Jeff DeFranco: “If you can dream it, you can do it”

Increased empathy with leaders and focus on our shared humanity. As an organizational leader, it’s easy to get caught up in issues pertaining to productivity or profits. During this crisis, many leaders have been reminded of our shared humanity with our employees. We have gained empathy for our staff who may have a family member […]

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Increased empathy with leaders and focus on our shared humanity. As an organizational leader, it’s easy to get caught up in issues pertaining to productivity or profits. During this crisis, many leaders have been reminded of our shared humanity with our employees. We have gained empathy for our staff who may have a family member that is sick with COVID or a family member who has lost their job. This crisis serves as a reminder that everyone who works for us is in our care. This is always easy to say, but in a time of crisis, it becomes more evident and necessary to model.

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff DeFranco.

Jeff DeFranco currently serves as President of Lake Tahoe Community College and has a career spanning multiple educational settings including K-12, community college, and universities. Jeff has also served as a leadership consultant with expertise in organizational development, change leadership, and emotional intelligence. Jeff is the curator of TEDx South Lake Tahoe and currently is a doctoral candidate for a PhD in Global Leadership and Change from Pepperdine University.

Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Most young boys grow up with aspirations to play in the NBA, be a doctor, or something of the like. I’ve known since I was a college student that I wanted to be a college president. My experience as a student leader at California State University, Chico, the unique amount of authority we had in that environment, and the mentorship I received from a number of college staff, faculty, and administrators all worked together to solidify this dream. As I got older, I decided to pick up the pace with this goal and decided to become a college president before I turned 40. I accepted a position as superintendent/president for Lake Tahoe Community College at age 39 ½ — just under the wire.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Primal Leadership (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002) deeply impacted my life. It illustrates our shared humanity in leadership in a deeply tangible way. It emphasizes the importance of relationship management, empathy, and collaboration as key leadership skills. The study of Emotional Intelligence significantly influences my leadership style. My biggest takeaway from the book is that a leader’s energy is infectious. I have witnessed this phenomenon in my career in both positive and negative ways. As leaders, we must practice self-awareness and be cognizant of our energy and attitude along with its impact on the people we seek to lead.

From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Reason 1: Innovation at a Faster Pace Due to Crisis

I’ve really seen necessity manifest into innovation more in these past few months than ever before. Innovation due to the pandemic has been evident across multiple industries and in the ways we navigate our day-to-day lives. Higher education leaders have often contemplated putting additional courses online to provide greater flexibility for students in the past, but the conversation always ended with the thinking that “certain classes can’t be taught online.” The pandemic forced us to reconsider our assumptions in this regard. As it turns out, classes we thought impossible to teach with quality online unfolded in a way that pleasantly surprised us. The crisis created a pace that required innovation. Although this example reflects the field of education, this has been true across many industries.

Reason 2: Agencies/organizations that have long shunned remote work are now seeing that it can work.

According to May, 2020 Gallup Panel data, the percentage of employed adults saying they were working from home specifically out of concern about the coronavirus rose from 31% in mid-March to 49% a few days later, and to 59% the week after that. Remote work leveled off at 62% in mid-April. For a long time, many groups didn’t think remote work was possible for either the type of the position or for the organization. Public agencies, specifically, were especially suspect of the efficacies of remote work, especially with hourly employees. This period has really demonstrated that remote work can be effective. I don’t believe organizations are going to be entirely remote post-pandemic, but I do think it will change what industry leaders believe is possible. More employees working remotely has wide-ranging benefits for communities and the environment.

Reason 3: Increased empathy with leaders and focus on our shared humanity

As an organizational leader, it’s easy to get caught up in issues pertaining to productivity or profits. During this crisis, many leaders have been reminded of our shared humanity with our employees. We have gained empathy for our staff who may have a family member that is sick with COVID or a family member who has lost their job. This crisis serves as a reminder that everyone who works for us is in our care. This is always easy to say, but in a time of crisis, it becomes more evident and necessary to model.

Reason 4: Healthy Trade-Off of Time

While COVID-19 has placed significant stresses and additional workload on leaders, it has also lessened obligations to participate in work and community social events. As these have gone away, I’ve been able to reallocate some time to healthier alternatives. As leaders, I know we’ve been busier responding to all that has transpired in our roles since the start of this crisis. Even though I’ve been busier in my work, there is also a significant savings of time from remote work that extends beyond the simple commute time. After some reflection, I realized it’s actually the time it takes to gather work materials, get in the car, drive to work, park, and make my way through campus while greeting people along the way and actually get to my office and get set up for the day. Even though my actual drive time is about 15 minutes, I find that it represents a time savings of about 45–60 minutes each way, for a total time savings of 90–120 minutes per day. In addition, there is time saved that I’d previously used attending events that aren’t even necessary to our core mission.

