Lara Dodo of Newtopia: “It’s critical to become a student of life and remain authentically YOU

To be the best leader for your teams, it’s critical to become a student of life and remain authentically YOU. Being proactive and constantly rewiring your brain to learn about every field you come across is invaluable. Imposter syndrome is a very real danger, and I’ve found that humbly accepting that you have a lot […]

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To be the best leader for your teams, it’s critical to become a student of life and remain authentically YOU. Being proactive and constantly rewiring your brain to learn about every field you come across is invaluable. Imposter syndrome is a very real danger, and I’ve found that humbly accepting that you have a lot left to learn helps ease that feeling while motivating you to address it proactively. If you can fall in love with learning and get excited when you discover that you’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg, you’re on the right track to embracing lifelong education and learning with humility.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Lara Dodo.

Lara Dodo is a dynamic leader who believes in the strength of the team, the power of authentic communication and the impact of positive energy on innovation. As chief growth and operating officer at Newtopia, Lara leads the company’s talented teams in creating products, services and experiences that delight clients and drive results.

Lara serves as a mentor and adviser to the 613 Lab business accelerator and as a guest speaker and mentor for Aish International university programs and students. She has also been a member of the board of the Canadian chapter of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners, chair of the board of directors of Women in Technology, a volunteer judge for Enactus Canada, and an inspirational speaker and volunteer for Chabad.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I joined Newtopia in 2017, first as a consultant to help to scale the business and then moving into the role of chief operating officer. While I was COO, I received an opportunity to become the CEO of a gaming company. It was compelling enough to take on, but I didn’t want to step away from Newtopia’s mission. So I stayed on as a strategic advisor and largely served as remote COO while performing CEO duties for another company.

I was juggling both roles when COVID-19 hit us last year. The impact of the pandemic forced me to stop and reflect upon what I wanted from my professional life. This meant answering bigger questions about where I was finding meaning and what was the best way to direct my energy. In the midst of this soul-searching, Newtopia went public on the Toronto Venture Exchange. Literally after “ringing the bell”, founder Jeff Ruby reached out via text, asking me if I was done “playing videogames.” In that moment, the path forward became very clear: I wanted to focus all my energy on health care to make a difference. And I couldn’t be happier with that decision. It can be difficult to carve out space, emotional real-estate, to get the big-picture perspective you need, but it’s key to making the right choices.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was representing Newtopia at one the largest Commercial Insurers National Accounts annual sales rally, and my team had organized a cocktail event to thank everyone who had closed a deal for Newtopia that year. What was supposed to be a 15-person event ballooned into more than 80 sales reps and leaders clamoring for cocktails. We couldn’t have been happier with the turnout, but it was challenging trying to be the best hosts we could to so many. I was wholly focused on networking and cultivating all of Newtopia’s most important relationships, when a person I didn’t recognize expressed interest in the Newtopia T-shirt I was wearing. Surprised, I responded with a smile, “Have you closed a Newtopia deal?” He shook his head no. “Then no, you may not have a T-shirt,” I responded. “Sell a deal and we’ll ship you a T-shirt!” The line got a few laughs, and the cocktail night continued with much commentary about “Lara did you know who that was!”. It was only later that I realized that the person I had turned down for a T-shirt was the brand-new president of this large client partner!

My demands for better sales performance from the president quickly became a viral joke. In many ways it was embarrassing, but it also turned into a memorable moment that we spun into a positive. Our team sent a personalized T-shirt to that executive the next day, and no harm was done. It served as a good reminder that in any kind of commercially visible role, you’re not always going to get it right. Mistakes can be magic moments, so have some fun with them. It’s important to remember that it’s rare to break anything that can’t be fixed, so just smile and send that T-shirt.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My first role was with a Fortune 500/1000 professional services company in strategic recruitment. There I was blessed to work with a leader, Dianne Hunnam-Jones, who taught me the importance of emotional intelligence in building and scaling teams and, critically, the power of a personal connection. People will choose to work for you because they want to, not because they have to. The growth I have generated both in and outside the organization can be tied directly to those lessons. They allow you to assemble successful teams, scale quickly and drive sequential results. Dianne helped me realize my potential and guide my personal journey, and I try to pay that gift forward with everyone I have the pleasure of working with.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

It depends on what I’m preparing for. If it is something of great consequence — a high-stakes meeting or an important speaking event — I will sit and read something meditative or spiritual to calm my mind. It helps me gain perspective and recognize that I don’t control every outcome. Sixty seconds is enough for me to find my focus and mitigate outside pressures.

On the flip side, if I need to do something that requires high intensity, like meeting a pressing deadline or tackling a project I’ve been putting off, nothing gets me into the zone like great music. There may even be a cup of coffee or a glass of wine involved, depending on the time of day.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

I’m from South Africa, and I grew up in a crumbling apartheid system that had legalized racism. I saw that system pulled down and the attempts to rebuild and reconcile in the context of that history. With that perspective, I have a lot of gratitude for the work being done here in North America to embrace diversity and gain greater empathy for the experiences of others.

