Growing up on the same rough-and-tumble streets of Cicero, Illinois, that were once gangster Al Capone’s home turf, may have given Ross Schifo ’07 an early appreciation of peaceful conflict resolution. When he and his family relocated to Vermont in 2004, he had already been applying skills acquired through his master’s degree in management and organizational behavior from Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. In his role as director of organizational development at Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS), he was acutely aware of the need to foster accord among individuals with different organizational roles and interests.
Such was the case at the end of 2008, when he mediated an agreement between CVPS management and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 300 union. Using what he calls an “omnipartial” approach, he helped the parties to the negotiation craft the longest contract in CVPS history. One secret to his success: the training he received from the Woodbury Institute—a facet of Champlain College since fall 2008. Completing the first third of Woodbury’s Mediation & Applied Conflict masters program, Schifo received a graduate certificate in Conflict Skills in 2007, just in time to apply his craft to the CVPS negotiations.
Schifo had the advantage of being able to view the issues from both sides. He began his career in management after earning an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. But, he grew up with a father who was a union man. Interpersonal connections intrigued him most, however. “I came to realize that organizations’ technical challenges are relatively easy to fix,” he says. “The toughest, most persistent problems are the ones involving human relationships, conflict, and culture.”
He credits the Woodbury program with helping him “get in touch in an even deeper way” with his understanding of conflict. First, he came to better appreciate the value of actually provoking conflict at certain times. More important, he learned ways to do this in helpful ways. Finally, the program inspired him to “think about things from different perspectives.” Studying within a cohort of adult learners was key to that experience. He adds: “You learn so much just from your fellow students. As adult learners, we bring our life experiences and views to the table. I also became better at coaching other coaches and people who are already proficient. Woodbury’s instructors were sensational at tapping into the power of the cohort.” Schifo was also impressed by the depth of instructional quality—from the selection of books to his professors’ confidence and expertise.
Resolving conflict is more than Schifo’s job description at CVPS. It’s an ability that he
brings to his community in and around Pittsford, Vermont. He’s active in mentoring at-risk kids through Mentor Connector; serves on the steering committee of Dismas House, a transitional home for former prison inmates; and volunteers at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland.
“I don’t think of myself as a conflict resolver, but rather as a conflict coach,” he says. “I help parties in conflict first envision success in ways they might not have previously considered, and then to achieve it.” —EE