That time can add up to 1 ½ hours or more each day. I’ve been able to utilize this time for things that are important for leader self-care and reflection such as time for a bike ride, a walk around the block, or a run before or after work. These activities have proved to be very valuable to re-energize me and allow time for strategic thinking. It’s led to a very important realization for me: structured time for reflection and self-care as a leader is necessary.

Reason 5: Environmental Benefit

As personal and business travels are significantly reduced or eliminated, we’ve been more present in our communities. I have personally realized (and this is coming from someone who loves traveling the world), there is great beauty in a simple walk around the block. I think more people are discovering the beauty all around them. There are so many opportunities to explore, whether you live in a city or a rural setting. Our communities contain beauty in the most surprising of places. And of course, because there is less travel, our environment is reaping the benefits of a smaller carbon footprint as well.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Hold on to hope and optimism. Understanding that a leader’s energy is infectious, and that people need hope and optimism now more than ever. It’s critical for a leader to set that tone. Have empathy: As a leader in good times, it’s helpful to understand what’s happening in the lives and households of your people. Listen: In these difficult times, leaders need to slow down and take more time to hear from folks. Take the time to understand what they are dealing with in their personal lives as well as their professional challenges and needs in order for leaders to adequately support them. Which leads me to Support: Prop up those around you who are less fortunate. It will provide you with a good sense of purpose and help to cultivate a more positive view of your own situation. Share: If you have some practices that are helping you to get through this crisis, share them with others.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

After finishing my bachelor’s degree, one of my first jobs was as an adjunct faculty member with California State University, Chico. I served as a yoga teacher and, as part of my training, I learned about the importance of having a breathing practice. It became a critical part of my training and practice. I found that when anxiety is high, it is very helpful to stop the activity, take some deep and cleansing breaths, and slow your breathing. Focus on becoming very present to where you are and begin to reflect on the things that you have control of as well as all the things you are thankful for at this time. This simple exercise can be done anywhere and greatly helps to respond to anxiety, uncertainty, and stress.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“If you can dream it, you can do it” — Walt Disney.

These words have always been true for me, and one example where it served me both personally and professionally starts back in May 2008, when my first son was born. I was on paternity leave and my wife and I decided to spend some time in South Lake Tahoe as it has always been a special place to me and my family. We drove into the town on a beautiful Tahoe day, soaking in the amazing mountainscape, the bright blue skies, and the white billowy clouds with the sun shining through. I turned to my wife and wondered aloud what it would take to live in this place. Although clearly a draw to tourists and travelers, we mused that some people must just live here. Unsure of what career opportunities would be available and after some discussion, it was agreed that we both aspired to one day live in Tahoe, although it seemed far-fetched as I am sure many of the people around us probably would like to do the same thing.

A couple years later, in December 2010, we were spending a family Christmas in Tahoe and decided to go cut our own Christmas tree. After Googling “where to get a Christmas tree permit in Tahoe,” we learned the Forest Service building was located on College Drive. It surprised me, as I worked in education at the time and didn’t realize there was a college in South Lake Tahoe. We followed the GPS to College Drive and instead of bringing us to the Forest Service building on campus, it brought me to the front of the Lake Tahoe Community College campus. It was December 23, so the campus was closed down and there was a fresh 10” blanket of snow on the ground. It was beautiful! I stepped out of the car and looked at the picturesque view and told my wife, “This is it…this is how we live in Tahoe.” Getting back into the car, I vowed to one day get a job at this college.

During the following years it remained a dream that was somewhat pushed to the back of our minds by the demands of our personal and professional lives. By 2012, our growing family provided the motivation needed to move from Oregon to our home state of California so we could be closer to our extended families. I began the search for positions in Northern California and ran across a job at Lake Tahoe Community College. I recognized it as the place I had been, and a collection of memories came back. It seemed surreal that there could be an opportunity for a career position, in my field as an educational leader, available in such an amazing place. For the first time, what had felt like an unattainable dream actually felt in reach and the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. I applied, interviewed, and was selected as a Vice President for the college. Our family moved to this wonderful town and quickly grew deep roots into every part of this amazing place; the people, the community; and the spectacular nature that surrounds us. In 2017, I started as Lake Tahoe Community College’s fifth superintendent/president. It all reinforced my belief that if you open yourself up to opportunity, believe that you can do it, and put in the work, that even the most seemingly impossible dreams can be reached.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am currently involved in the national College Promise movement working to offer free community college. I believe public education is the great equalizer and can change an individual’s life, community, and even the economy as a whole. This is a movement that I am supporting on my home campus, but also in the state of California and the nation. I believe if it took root, an educated citizenry would solve many problems in our nation and world. Of course, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet, but this has the potential to improve a lot of lives.

What is the best way for our readers to follow you online?

You can follow me on various social media channels @jeffdefranco:

Twitter: @jeffdefranco

Instragram: @jeffdefranco

LinkedIn: /in/jeffdefranco

You can also view my Medium articles at:

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