Courtesy of Autodesk, Minette Norman has written an article introducing her presentation: 'Transformational Leadership: The Power of Human Connection'. Click here to see all BTOES19 Speakers.
Four years ago, I took the role of Vice President of Engineering Practice at Autodesk, a 36-year-old software company. My role was to transform engineering across the company. No small feat, considering that we had more than 3000 engineers working on 100+ products and services.
The primary driver for this transformation was the transition Autodesk was going through—from a traditional desktop software company offering perpetual licenses to a cloud software company offering subscriptions. To be successful in this transition, we needed to make our product portfolio more cohesive and interoperable and to stop exposing the seams within our own organization to our customers. As a company that had grown through numerous acquisitions over many years, we were notorious for siloed product groups where each team defined their own processes, tools, and often had their own culture. As a result of these silos, our products often looked different, operated differently, and didn’t share data easily.
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While my initial focus in the role was to start consolidating software development tools and processes, it quickly became clear to me that the most important aspect of my job was changing the mindsets and behaviors of our engineering workforce. In an environment where all we talked about was technology and business, I started exploring human interaction.
One of my first discoveries was James Tamm’s book Radical Collaboration in which Tamm posits that the biggest inhibitor to collaboration was defensiveness. I started to pay attention to defensive behavior in my own interactions with colleagues and realized just how accurate Tamm’s observation was. We are constantly defending our own positions and points of view. And when we’re feeling defensive, we are absolutely not listening to anyone else; instead, we’re formulating our next line of attack.
I decided that if I were going to have any positive impact on the behavior of others, I would have to practice managing my own behavior and defensiveness. It was humbling to notice just how I often I reacted unproductively when I felt defensive. And it became clear that managing my reactions would be a practice like any other and was not unlike practicing piano, tennis, meditation, or anything else that was hard at the onset.
As I practiced improving my interactions with others, I became aware of how much was not being said, how loathe people were to have the real conversations we all needed to have with one another. People often didn’t feel safe to tell the truth. When the New York Times published the results of Google’s Project Aristotle and showed that psychological safety was the most important requirement for an effective team, I shared the article broadly and started talking about the need to build psychological safety in our workplace.
I started to feel emboldened to talk openly about topics that no one in engineering ever seemed to mention: non-defensive behavior, listening, empathy, compassion, and psychological safety. These concepts were relegated to the category of “soft skills” that were often viewed as secondary to technical skills. I got up publicly in front of our engineering community and said that we would not succeed in our business transformation unless we changed how we connected as human beings. The night before I gave that talk, I feared I was making a huge mistake and might be laughed off the stage.
Instead, the most amazing thing happened: hundreds of people let me know that what I said had resonated profoundly with them. They told me that they wanted to help change the culture. Other executives picked up the thread, and before long, significant numbers of employees were reading Radical Collaboration, running workshops about overcoming defensiveness, and doing their best to create an environment where all voices could be heard.
This work is challenging. Culture does not shift quickly or easily. People fall back on known patterns. However, I am heartened by the positive changes I see. There is wide recognition in our leadership team and workforce that we need to continue to build an open-minded and inclusive culture. And every day, I practice behaving in a way that I hope will be a role model for others because I believe that each one of us can make a huge difference in how others experience life at work and in the world.
Autodesk, Inc., is a leader in 3D design, engineering and entertainment software. Since its introduction of AutoCAD software in 1982, Autodesk continues to develop the broadest portfolio of 3D software for global markets.
Customers across the manufacturing, architecture, building, construction, and media and entertainment industries—including the last 19 Academy Award winners for Best Visual Effects—use Autodesk software to design, visualize, and simulate their ideas before they're ever built or created. From blockbuster visual effects and buildings that create their own energy, to electric cars and the batteries that power them, the work of our 3D software customers is everywhere you look.
Through their apps for iPhone, iPad, iPod, and Android, they are also making design technology accessible to professional designers and amateur designers, homeowners, students, and casual creators — anyone who wants to create and share their ideas with the world.
About the Author
Minette Norman serves as Vice President of Engineering Practice at Autodesk and is responsible for a collaborative culture and state-of-the-art engineering practices. Minette spearheaded “radical collaboration” – initiatives that recognize engineers who contribute to one another’s code, designs, and tests. Previously, she gained international attention by transforming Autodesk’s localization team through best-in-class automation and machine translation.
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Before joining Autodesk, she held a variety of technical communication and management positions at companies including Symantec and Adobe. Named in 2017 as one of the “Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business” by the San Francisco Business Times and in 2018 as one of the YWCA Silicon Valley’s “Tribute to Women” Honorees, Minette is a recognized industry expert with a unique perspective.
Minette has a broad approach to community service, working with local, national and international non-profit organizations. She serves on the Board of Directors of D-Rev, a non-profit devoted to developing medical technologies for impoverished and vulnerable populations worldwide. Minette also works with GirlsWhoCode and YesWeCode, national organizations that help under-represented populations succeed in the technology sector.
Minette holds degrees in Drama and French from Tufts University and studied at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris.
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