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Leadership at the Detroit Lions: CFO Allison Maki on coaching with kindness

July 26, 2019 Article 5 min read
Jim Proppe
Working as CFO in an organization of high-performing people, Allison Maki has learned the power of human kindness and authenticity while leading a team "doing ordinary work at an extraordinary place" where success equals games won versus a strong income statement.

Football through the uprights

Allison Maki was introduced to the Detroit Lions as a young auditor in 1999—“back in the Silverdome days.” Twenty years later she’s their CFO—the number-one “number person” in an organization that brings in most of its annual revenue in eight days (“10 if you include the preseason,” she says).

As a former auditor, Allison had some insight into the Lions, but it wasn’t until she joined the staff full time that she truly appreciated the organization’s unique culture.

“In most businesses you’re focused on the bottom line. But here success is defined by wins and losses on the field, not by the income statement,” she says.

She says building a winning team—whether on the field or in the front office—starts with strong leadership built on a foundation of superior interpersonal skills.

“At end of the day our whole organization is about people—we’re putting people on the field to play the game, we’re putting people in place to coach, and we’re putting people in place to make business decisions. How you treat people is what really matters to the organization.”

“One thing I’ve learned as a leader is it’s important to have a comfortable approach—a kind approach—a reasonable approach.
It’s also important to have honest and fair conversations, but it’s critical to have them in a very respectful way no matter what you’re talking about.”

At Plante Moran, we have a similar leadership approach captured in the saying, “Candor is kindness.” It’s based on the philosophy that you have to be candid with people to help them get better, but you have to do it in a respectful way. Recipients of that feedback need to be open to it and willing to continue to improve. It’s a key part of our culture.

Allison says while disagreements are part of life and business, focusing on preserving relationships and being authentic is what pulls people through difficulties.

“Over time I’m not going to remember specific disagreements I had with coworkers, but I’ll remember things they shared about their family or stories about adventures they had on vacations –– the experiences that make them who they are. That’s how it should be. It’s important to build relationships and be authentic—and to be the same person no matter what situation you’re in.”

Working in professional sports offers a lot of opportunity for job excitement—rubbing elbows with football stars, the glitter and glitz of game day, and maybe even free tickets, so I was excited to ask Allison about the most rewarding part of her job. Surprisingly it wasn’t the perks; rather it was developing her staff by providing new and interesting challenges.

“When I first started this job, the former CFO of the Packers told me I’d be doing ‘ordinary work at an extraordinary place,’” she says. “So I took that to my staff and said, ‘This is an amazing place to work—let’s start with that and see what you can do with your job while you’re here. Let’s grow you, and develop you, and share knowledge to bring the organization forward.’ I see this on the coaching side all the time—they’re amazing at encouraging that growth and emphasizing change.”

At Plante Moran we also encourage our staff to move out of their comfort zone and take on new challenges. In professional services it’s important to keep people interested, growing, and learning. People need to push themselves out of their comfort zone, and reinvent themselves over their career. It’s important not only for individual staff, but for the future of our organization. Whether you’re a football team or a professional services firm, the key to longevity is a strong bench with an eye to the next season.

On the subject of growth, I asked Allison for her insights on building female leaders in her organization. She says women have come a long way in the business of professional sports and have added to the diversity that makes the Lions a better organization. She proudly adds that the team is owned by a woman who values diversity and is very supportive of all the voices at the table.

“I think it’s great advice to say, ‘Move on from a setback. Learn and grow from it, but put it behind you and move on.”
In addition to her contributions to diversity, Allison has been a forerunner in work-life balance for parents. As a mother of young twins, she reached a point where she needed more flexibility to manage the demands of career and family.

“After coming back to work for about a year, I said, ‘I need to take my foot off the pedal for a little bit.’ The Lions were fantastic with me. I was able to reduce my work schedule, and at the time it was unprecedented in the organization.”

She said it made her both a happier mom and a happier staff member. “That was big for the Lions—it really made a difference for me and showed the Lions’ commitment to me.”

Allison points out that every work-life situation is different and encourages people to advocate for their career and do what’s right for their circumstances. “Speak up and do what you need to do to be that great staff member, and make it work in your life — no matter what phase that you’re at.”

More from Allison:

On being thoughtful about how you spend your time:

“It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the minor details of your job. Sometimes the challenge is to step back and ask, ‘Is this really the best use of my time?’ When you step back and open up your thoughts, that’s when the interesting things happen—that’s when you can start planning, really think, and say, ‘That was a great day.’” 

On dealing with setbacks:

“Using a football analogy, it’s amazing to watch the players after a loss. On Monday it can be a tough day and they’re down. They watch film of the game and perhaps have a tough conversation with their position coach. Tuesday is the players’ day off, and by Wednesday they’ve moved on—they have to move on quickly because the next game is coming up. I think it’s great advice to say ‘move on from a setback. Learn and grow from it, but put it behind you and move on.’”

Leadership personality profile:

Your leadership approach in one word: Approachable

The leadership quality you most admire in others: Those who display an unassuming demeanor

Your best piece of business advice: Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.

What you look for when you hire: Intelligence, authenticity, and team-oriented individuals.

To be an effective leader, you cannot...micro-manage.

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