There’s no question that promoting equality and inclusion is the only moral and ethical choice, but it’s also the right business decision. A team representing different cultures, races, nationalities, religions and sexual identities brings a richer perspective to every problem your organization faces. This drives innovation, broadens access to talent, speeds up time to market and promotes growth. There’s no reason for organizations to resist being as inclusive as possible, and that starts at the very top.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

As executives and leaders, we have a responsibility to make sure we are leading by example by hiring great people. That means we need to check our own potential biases. The first step is admitting we all have them and in fact are likely not even aware of our biases. I’ve uncovered some of my own, and it’s been incredibly valuable to understand the privilege that comes with speaking English as a first language, for example, or having an outstanding education. As executive leaders, we have an obligation to stay vigilant and keep stretching our understanding of problematic dynamics. You’ll likely find that there’s more work you need to do on yourself and your teams to achieve positive change.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I view it through the lens of sailing. Executives set the path for “True North,” and if you know anything about sailing, you know there’s no direct path. It takes a lot of course correction and guidance to get to your destination. Successful executives keep the organization heading north by setting and communicating that vision to their teams.

But leaders aren’t just setting the overall strategy and direction for the team; they are also the owners of morale across the organization. They need to be obsessed with ongoing innovation, performance and growth. And growth can mean different things in different companies, roles and industries. It could mean growth in social diversity ratios, improvements in revenue, faster time to market for innovation. Companies aren’t limited to the bottom line in creating progress.

Lastly, executive leaders need to understand the distinction between working in the business and working on the business. If you’re in the ship, you only have a view of internal performance. Successful leaders need to be on top of what’s happening across the broader ecosystem. Without that awareness, executives won’t have the insight needed to gauge whether their teams are moving in the best direction to achieve the organization’s goals.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I’d say the biggest myth is that when you’re a key executive, everyone listens to you. It’s simply not true. In fact, it’s often the reverse. And that’s a good thing. Your role as a leader is to listen. Without dialogue you’re not going to have a healthy organization. As a leader or CEO, it’s your role to listen to everyone else. Not just your teams, but your peers, the competition, clients, partners and whoever else is needed to capture an accurate picture of what’s happening.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

One of the biggest challenges facing many women — not just executives — is balancing work with a role as primary caregiver at home. This isn’t limited to women, but it certainly impacts women disproportionately. The pandemic made this an even more acute issue, with many families having to manage childcare with kids out of school. Male executives who are not the primary caregiver don’t have the same pressures.

Many women are managing their children’s care arrangements, emotional and physical support, homework, activities, competitions and injuries, in addition to being on and available for work. Because of that, my sense is that as a woman I have more pressure to be more available than my male counterparts, leading to my staying on email and in the office later than is healthy. At times during COVID-19, as I have tried to juggle the tsunami of responsibilities, the phrase I most often use in describing high-pressure moments is “an assault on my nervous system!” Working moms and a growing number of working dads in the role of primary caregiver need more support from their organizations and leaders. The one high impact support that we can always give our peers and teams, regardless of gender, circumstances, race, religion, and identity? Empathy.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be? Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Outside of my first entry-level job, I don’t think I’ve ever been handed a job description. At the end of the day my role has always been simply to grow market share and revenue. That’s usually what we as executives are tasked with. The few individuals who can embrace the art and science required to grow revenue make great leaders. The science grows revenue, and the art ensures that you’re doing it in a way that’s authentic to you, your teams and your brand. Navigating that balance is what determines the success of both executives and broader leadership teams.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

To be the best leader for your teams, it’s critical to become a student of life and remain authentically YOU. Being proactive and constantly rewiring your brain to learn about every field you come across is invaluable. Imposter syndrome is a very real danger, and I’ve found that humbly accepting that you have a lot left to learn helps ease that feeling while motivating you to address it proactively. If you can fall in love with learning and get excited when you discover that you’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg, you’re on the right track to embracing lifelong education and learning with humility.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorites is “choose ownership,” which is in direct contrast to some of the worst advice I’ve ever received: “your turn will come.” I can sit and ruminate on scenarios in which I was left out of the men’s cigar smoking club, but I’ve always been more successful when I’m focused on my own race. I was a sprinter growing up, and my mom pointed out that I would only lose when I worried about the runners behind me. That message stuck. Focusing on how you are going to reach your goals makes it far more likely that you’ll achieve them. We don’t get to choose our circumstances in either our personal life or our professional life, but we do get to choose how to respond and succeed despite those circumstances.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

There are so many people I would love to meet and learn from, but Oprah Winfrey stands out. She is a woman who overcame difficult circumstances in her personal and professional life to lead, inspire and effect change. I am incredibly moved by the good and love she has spread all over the world. When it comes to empowering people and driving them to fulfill their potential, Oprah is truly living it. So just to even greet her and thank her for the tremendous impact that she has had on so many of us would be an absolute honor.

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