects with everyone around him. In title, he is the president and CEO of Autodesk, a $2 billion corporation that creates 3-D design software that’s used around the world. In practice, he’s a DEO (Design Executive Officer).

We interviewed Bass on a sunny afternoon in the Berkeley shop he shares with a friend. Surrounded by traditional woodworking implements, repurposed discards, and a state-of-the-art robotic lathe, he explained how he built his career and crafted his life.

As a child, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?

I don’t think I spent any time as a kid thinking about what I wanted to be. I never thought, “I’m going to be a fireman.” I’ve always just done what’s most interesting in front of me. It was more of a meander. There was nothing purposeful about it.

When I first went to college, I only went for a brief time and decided I hated it. So I dropped out and ended up in South Dakota. I was just driving across the country with a friend and we ran out of money somewhere near Wounded Knee. I stayed for about a year on the Indian reservation, building houses and learning how to do carpentry.

Next, I wandered over to Seattle. I kind of poked my nose into a woodshop there and asked, “Can I come and sweep up the chips or something in exchange for using your shop space?” That’s where I taught myself how to make stuff. Then I apprenticed with a blacksmith. Next, I learned to build boats and furniture. I finally went back to college, but I spent probably five, six, maybe even seven years exploring and wandering between when I started and when I finished.

When did you discover your creative side?

I’ve always tried to figure out connections. That’s how I think of creativity and that’s the common thread that runs through everything I do. Whether it’s a design problem or a math problem or anything else I do at work, it’s all about solving a problem or a challenge by figuring out the connections and working within some constraint. You’re trying to figure out an answer. Math is exactly that. Design is that. And business has a huge aspect of doing that. You have a whole bunch of constraints and within those constraints you try to find a reasonable answer. That’s my sense of creativity.

When did you first realize you could lead?

I’m a reluctant executive. I never wanted to be a CEO. I don’t understand someone who just wants to be a business executive and so they move from company to company to rise up the ladder. I don’t understand that motivation.

There are many parts of the job I don’t particularly like, so I’ve surrounded myself with people who are good at the things I don’t like doing. I’ve always tried to find the people who enjoy doing the stuff that I don’t like doing.

How has your leadership style evolved?

I think I started as a more heroic leader, where I was going to try to lead the charge and solve the problem. But in a big company, the leader can’t do the work himself. I can’t pull together six smart people working really hard and run Autodesk. So over time, I’ve become much more collaborative, partly by conscious change—working with coaches and becoming more aware of my impact on people—and partly just by growing older.

Now I find myself a fair amount of time sitting at work thinking “I’m really here for my employees.” I’ve become much more willing to discuss philosophical questions or show someone how I’ve thought about a problem or give my perspective. I think it’s a lot like being a parent: you learn to pass on knowledge and skills. They’ll take what they want from me and get rid of much of it. But, you know, it’s a way of influencing.

I used to only be interested in the work that people did. My attitude was kind of school of hard knocks. I was much more selfish with my time— I didn’t want to waste it explaining stuff. If you’re smart enough to get it, great; if not, too bad. I could be ridiculously critical and unashamed to say it. I didn’t realize that if you care more about people, you get better work from them.

Over time you learn it’s reasonable to care about people. People have careers. They have aspirations. They have stuff they want to accomplish. And having a little empathy for them doesn’t kill you. If you invest in them early on, mentoring or teaching, the benefits of it are off the charts.

What do you love most about your job now?

The thing I love most is actually making new products. I like it when everything is new, and I get most interested in what kind of design problems we can solve, what experiences we can create. The second thing I love is meeting people who are actually using the products. It’s really fun to see their creativity and imagination taking the product to different places.

You get this multiplicative effect when you hand a talented person a new tool, and they take it in this direction and you go, “Wow, I didn’t even know that was possible!” Because of the diversity of the people who use our software—one day I’ll be in Hollywood and the next day in Stuttgart— I get to work with some of the most creative people in the world.

Do you think innovation depends more on process or people?

It seems to me it always starts with getting the best people. There’s almost no endeavor I can think of in which you don’t benefit from having the best people. If you want the best design firm, if you want the most innovative company, if you want the best software, if you want the best NBA team, the first thing you do is go out and get the best people—people who are creative and smart and willing to break the rules and try different stuff.

The second thing is to build a culture that encourages and rewards risk and failure. I mean smart failure. As the head of an organization, you can’t celebrate stupid failure. Say an employee comes to you and says, “I got a broken leg.” And you ask, “How did you break your leg?” If he says, “Well, I was testing this gravity theory. So I jumped out the window,” that’s a stupid failure because there’s a less risky way to do that.

But if you’re always punishing people who take risks, the organization will see it clearly. If the only people who get ahead are the ones who sandbag their projects, who take the easier assignments that they’re sure will succeed, it says to everybody else in the organization that this is the way to behave. I’d rather reward somebody who goes out and does something really hard and learns from it.

How do you lead in a time of change?

