How Autodesk relies on group mentoring to empower their technical managers

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


What does it really mean to be a technical manager? The answer is a bit complicated. Not only are they responsible for their team’s productivity, managers must be great listeners, become the employees’ coach, an advocate, all while making sure their team members are happy and motivated. Often, technical managers feel they should know certain things, but they have a ton of questions and uncertainties. We asked Danny Ryan (Director of Technical Training & Development) and Kristian Ruggieri (Technical Training Program Manager) at Autodesk to share how they came up with a technical manager development program that relied on the power of group mentorship cohorts to empower their managers to build their confidence, and become better leaders.

Key takeaways

  • Creating a psychologically safe space for people to admit they don’t know something and to ask questions is a must in supporting a learning environment and culture.
  • So-called “training events” with presentations aren’t too effective when looking at their long-term influences on attendees because mastery comes from practice and reflection with peers and mentors.
  • It’s the conversations and emotional connection the participants make that are meaningful and impactful.
  • People can also learn effectively by observing others learning, so mentors continue to learn through coaching and providing guidance.

Though Autodesk had offered training programs for their employees, they were more one-offs, rather than a consistent and scalable offerings. So, Danny and Kristian seeked to offer a program where managers felt safe to ask questions, where they felt reassured issues they were facing were also challenges to others, and to learn skills that were applicable in their day to day management roles.

Smaller group setting is easier to create an environment where people are willing to raise their hand and admit they don’t know something and to ask questions. This led to Autodesk testing out smaller cohort groups to participate in a four week learning program led by an experienced technical manager who has been appointed a mentor. Training topics include things like career coaching, individual development plans, setting performance goals and providing feedback, as well as managing conflict. Not only are the participating technical managers able to learn from each other, the mentors are able to learn from how the participants are learning, and through their conversations with peers, everyone participating is able to walk away with something new and meaningful. With a few tweaks, Autodesk now offers these as a six-week program.

Not only did Danny and Kristian’s team receive positive feedback from participants, the program became something participants called “the best learning experience” they have ever received.

Finding out other managers have the exact same problem, and that it’s not just me and that it’s actually a shared issue. [It] takes away some of the embarrassment. – Senior Director 

These sessions offer a very safe, and a rich opportunity to have conversations that aren’t always easy, but there’s a deep level of respect and trust…And all of us realize, wow, we are all in this together. – Manager, Technology Centers Workshop

The mentors are not trying to drive a specific agenda So they’re really there to help facilitate the conversations and help people learn from each other more than trying to teach something themselves. – Sr. Manager, Software Development

It is evident that allowing managers to have an intimate discussion on whatever they want to talk about empowers them to open up more, ask more questions, and in return, learn new tricks and tips. These cohort programs also allow managers from all over the world to meet other managers who they may never have the opportunity to meet otherwise. As one Autodesk manager from out of the county mentioned, these sessions allowed her to learn cultural differences and build relationships with peers from across the world she can now reach out to with any challenges or questions she’s facing.

Not only do these smaller cohort settings offer growth opportunities for technical managers, these intimate settings can also apply in providing safe environments to talk about difficult topics like diversity and inclusion in the workplace. So how can one take Autodesk’s learnings and implement group mentorship within their organization in a meaningful way to advocate and support technical managers and their growth? Thanks to Danny and Kristian, you can utilize their Playbook as a starting point.

In order to create and provide a psychological safety net, it becomes crucial to create an environment and atmosphere that are trusting, respectful, and communicative. Without any signals that one is encouraged to speak up, share their thoughts, and to ask questions, employees can’t engage in meaningful discussions that lead to learning. Company culture that advocates for openiness, collaboration, feedback, and continuous learning will impact not only the company-wide goals, but will accelerate teams and individuals to be curious, engaging, and innovative.

Many focus on learning that happens in a formal “learning environment” but the more powerful and meaningful learnings take place when people engage with one another naturally and through conversation. No one should feel alone in this world filled with uncertainty. Why not create and provide that sense of safety and comfort within your own organization and encourage to foster relationships that can up level their personal and professional happiness.

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