Insider Influence: Episode 9 with Don Cates

Don Cates keeps to a normal morning routine, starting with a fresh cup of coffee to sip as he reads the newspaper following his 6 a.m. wakeup call from his alarm clock. Once he’s caught up on print current events, he flips the TV on to watch the news. He then heads into the office, arriving between 7:15 a.m. and 8 a.m. Once Don is in the office, he sets to completing his task list for the day—and before he goes home each night, he has written up his to-do list for the following day.

A Stroke of Luck

I had met Don a number of times in passing and had always wanted to meet officially. This installment of Insider Influence afforded me the excuse to convince another former-farmer-turned-financial-industry-laborer to hang out at one of our favorite places—J.K. O’Donnell’s.

“Never has being called ‘stupid’ helped someone out more!” Don remarked. He’d initially enrolled in college to become a veterinarian but ultimately decided to pivot into an agricultural major instead.

Changing his major caused him to stay in college an extra semester, which actually ended up working in his favor. The extra semester put him in a position for a perfectly timed acceptance into a permanent role versus a management training program, enabling him to jump past others at same firm who had graduated on time.

I was fortunate, I went from essentially being told that I wasn’t smart enough to be a Vet and not to graduating on time to having a client meeting on 9am on the first day of my career!

Don did not waste this opportunity—he took extra training, worked extra hours, scheduled extra meetings, and made extra phone calls. He quickly became highly successful, and that early success accelerated his career. In fact, when Don was 31 years old, he was the youngest bank CEO in the state of Indiana.

“It Ain’t About You”

Don is big on self-awareness and eliminating the ego that can come with being a CEO of an organization. In fact, one of the most important decisions he makes as a leader is checking himself.

I ‘check my roll’ every once in awhile. It’s not about me, it’s about others. A leader must have that self-awareness. Realize where your impact should be and recognize that it ain’t about you!

He drove this point home even further as he talked about the team he has at 3Rivers. “When you want everyone who works with you to be successful, that’s where it’s at,” Don explained. “In 2017 we had 700+ applicants for 40+ positions. You want to be the attractor of talent by being a great place to work! I don’t care about rates or what others in the market are doing—if we are going to beat anyone at anything, we want the beat them for the best talent.”

Furthermore, Don leans more toward strategic execution over strategic planning. “Strategic vision and execution allow for flexibility and adaptation. I don’t want a static plan to drive our team’s work and mission.”

Don-CatesLeadership is Timeless

Don employs two acronyms, which we agreed could be his core values—GAC and UYH, which stand for “Give A Crap” and “Use Your Head” respectively. Sound advice in my opinion. In fact, I am fairly certain that these acronyms are equivalent to the advice my father instilled in me at a young age.

Don’s “old school” mentality rang true when asked what challenges leaders face today. “Leaders of today still have the same challenges of the past. Don’t overcomplicate them. There is little new in leadership—the core of it is still the same, it is all about people. We get in our own way when we believe it is something different or more.”

Don is constantly encouraging the employees of 3Rivers to learn something beyond what they do in their day-to-day careers. He wants them to find something bigger than themselves and make it a passion. You should love going to work, grow at work and be happy. This strategy helps his organization’s employees grow both as leaders and people. Don, himself, attends two conferences and reads at least four books per year.

When I hear speakers or read I remember things I have already learned but stopped using and spend time on reflection on how to apply again.. That’s how I grow as a leader.

In the 3Rivers 2017 Annual Report, Don spent a couple of sentences highlighting the growth the organization had seen over the past year. However, he used a couple of paragraphs to showcase the “giving back” and volunteerism his organization contributes to its community (which totals out to ~$500,000 and “thousands of volunteer hours”).

3Rivers was also selected as one of the top workplaces for employee satisfaction in the country. Driving home Don’s notion that it’s really not about him, it’s about the employees and the team overall.

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