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Transcript- Episode 117: Becoming A Leader of Significance with Dr. Rocky Cifone, Executive Coach at The John Maxwell Team Episode 117

Apr 9, 2024

00:00:00 Rocky

Every single one of us, if we're influencing somebody, is a leader. And you could be self-actualized and be a leader, and that self-actualization will actualize others. The antidote to anxiety is action, especially now coming out of the dark days of the pandemic, when many of us experienced failure, didn't know exactly how to fail forward and experience profound sense of self-doubt.


00:00:30 Christina

The workforce landscape is rapidly changing and educators and their institutions need to keep up. Preparing students before they enter the workforce to make our communities and businesses stronger is at the core of getting an education.


00:00:43 Christina

But we need to understand how to change and adjust so that we can begin to project where things are headed before we even get there. So, how do we begin to predict the future?


00:00:53 Salvatrice

Hi, I'm Salvatrice Cummo, executive director of economic and workforce development at Pasadena City College and host of this podcast.


00:01:02 Christina

And I'm Christina Barsi, producer and co-host of this podcast.


00:01:06 Salvatrice

And we are starting the conversation about the future of work. We'll explore topics like how education can partner with industry, how to be more equitable, and how to attain one of our highest goals, more internships and PCC students in the workforce.


00:01:21 Salvatrice

We at Pasadena City College want to lead the charge in closing the gap between what our students are learning and what the demands of the workforce will be once they enter. This is a conversation that impacts all of us, you, the employers, the policy makers , the educational institutions, and the community as a whole.


00:01:40 Christina

We believe change happens when we work together, and it all starts with having a conversation. I'm Christina Barsi.


00:01:47 Salvatrice

And I'm Salvatrice Cummo. And this is the Future of Work.


00:01:51 Christina

The philosophy behind the John Maxwell Leadership Method is this, expect failure because it's going to happen frequently. But what do you do when you don't feel like failing forward is an option in the leadership position that you hold? And how can that influence the impact you have as a leader?


00:02:10 Christina

This is what leaders in education might be facing. Listen in as Dr. Rocky Cifone, executive coach at the John Maxwell Team talks with us about how we can create actions and mindset that promote good leadership.


00:02:26 Salvatrice

Welcome back to the Future of Work. I am your host, Salvatrice Cummo, and with me today I have Dr. Rocky Cifone, executive coach at the John Maxwell Team. Rocky, how are you?


00:02:39 Rocky

I'm doing great. Thanks for having me. How are you?


00:02:41 Salvatrice

Good. It's so great to hear your voice again.


00:02:44 Rocky

Thank you.


00:02:45 Salvatrice

We go way back.


00:02:46 Rocky

We do. And surprisingly when I arrived at Pasadena City College, my first day on the job, I round the corner and there's Salvatrice, and Salvatrice and I go back to the days when we were in an Italian American social club for young professionals in the LA Orange County area.


00:03:05 Salvatrice

Oh man , I forgot about that. Thank you for reminding me. I totally forgot about that, Rocky. Yeah, that was a good one.


00:03:10 Rocky

An interesting memory. We had a number of great social events, but then we began to coalesce around professional development and international business and international leadership, all with that Italian flair.


00:03:24 Salvatrice

So, we met there and then we landed here at Pasadena City College. So, it was great. I'm glad the universe kept us in our paths. And so, I'm eternally grateful for your mentorship, for your friendship, and just being a good person overall in my life. And I just wanted to thank you publicly for that now that I'm here recording at our Future of Work Podcast.


00:03:46 Rocky

Well, you're welcome. That's very flattering. You're welcome. And likewise.


00:03:51 Salvatrice

I know quite a bit about you, but our listener may not. So, Rocky, let's start with really tell us a little bit about your journey. How did you get to the John Maxwell Team and what have you kind of been working on a little bit and creating while you're there. Perhaps maybe even taking a step back, what got you excited about the John Maxwell Team and how did you get there?


00:04:10 Rocky

Well, the John Maxwell Team and how I'm working with the John Maxwell Team as a platform for curriculum and teaching and coaching has been really the next logical step in my career progression. I spent 29 years in higher education, most all of it at community colleges, either as a teacher or a quasi administrator or a manager.


00:04:34 Rocky

I was a dean for 19 years at three California community colleges, two of the largest, Saddleback College and Pasadena City College. Then I rounded out at Citrus. But really my best and most significant time was at Saddleback South Orange County Community College District and then where we reunited at Pasadena City College.


