Relational leadership: Why CFOs should act like coaches

DataStax CFO Don Dixon on why connecting with people is one of the most important parts of the job


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Great CFOs are like coaches – they understand each individual player on their team and know how to help them reach peak performance.

At least, that’s how Don Dixon, CFO at data management company DataStax, views leadership: ‘It’s really more about developing people so they become a better part of the world that we live in’.

We recently had Don on The CFO Playbook, where he talked about the importance of connecting with employees through relational leadership, pushing them toward greater accomplishments, and why CFOs should have an attitude of service.

Here’s some of Don’s advice on relational leading as a CFO:

Get out on the field

Getting to know your employees requires more than just the occasional 30-minute meeting. It takes time and energy, but for Don, that’s just part of the job.

How do you build rapport with your employees?

According to Don, it’s simple – get out of your office. Open yourself up to making connections with your employees, whether that’s at a social hour, having a passing conversation with someone in the hallway, or just chatting together in the lunchroom.

Don says in order to develop a genuine relationship with your employees you have to be curious and willing to invest in their lives without expecting anything in return:

‘Over time, if you give them confidence that what you’re doing is really genuine, then I think they open up. If they think it’s more self-serving for you, or you’re trying to get something, then obviously they’re not going to be as open’.

Though it may not come naturally to everyone, connecting with your employees is foundational for building trust.

Play to your employees’ strengths

When you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, you are better equipped to help them succeed.

Your goal as a CFO is to help your employees flourish, which requires an understanding of each person’s capabilities and motivations.

Don describes it as a coach-player mentality:

‘You know the player that you can push a little harder, and you know the one that if you do, they’re going to wilt a little bit. But you want them both to be successful in their own way’.

The overall goal of a CFO, according to Don, isn’t necessarily to ‘keep’ employees but to help people grow and develop their careers while they’re with you. As a leader, you need to invest in your employees’ goals and help them get there.

Coach the player, not the game

People, not products, create real value for a company. As a leader, you’re meant to serve your employees just as much as you would the company and its shareholders.

Service is an often underrated but necessary part of being a CFO, Don says, which can sometimes be hard for employees to understand:

‘They think they’re there to serve me, and it’s just the opposite. That’s not how I think at all. It’s more about me making sure that their careers are rich, whether it’s financial, or through content of work, or daily enjoyment’.

When you invest in the people who work for you, you invest in the company’s future by growing your employees and making them part of the mission.

The winning play

Whether you’re a coach or a CFO, the toughest yet most rewarding part of the job is the people.

The success of a business is driven by the people behind it, according to Don:

‘The key, I think, is really hiring very talented people to work with and focusing time and attention on them, their careers, and what they’re trying to do’.

Build a relationship with your employees so you can push them toward success because when your employees succeed, your business succeeds as well.

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