Growing up in Nigeria, Dara Treseder didn’t dream of being a marketing leader. Thanks to the support of her family and community, she ended up in the US, enrolled at Harvard. There, she saw that “all the kids of super successful people were getting into investment banking.” So, after graduating from Harvard, Dara dutifully pursued that field: “I was chasing what I thought was the American dream.”
But while Dara was interning at Goldman Sachs, an offhand comment from a partner at the firm would change the trajectory of her entire career. “He said to me, ‘Dara, you’re a good investment banker, but you’re a great marketer.’” Whether this was a compliment or not, Dara isn’t sure, but she found herself ruminating on his words for a long time after. “When I reflected on what he said, I realized: I’m a storyteller. There’s a strong quantitative side to me, but also a strong qualitative side. So I started chasing a different dream.”
Dara’s realization came down to one question: “Where can I have the most impact on the world and be the most fulfilled?” And since then, her career has been about connecting her passion to her purpose – making an impact while leading a fulfilling life. This authenticity of self shows up in her work, but also in her roles as a mother, mentor, and business leader.
Building a platform for impact
In many ways, Dara’s new role as CMO of Autodesk is the culmination of honing that passion and purpose she’s always seeking. She’s passionate about technology and its impact on society, so the world’s leading design and make technology platform is a natural fit.
Dara’s accomplishments speak for themselves. She’s held leadership positions at multiple companies, most recently Peloton, across various industries and, adding to a growing list of honors and awards, was recently named #1 on the 2022 Forbes Most Influential CMO list.
But her impact on the industry runs broader and deeper than a catalog of professional accolades. As a Black woman in leadership, Dara prioritizes using her platform to drive change. In part, this manifests as mentorship and service to organizations she cares about; she’s a founding member of the Black Executive CMO Alliance, focused on creating opportunities for Black marketers, which she sees as a crucial need in the DEI landscape. “There’s a lot of talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but not as much action,” she says. “Trying to bring about change is not without sacrifice. To move things forward, something has to give… and not a lot of people want to do that work.”
On a more personal level, Dara brings a palpable sincerity to her public-facing platform. She’s an open book. “I try to demystify, for Black women, what it’s like to be in this job as a Black woman, as my full self, with my full experience. You can’t be what you can’t see, what you don’t understand, so I try to make myself as accessible as possible, make sure that I’m giving of myself.”
How Dara leads with authenticity
Dara’s approach to leadership eschews the idea of a manufactured identity – personal and corporate alike – instead focusing on embracing growth and gaining clarity of purpose.
1. Be crystal clear on your goals
Dara says the biggest mistake a business can make, particularly when it comes to running campaigns, is failing to align on a primary goal. “When you’re trying to solve for many different things at the same time, you may not solve for any one thing exceptionally well.”
Optimizing for that singular North Star is essential if you really want to knock your project out of the park. Dara likes to say to her team, “the way we turn ordinary into extraordinary is by being a little ‘extra’.”
2. Create space for debate
When it comes to decision-making, Dara and her team ascribe to a mantra: debate, decide, commit.
When the team is tasked with making decisions, “anyone can surface anything, flag anything. It’s so important to have a culture where people can share their concerns. We don’t have to agree, but as long as we have space for debate, whatever the decision is will be so much better because multiple points of view were considered.”
Atlassian has long touted the benefits of Open work – a mindset and set of practices rooted in transparency, candor, and inclusion. Teams like Dara’s that embrace honest feedback and transparent decision-making achieve more and have a higher sense of well-being than teams that don’t.
3. Assume noble intent
Another common turn of phrase on Dara’s team is assume noble intent.
“Sometimes we’re trying to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, which isn’t always possible, or we’re not considering their perspective at all, Dara explains. “But if we’re assuming noble intent, we can walk into any conversation and make it a productive one.”
Giving our teammates the benefit of the doubt – and avoiding the kneejerk assumptions and personal baggage that can derail a discussion – “allows us to come in as our best selves, and also allows us to give people the opportunity to be their best.”
4. Quiet the noise
In the face of difficult circumstances, “be responsive, not reactive,” Dara advises. “There are things you can’t control, and there are things you can control. Separate the two.”
“It’s easy to get distracted with what seems like the problem, but isn’t the problem,” she continues. Gather as much data as you can, then analyze that data to make a decision. “What are you doing about those things you can control?”
5. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate
Shortly after COVID hit, Dara started having daily syncs with her team, plus a weekly standup with the whole marketing org, both ways of staying connected and sharing crucial information.
She advises leaders that you often have to drive a point home more than once. “Just when you get sick of saying a thing is just when people have started absorbing it. So during times of turbulence and crisis, it’s so important to say it, say it again, say it again, and make sure everyone’s on board.”
6. Celebrate what’s real
Dara’s approach to marketing relies on data to inform strategy: surveys, focus groups, and other measures of customer satisfaction. But translating that sentiment into human-focused decisions is where it gets tricky.
“Focus on celebrating what’s real,” Dara says. “Figure out what your customers love, and amplify that and cultivate that.”
That fire will fizzle if your strategy, your campaign, your messaging, or your brand is perceived as inauthentic. “Everyone wants to create a community, but you can’t manufacture it. It’s got to be organic, something that’s driven, something that people are doing because they want to.”
7. Never stop growing
Perpetual growth is a central pillar of Dara’s approach to leadership and hardship – but she’s firm in her belief that progress isn’t linear.
“I have a four-year-old and a six-year-old, so I spend a lot of time on jungle gyms! And sometimes you have to go down to go up, you have to go left to go right – you’re constantly moving. And that’s the reality of growth. “
This approach demands a certain measure of humility, but for growth-oriented leaders like Dara, becoming stagnant is worse than making a misstep.
“It’s not a linear process, Dara says. “But as long as you’re making progress, as long as you’re learning, you’re growing.”