00:04:55 Rocky

And so, taking the lessons , some of which were very hard learned as a community college administrator and applying them every day, that's really the focus of why I joined the John Maxwell Team, because the John Maxwell Team really espouses worldwide change and change by virtue of creating values based and values driven leaders that pour value into others as a part of their mission.


00:05:23 Rocky

You see, leadership isn't just the job. I could complete this by saying leadership is an adventure, but really leadership has to be a calling too. Those of us that have been in higher education, or those of us that are in industry or any facet of the economy, we have a vocation and we have an avocation. And your vocation is your technical career. I believe that advocation comes in the spirit and in the role of leadership.


00:05:50 Salvatrice

Are there any particular examples of how perhaps John Maxwell, the team has taken those educators, those leaders within education, really kind of to the next level in terms of their professional career and leadership? Are there any examples that perhaps you can share and some of your experiences and how that works?


00:06:10 Rocky

Well, I've actually seen more K-12 leaders and administrators around the country embrace the John Maxwell Team philosophy than I have those in higher education. And not that it's because the John Maxwell leadership philosophy is anything that's unknown out there.


00:06:29 Rocky

On the contrary, John Maxwell is the highest selling number one bestselling author and creator of material in the business area of He's published almost 97 books. You can't go through an airport without walking into the newspaper stand or the bookstore and seeing a separate section just for John Maxwell leadership materials.


00:06:54 Rocky

With that said, I think I'm breaking some new ground when it comes to utilizing the Maxwell Method of Leadership in higher education.


00:07:02 Salvatrice

Tell me about that. How are you breaking ground?


00:07:05 Rocky

I think as a former community college administrator and leader, adapting the John Maxwell method of leadership to the advancement of career professionals, especially at community colleges, it's really unique, unique in the sense that I am a former practitioner. I'm speaking from a mixture of success, and in a couple of cases, almost disastrous failure.


00:07:29 Rocky

One of the precepts of the John Maxwell Method of Leadership is to expect failure because it's going to happen frequently and to fail forward. Community college and university administrators really don't innately feel that they have the freedom to fail forward or to fail at all.


00:07:47 Rocky

So, how do you extract lessons from your failure? Well, it's frequently said that experience is the best teacher. I disagree, assessed experience, experience that's assessed and evaluated really is your best teacher.


00:08:03 Rocky

And so, one of the things that the John Maxwell Method of Leadership can do for higher ed administrators or aspiring administrators is really to do an assessment of their learnings, either through accomplishments or through failure.


00:08:17 Rocky

I think that's what I bring to the table that's most unique, is that I've been there, I've walked the walk and talked the talk. The difference between someone like myself and let's say an external consultant coming into a higher ed setting is most likely the external consultant hasn't spent time in the trenches, I have.


00:08:37 Salvatrice

And I think that's timely and important…look, I've had some failures myself. We all have. And failing forward in the theory of, or in the concept of practice of failing forward, when we talk about assessing failures, what does that look like for me or our listener to assess our failures, what might that look like? Is it me really kind of outlining lessons learned? Is it shifting mindset?


00:09:32 Rocky

I think it's all of the above. I think it's a combination of all of the above. It really starts with a mindset that you're adding value to people. If you're in any kind of a position of influence, whether you are a classroom instructor, whether you're a classroom instructor that's aspiring to lead a department, a department chair that's aspiring to lead a division and so on and so forth, all the way up to the chain to maybe a trustee. You've got to understand that there are three core truths to leadership.


00:10:04 Rocky

First, everything rises and falls on leadership. And so, you as a leader have to realize there's accountability, accountability for your actions, accountability for your inactions. And so, assessing those actions or inactions and what their fallout has been, I think is essential.


00:10:20 Rocky

The second tenet is that leadership is influenced, nothing more and nothing less. And even if you don't have a title of leader or a title of director or executive director or dean, if you influence people, you are a leader. And it comes down to even influencing your family, your loved ones, your allies.


00:10:41 Rocky

The third tenet , I think is once you've tasted significance, the mere success doesn't satisfy you anymore. You'll never be the same once you've tasted significance and with influence can come significance, if in fact you take people with you, you allow them to share your journey.


00:11:00 Rocky

I think transparency as a leader , to a certain extent. I mean, there are strategic and tactical issues that can't always be revealed to the general public, but letting your companions on the journey in on some of your successes and failures really helps to grow them and grow you.


