Rodger Rickard has raised his four children in Palo Alto and Woodside, CA and has had multiple successful careers in business and education with a PhD from Stanford. He has been a supporter and National Board Member of Positive Coaching Alliance for more than 15 years. In this interview, PCA Founder and CEO Jim Thompson talks with Rodger about how his life experiences led him to PCA and why he’s stayed so involved for so long.
Jim Thompson: You are one of the very early supporters of PCA but before we talk about that, let’s start by talking about your sports career. You were an All-American soccer player at Springfield College. Knowing your personality I’m going to go out on a limb and ask if you were an attacker?
Rodger Rickard: I was a goal-scorer! I started as a goalkeeper but an offensive player was injured so I took his place and became center forward and striker. I loved soccer. I was the hardest working player on the field. That’s why I have such a bad body today. I sacrificed it for the game, hustled all the time. I made up for my lack of skill by being very aggressive, a take-no-prisoners kind of player.
JT: What was your most memorable moment on the soccer field?
RR: I once kicked a ball so hard at the Yale goalkeeper that it drove him back into the goal, and we scored to win the game.
JT: You were instrumental in getting PCA-Cleveland started. How did that come about?
RR: I was born in Cleveland, and after I got out of the service I went back there. I was hired to teach biology after a 10-minute conversation with the headmaster of Hawken School. I became the Athletic Director and soccer coach, and we had eight undefeated seasons in a row! I had idolized my high school coaches and, even though my family questioned my becoming a coach, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
After I became successful in business, Hawken School asked me to join their Board. At one meeting I talked about Positive Coaching Alliance and Dan Hurwitz, a fellow trustee, said afterwards that he would be interested in helping bring PCA to Cleveland. I came back and told you about this conversation and then we flew to Cleveland a few weeks later. We had a meeting with Mark Shapiro, President of the Cleveland Indians, and Chris Grant, General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and a week later those three men generated the seed funding.
JT: Tell me about your military service. You were a pilot, correct?
RR: I was a Navy pilot flying a “Hell Cat” just before they brought in the jets. I was as patriotic as anyone; I wouldn’t have missed doing my duty for my country for anything.
JT: Initially you didn’t like the idea that you were a salesman. How did you realize you were one?
RR: I went to work for Behavioral Research Laboratories, for Dr. Allen Calvin who gave me a huge book with all the school districts in the country in it, and asked me to go talk with all of them. “Tell them what we do,” he said. If he had mentioned sales, I wouldn’t have done it because I had a negative view of sales people.
I was meeting with the superintendent of schools in Indianapolis, doing my pitch, and he says,
'You know, Rodger, you are a salesman.' I was upset. I am not! I am an educator.
Then he said, “You know that educators are the best sales people, don’t you? And salesmen can change the world.” That conversation changed my whole view of sales and I embraced it after that. I am a salesman. And a good one!
JT: And you also have your PhD in Education and you are an entrepreneur. Tell me about that.
RR: John Sperling was a San Jose State University professor. He was also a labor leader and led the teachers out on strike in the early 1970s. I remember having lunch with him in Paolo’s Restaurant in San Jose, and he asked me, “What is the most neglected part of American education? The American worker. They want more education to improve their knowledge and their status in the workplace, but we expect them to go to college full time, which is not possible. We are going to deliver education to the workplace!”
He then asked me to help him with his start-up, the Institute for Professional Development (later the University of Phoenix). He asked, “Rodger, how are we going to get students?”
We had an arrangement with the University of San Francisco to have us be an off-campus degree program for them. Dr. John Favors, the Supervisor of Teacher Education for the Oakland Public School District, let all his teachers know that I would be speaking after school one day about how they could get a degree from USF.
I had no idea if anyone would show up for the 3:30 pm meeting. I got there at 3:00 pm, and the auditorium that held 300 people was already packed. I felt a little bit like I was leading a revival meeting! I said to the crowd, “This is the best educational opportunity you will ever have, and the crowd yelled, ‘Yeah!’” Loud cheers.
I told them I would come back in two weeks to enroll any of them who wanted to. If they wanted to participate, they should bring a $1,000 check. Two weeks later 185 people showed up with their checks!
I went to John Sperling that night, and he asked me how it had gone. I said, “Really tough.” Then I dumped $185,000 out of my briefcase!