I think risk in innovation is the lifeblood of a company, particularly technology companies and, increasingly, all companies. Life spans are short. Things are changing quickly. You’ve got to change pretty rapidly. Yet in many ways, the bigger companies get, the more they’re set up to preserve themselves. The nature of the corporation is that there are a million forces that fight to preserve things as they are, or to at least continue in the same direction. There are very few forces inside a company that encourage you to do things differently.

Look at companies that didn’t make it through transitions, like Kodak, Xerox, Lotus, Word- Perfect, and maybe now Yahoo! You wonder how Kodak could have possibly missed digital photography. They owned every patent. They owned all the technology. I don’t think in any of these cases people were unaware of the changes around them. I don’t think the people running them were stupid. So what went wrong in these companies?

I think it’s the frame of reference that executives have around their business. They end up looking at the wrong things and then making the wrong decisions. For example, two years ago someone at Autodesk started speculating about consumers being interested in creativity and imagination and wanting to have tools to do this stuff. This guy says, “I think we could have a hundred million users of these things.” Well, at that point we had a total of ten million users over all our years in business. It was one of those moments where if I’d had a megaphone I would have shouted, “You’re an idiot!” The first application we were creating was this drawing app on an iPhone. Who wants to finger paint on a device that’s this big?

But we went forward, and now we have about 135 million users of our consumer apps. The guy was not only right, he underestimated the size of the market. It would’ve been really easy to go down the Kodak route.

When it comes to the future, how do you know you’re looking at the right things?

I ask that of us at Autodesk all the time. I say, “Are we missing the boat in some ways?” Right now, we’re in this era where we’re pushing very hard for cloud-based software for design. It’s all cloud and it’s all mobile, even though it’s not what our customers buy today. I spend half my days thinking this is the most brilliant idea. I spend the other half of my days wondering why more people aren’t doing it and if they are seeing something we aren’t.

We did this really interesting strategy exercise where we told a bunch of people to go out and discover what the world of design, engineering, and creating products will look like in the future. People came back with all kinds of stuff. What was overwhelmingly interesting is that almost every story centered around who someone was going to work with and how they were going to get their work done.

As a company of self-admitted nerds, we had spent all our time thinking about how we’re going to make better tools. If it’s more realistic and it has more polygons, it’s going to be even more awesome. And yet the insights we got from the strategy exercise were about the process, not the tools.

This completely changed the new product we’re creating. Now the screen you spend the most time on looks something like Facebook, even though it’s a design app. You log on in the morning and it’s like a design feed, an activity stream, that’s all about what happened with the design. It’s all about what people did. It’s all about sharing stuff. And that came out of this exercise. It wasn’t natural for us—we would’ve never gotten there on our own. It’s only because someone said, “Before we go too crazy with this idea, why don’t we just sit back? It’s summertime, so let people dangle their feet in the water and think about it.” The social component has become almost the largest component of the tools going forward. It just goes to show how teams of people can have big blind spots if they’re not careful.

Do you have control over the corporate culture?

I think culture is one of those Zen things. You can’t control it perfectly, but as the organization’s leader you probably have the most control of anybody. And there’s no doubt that every place has a culture, whether you consciously create it or not.

The leaders set the tone. I think in an organization, at every level, there are people who are perceived to be influential and powerful and organizations work to make them happy. So I’m going to model the things I want to see in others, and I’m going to try to accomplish what I expect in others. That’s why I say it’s Zen-like, in that you definitely control it, but it’s not like the way you control a compensation policy or a sales quota or a development technique.

Culture also develops over time. It’s subtle. Lots of things influence it. It’s somewhat of a reflection. In our case, the culture lives out through 7,000 people behaving a certain way. And the 7,000 people aren’t always the same—whoever was there on Friday, there’ll be a slightly different set on Monday. A year from now, there’ll be a different set of people. But there’s a constancy to the way they act. And the way they act at Autodesk is different than a company upstairs or a company across the country.

The Autodesk Gallery showcases and explains the leading edge of technology in support of design, science, engineering, and entertainment.

Another cultural thread that runs through Autodesk is having greater empathy for what our customers do, how hard it is to do what they do, and the challenges they face. We have better appreciation for great designers, artists, and architects. I think there’s more of this than when I started here. So I think you can change culture, but you change it very subtly and slowly.

The Autodesk Gallery is a celebrated space. What prompted you to create it?

Years ago I’d gone to a company in San Francisco called Esprit. It was a clothing company and they had a textile museum attached to their corporate headquarters. A friend dragged me there, but it turned out to be awesome. I realized we could create a design gallery at Autodesk. It’s really hard to explain what we do at Autodesk. With the gallery we can show what goes on in the world of design, science, engineering, and entertainment.

When you’re gone from the scene, what three things do you want to be known for?

One, I want to be known for solving problems well. Two, for helping people get their best work done. And three, for doing things that people hadn’t thought of doing before.

Excerpted from Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design by Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.