00:11:18 Salvatrice

You said a key word for me, and that was significance. And I remember just having random conversations with you throughout our professional journey here at Pasadena City College. And I remember you always telling me "It's simple, yet significant, whatever you do, Sal, make it simple and make it significant."


00:11:35 Salvatrice

That has stuck with me ever since you utter those words to me because it's absolutely true. And if there's no significance in the work, then everything doesn't fall into place. What falls into place, even within leadership or your teams, is the act of significance. The understanding of significance. And right now we've seen, well, you're an entrepreneur, right? You're an entrepreneur now.


00:12:00 Rocky

Yes, I am.


00:12:01 Salvatrice

It's a different breed of successes and obstacles and all that good stuff. I mean, it's just a different experience. And we've seen such a significant rise in entrepreneurs during this time. When we're teaching entrepreneurship, when we're talking to entrepreneurs, we talk a lot about this growth mindset.


00:12:22 Salvatrice

And let me ask you this. So, thinking about the growth mindset, what do you think as entrepreneurs right now, what do you think we should be doing right now at this moment to move towards a life of significance, either those who are currently in it or those who are aspiring entrepreneurs, because guess what? They are the definition of leadership, entrepreneurs are the definition and the epitome of leadership, in my humble opinion.


00:12:46 Salvatrice

Talk about starting up a company from scratch, starting a team from scratch, acquiring customers, building access and revenue. What should we be doing right now, Rocky, to move towards a life of significance?


00:12:57 Rocky

John Maxwell says, "No one stumbles upon significance." We have to be intentional about making our lives matter. In my teachings, talks about the trap that many of us fall into when we focus on mere success. If I do enough and I have enough, I'm going to feel fulfilled. The challenge with this mindset is when you aren't fulfilled, you tend to question your capabilities and your value, and ultimately yourself.


00:13:25 Rocky

Now, as an entrepreneur, as a business builder, and even people that work within organizations like large institutions such as community college or large organizations such as multinational corporations like Koch, you can have that entrepreneurial mindset of intentionality.


00:13:44 Rocky

I'd like to think that I coined the word intrapreneur, but I didn't. It's really cool. I wish I could claim it, but having that intrapreneur's mindset where building a purposeful and successful career is something that we can aspire to, the reality is that we invest way too much time and blood and sweat and tears to not provide a series of rewards and a degree of enjoyment and fulfillment.


00:14:13 Rocky

So, I think number one, know your strengths and stay with them. And it's much easier to create a career of significance when we know what our strengths are, and we're in a position to give freely and be generous and operate with greater intuitiveness, insight, impact.


00:14:30 Rocky

I think one thing to remember about knowing your strengths is that leadership is not a zero sum game. You can make other people successful without diminishing yourself. And in fact, that even adds value to yourself. To grow others, first, you have to grow yourself.


00:14:46 Rocky

Now, the second thing is identify demand and know where your strengths are valued and required. Place yourself in positions to generate demand for your strengths. It's counterintuitive for us to think about really working on your weaknesses. What benefit is that to you? You should be working on your strengths, capitalizing on your strengths and promoting your strengths, making people understand that these are yours to give, not to covet.


00:15:11 Rocky

Establish a plan, like I said before, live intentionally. Be intentional about what you do, you say, where you are, how you communicate, define your position, and then lastly, connect with people. Let people know what your intentions are.


00:15:24 Rocky

But most importantly why. A person of success does it really for others, does what they're doing really for others to add value and later on create a legacy. And we talk about careers, but we also, you mentioned entrepreneurs, there're entrepreneurs that are large and small.


00:15:41 Rocky

There're entrepreneurs like, well, Jeff Bezos, who's made a historical mark on civilization, if not just a business and industry, but even the smaller scale entrepreneur is trying to leave a legacy. They're working hard to leave a legacy for their family, their community. And so, people of significance really are aware of all that, and they're intentional about making that happen.


00:16:05 Salvatrice

You said something that really kind of struck home for me. Why focus on your weaknesses than on your strengths? That really hit home for me, only because we are our worst critic. And when I look at failing forward, there's times where I'm just like, "Oh my gosh, if I could only have said this, or if I only had this about me, then I would've not experienced that."