As soon as we got one school, we got a bunch of others such as St. Mary’s College and the University of Redlands. Of course some universities felt like we were stepping on their toes. They didn’t like competition and called us a “degree mill,” but we started a new wave of education for people who were being ignored by higher education.
JT: How did you get started in real estate?
RR: After I left the University of Phoenix I needed a job. I ran into Jim Cornish who started Cornish & Carey Real Estate and he said, “How many people do you know in Palo Alto?” I said, “Not too many.” He said, “You won’t be able to sell real estate!” He said residential real estate was a women’s game but sent me to talk with his partner, Scott Carey, who handled the commercial business. After talking with me for a while he said, “I don’t need anyone with your lack of qualifications.”
I was angry, and as I was leaving the building, Jim Cornish asked me how it had gone with Scott. I said, “I just met two guys who can’t recognize talent!”
That got to him and he said, “I don’t have any open desks, but if you will share a desk, I’ll give you a chance.”
My first month was very rough—no sales! Then I closed three homes by Thanksgiving and then December was a good month. I sold a house on Christmas Eve, another one on Christmas Day, and then another one on the day after Christmas! That year I sold 17 houses, a rookie record for the company.
After 30 months of this, I was feeling burned out and I told Jim Cornish I wanted to be a manager. “I’ll clone myself!” He didn’t want a star sales guy to become a manager but finally he said, “Our Cupertino office isn’t doing well. I’ll let you try managing that if you want.” Within two years we were the #1 office in the company! The key was convincing my agents to take care of the customer.
JT: You have a wonderful story of how you took care of one of your very first customers.
RR: In selling a house to this couple, I learned that they wanted a dog. So the day they moved into their new home, I came to their door with a yellow lab as a house warming present!
JT: I know you eventually ended up owning Cornish & Carey. How was being a manager different from being a salesman? Did your coaching career help in running that company?
RR: After I bought it, with the help of my wife, Diane Talbert, Cornish & Carey grew to be the 4th largest independent real estate firm in the country.
It was just like being a coach. When I owned a company, I owned a team. My job was to make my players better. A coach has to sacrifice himself for his team. When the Sharks came to town, I bought a box for my employees. I told my people, “I’ll do anything to help you grow your business!”
I have a lot of the straight arrow in me. I fired some people who were making a lot of money for themselves and for me because I didn’t think they were being ethical enough.
No short cuts! When someone buys a house, they are buying something they may live in the rest of their lives. It is one of the most important decisions that any family makes.
JT: Our first meeting was pretty interesting! Tell what happened when I made my initial pitch to you about Positive Coaching Alliance in Roble Gym at Stanford?
RR: Rich Kelley told me that there was this guy I needed to meet from Stanford who is doing something I think you would like to be involved with. I met you in Roble Gym. As I listened to you I thought, “This guy doesn’t know enough about the battlefield he is entering. He doesn’t know how hard this is going to be.”
JT: I remember you saying to me, “I don’t think you can do this. This is an exercise in futility.” When you left Roble Gym, I thought I would never see you again!
RR: I had been through the youth sports wars for years before I met you. At Hawken School many years before PCA our slogan was “Fair Play.” I knew how hard what you were talking about was going to be. I’d experienced years of youth sports with my family, both as a sports parent and coach, and I knew the environment from the ground up.
JT: So what changed your mind? After I did a workshop that you attended, you came up to me afterwards and said, “We should talk.” I was so excited that you were still interested!
RR: You were so determined and believed so much in this. You were so much like me!
I had seen the power of youth sports with my family and how a positive experience made all the difference in their own enjoyment and performance.
JT: I’m so grateful that you changed your mind.
RR: We were going down the same path but it took a while before we held hands!
I have no quarter for people who don’t give 100%. I give all of myself to what I do and you do, too.
And PCA has so much to offer school districts. The bottom line is we have to get to the kids!
My father was an alcoholic. I never knew him. My mother had TB and couldn’t take care of me. My aunt and uncle raised me. Their son was like my brother. They were good, hard-working people who ran an industrial laundry. Responsibility was pounded into me.
I didn’t get a lot of support for all the time I spent in sports. “You’re wasting your time in sports, Rodger!” I heard that a lot of times. But I got into a good school because of sports.
If I hadn’t had sports I would have been a failure.
JT: You have pushed me a lot to go faster.
RR: Yes, I’m running out of gas. I want to see PCA make a difference all over the country!
JT: Rodger, I don’t know where PCA would be without you. I am deeply grateful that you gave PCA and me a second chance. Thank you!