Insights gained after a sudden loss: Leadership lessons from an Autodesk VP

by Athena member Susanna Holt

The slower pace of the world due to Covid-19 has given me time to pause and think about the people and events that influenced and shaped me. As I mused, my mind kept returning to Andy Johnson, my former rowing sponsor who recently died of cancer.

Despite not talking in years, I felt the loss more deeply than I had expected. Covid made attending the funeral impossible, and I had no chance to gather with others who had been touched by him and his support. Like so many who lost loved ones in 2020, I worked through my grief on my own.

Reflecting on a natural sponsor

As I went through the process, I realized what tremendous belief Andy had in me and what a profound impact that had on my growth. He believed in me even before I did.

He saw me train-day-in, day-out, I was always there. He saw me rowing when others had decided the weather was too bad; he saw me lifting weights when others were already in the pub; he saw me working on endurance while others were still in bed. He never said anything, but he noticed. And his belief in me grew.

One morning, he approached me to say he wanted to sponsor me and buy a rowing boat for me. Until then, I had been sharing a club boat with other rowers-it wasn’t set up right for me, it was unloved and poorly maintained, and not always available when I wanted to row.

Having my own boat opened a whole new set of possibilities to me. In my mind, only good rowers had their own boat, and I didn’t see myself as a good rower. I told him, “I will have to train extra hard to show I deserve it.” Andy just smiled in his slightly awkward way.

Andy never came to regret his investment, and I am still so proud of the considerable successes I had in rowing competitions across the world. In retrospect, I realize that what really changed things for me was that someone believed in me enough to want to support me . That belief in my ability did more for my subsequent success than having my own boat.

The power of believers

As I prepared my eulogy for Andy, I knew this statement was true: “Andy believed in me before I did. I cannot say that of many people — although many people could say that about Andy”.

Over the following months, as my mind wandered back to Andy and the impact he had on me, I became more aware that he was the only one who believed in me before I did. I realized that there were other “believers”, other Andy’s in my life:

  • Wolfgang Hintz, a former boyfriend, who thought I was “terribly smart”. He encouraged me to turn my back on my life as a postal worker and have a go at higher education. Many years later, and long after our relationship ended, I am the proud holder of a PhD in Mathematics.
  • Scott Reese, the SVP who signed me up for Athena Alliance. I had just relocated to the US, and thought I had reached the pinnacle of my career as a Director of Engineering. I never saw myself as an executive at Autodesk. Why do I have a feeling that Scott did? When I was promoted to VP, Scott and others felt I deserved to be in that role. That gave me the confidence to believe I deserved to be there, as well.

In each of these cases, I remember thinking, “Why me?” “What does he see in me that I don’t recognize in myself?”

In the months and years that followed, I detected a pattern: There have been people in my life who have seen potential in me, and who were willing to invest emotion or energy or effort into bringing that potential to light.

Turning tables and becoming a believer myself

Recently, I found myself in a conversation with someone who said, “I don’t think I’m ready for this yet — I still have so much to learn”. I was surprised to hear myself say, “Oh yes, you are ready”.

What happened here?

Without even noticing, I was doing for this person what others have done for me: to not only see someone’s potential, but to tell them about it, to nudge them to be braver, to not wait until they feel ready, and to take the next step right away.

I want to do more of that, and I want to do it more deliberately.

A challenge for women leaders

I am appealing to my community of fellow leaders to pause and think: What if we all did more of this? And what if we did it deliberately?

When we show others that we notice and believe in them, we are passing our belief in them onto themselves, accelerating their growth and enabling them to run with that belief.

You don’t need to be a formal mentor to do this. Andy did not coach me or get involved in my rowing training. Wolfgang never monitored my schoolwork and Scott never asked me whether I was getting anything out of my Athena membership. All they did was open a door I had not seen and let me walk through it. They followed my progress with interest, but once I believed in myself, I didn’t need them to express that belief anymore.

I will always remain grateful to them and to others who have helped me by showing their belief in me. Now I want to pick up that baton and do for others what Andy, Wolfgang, and Scott have done for me.

And what about you? Who is that person you believe in right now? Who would benefit from hearing how much you do believe in them?

Susanna Holt is the vice president of Forge, the platform for Autodesk’s design and make functionality, where she leads a team of nearly 700 professionals on product strategy and development. She has more than 20 years of experience in the software industry with deep technical expertise in graphics and solid modeling and has contributed to the solid modeling kernel used by AutoCAD, Inventor, and other Autodesk software products. Susanna received her doctoral degree in mathematics from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main in Germany.

Originally published at on February 8, 2021.

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