00:16:29 Salvatrice

Versus saying, "Well, these are my strengths now knowing that that's not for me and I need a specific strength for that activity, for that engagement, for that conversation," that you adjust and you pivot and you move gracefully through your leadership. Boy, do we beat ourselves up pretty quickly, and rarely do we celebrate successes, and so-


00:16:56 Rocky

In some organizational cultures, we don't celebrate success as a ritualistic thing. If you go into a place of work and expect a lot of attagirls and a lot of attaboys, you're going to be very disappointed. And that's why I think self-awareness is important.


00:17:11 Rocky

Sometimes you just have to give yourself the hug or the pat on the back or the well done , and then move on from there. I think one of the things that has been most instrumental to my own sense of significance and value is building what I call a mastermind around me. Again, I wish I'd come up with that.


00:17:33 Rocky

But that was Napoleon Hill's, believe it or not, Napoleon Hill, who wrote Think and Grow Rich. One of the things that he discovered in his research earlier in the last century on successful entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators, millionaires like Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, et cetera, is they had what they called a mastermind of like-minded people that kept themselves accountable to each other.


00:18:00 Rocky

And obviously, they would meet in person quite frequently because they had very little other media upon which to lean. But the fact of the matter is that having an inner circle, call it your executive board of people that you know, that you like, that you trust that are in this for not just their own benefit, but they're real supporters of you, that overcomes a lot of that self-doubt. A lot of that regret.


00:18:29 Rocky

One phrase that I'm going to credit myself as coining is a life lived in regret is a life half lived , a life lived in regret is a life half lived . And so, if one is to grasp life and live it fully, to be truly affluent, and I'm not just talking about the accumulation of things and money, you have to do your best to eliminate regret.


00:18:52 Rocky

You can't unring that bell. What you can do is you can start from this point forward using all of those learnings, all of those experiences, and just work on using them to buttress your strengths.


00:19:04 Salvatrice

We're in graduation season, we're graduating new talent across the country, and that is such an important motto, life phrase to really go by, a life lived in regret is a life half lived . I love that.


00:19:23 Salvatrice

If I could switch gears just a little bit, I really kind of want to pick your brain a little bit about our community colleges and our colleges now, through your lens. What should we be doing as colleges right now? What resources should we be prioritizing as colleges to ensure that our students have what they need?


00:19:41 Salvatrice

We have a lot of students who are saying, "Gosh, I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to be an innovator. I want to be a creator. I want to be a leader in some capacity." Knowing that, and knowing kind of where we are in our current economy and where we need to be in the near future, what resources should colleges be prioritizing right now, in your humble opinion?


00:20:02 Rocky

The Aspen Prize framework, I think gives us a very crystal clear idea of what our priorities should be. And then I think later on we can build upon that framework, the actual resources that we need to reach those priorities. The four domains of the Aspen Prize criteria are completion, equity, student learning, and labor market success.


00:20:30 Rocky

And if institutions stay focused on those four domains, I think they'll be serving their communities. I think they'll be serving their students, and I think there'll be a real force to be reckoned with in rebuilding the economy.


00:21:13 Rocky

Now, going back to the top of your question, community colleges have never had a stronger advocate than the one that's in the White House. And I'm not talking about President Biden, I'm talking about Dr. Biden, the first lady who's quite literally in the president's ear every single day. And now we have legislation that really can fuel the recovery if in fact we're able to harness it.


00:21:39 Rocky

So, let me talk a little bit about how community colleges and career technical education, particularly career technical education in fields that matter, that are future oriented, that are in demand, that aren't afraid to innovate and elevate, that investment is going to be very important.


00:21:58 Rocky

Now, undergirding the investment in equipment and curriculum is really the investment in students. And that's what I think the four criteria or the four domains of excellence, what they really highlight. It's student completion, it's student equity, it's student learning and student success in the labor market. Tools for completion.


00:22:21 Rocky

I think we see some models that are excellent out there. PCC has one in which we have completion coaches, completion to degree, completion to a certificate, completion to transfer. Equity, PCC, again was a leader in closing the success gap, the equity gap, the success data sets between various sets of people of color, gender, economic background, student learning that's innovative and inclusive.


00:22:51 Rocky

And what we used to say that I think is particularly relevant now in 2021 and beyond, student learning experiences that are both high tech and high touch. Students, really need and want to feel, we used the word before, significant to the institution. So, coaching, mental health support, all of that is conducive to student learning right now.


00:23:16 Rocky

Student health centers had in the past been vastly underfunded. There are many of us over the years that advocated for onsite permanently located social workers and student psychologists that could be available. And only now after the pandemic are we focusing a spotlight on student welfare issues, including mental health.


00:23:38 Rocky

And then labor market success. I think quite frankly, hard decisions were made over the pandemic that before a pandemic might not have been made only because of I hate to say it, politics or expediency. And it's not always economic expediency either.


00:23:55 Rocky

Hard decisions were made with respect to which programs institutions invested in. And I think not being afraid, being fearless to use data, but data in a compassionate way to drive decisions is important. Having a culture of evidence, one that permeates every constituency around the typical community college campus is important. If in fact, the four domains of excellence and the resources we need are a justified investment, the ROI on it is high enough.


00:24:28 Salvatrice

I think our role too as community college is really to help kind of foster equal work environments that are inclusive. I think that involves quite a bit. I mean, that involves A, a commitment to it and B, align ourselves appropriately with industry and with our employers, with policy to make that happen. I don't know what the magic formula is just yet, but I think that we are all collectively trying to work on it.


00:24:55 Rocky

I think you bring up an important point. We're all trying to work on it and gradually things are materializing that we would've never expected. You mentioned creating an inclusive environment, and that has to start at the institutional level if students are in fact going to feel confident about stepping into the workforce, particularly in non-traditional career roles.


00:25:18 Rocky

So, I like to say that people do what they see, people do what they see, not what they're told, not what you advise them to do, but people do what they see. And we are seeing a sea change in leadership culture wide here in the United States.


00:25:34 Rocky

So, it's not just in industry or enterprise or in the workforce setting. We have our very first woman vice president, and it happens to be a woman vice president that's a person of color. We were celebrating a few months ago the achievements of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If it weren't for leadership like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my wife would still be using my Sears revolving charge card. Boy, that'll bring up some memories, right?


00:26:01 Salvatrice

Yep .


00:26:02 Rocky

We have our very first Secretary of the Army who was just instated and on and on and on. I can point to community colleges right now that I've worked at, and again, I'm going to use PCC. PCC is a success story. Our two lead faculty members at Pasadena City College in both automotive technology and welding are successful women technicians.


00:26:26 Rocky

And they're the ones that are driving the curriculum. They're the ones that are making the connections to business and industry for curriculum improvement partnerships. They're the ones that have the connections to labor organizations, to certification organizations like ASE in the sense of welding the city of Los Angeles. Apache and City College has the only certification program to be licensed as a welder in the city of Los Angeles that's outside the city of Los Angeles.


00:27:00 Rocky

So, institutions can do more. We've gotten better at it, but we can still do more. So, my short answer is we're seeing a sea change. It's gradual, but it's becoming more evident.


00:27:12 Salvatrice

Rocky, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you very much for joining me this morning. For a listener who is a leader, who inherently knows is a leader, or for our faculty members that might be listening in their leadership, regardless of what role they play in their professional environment or personal environment, you've given a ton of takeaways, but would there be one thing that you'd want them to walk away knowing that they can implement or think about on their journey?


00:27:42 Rocky

Yeah, absolutely. And it goes back to what I stated before is that everything rises and falls on leadership and that leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less. We acknowledge leadership sometimes because of mere titles.


00:27:57 Rocky

Let me reemphasize that every single one of us, if we're influencing somebody, is a leader. And you could be self-actualized and be a leader, and that self-actualization will actualize others. The antidote to anxiety is action.


00:28:27 Salvatrice

Well said. And for those who want to connect with you, where might they find you?


00:28:31 Rocky

The best place to find me will be on LinkedIn. Just enter my name, Rocky Cifone in the search bar. Look for Rocky Cifone, EDD, or you can email me at


00:28:45 Salvatrice

Excellent. Thank you so much. We'll be sure to put those in the show notes too for everyone. Thanks again, Rocky. Have a wonderful day. We will connect soon.


00:28:53 Rocky

Thank you very much.


00:28:56 Salvatrice

Thank you for listening to the Future of Work Podcast. Make sure you're subscribed on your favorite listening platform so you can easily get new episodes every Tuesday.


00:29:06 Salvatrice

You can reach out to us by clicking on the website link below in the show notes to collaborate, partner, or just chat about all things Future of Work. We'd love to connect with you. All of us here at the Future of Work and Pasadena City College, wish you safety and wellness.