Want to stand out? Be the purple cow
John Marraffa Jr. mentors PharmD students as a preceptor
Connecting with PharmD students is something that John Marraffa Jr. seems driven to do. And he uses a purple cow to do it.
“It’s about the importance of the connection and getting people to understand what their worth is,” he said. “My approach is based on a book called The Purple Cow, by Seth Godin. “Every student that does a rotation with me gets to learn about the purple cow. The book begins with a family driving through France enchanted by the numerous cows they saw, but within 20 minutes, they started to ignore the cows, because they were boring. It goes on to mention that even the most perfect, attractive cows are still boring, unless of course you saw a “purple cow.” Now that would be interesting. The essence of the purple cow is that it must be remarkable.
“It’s my job to help make you the purple cow,” Marraffa said. “Early on in my career I had painted purple cows in my pharmacy. It had nothing to do with pharmacy or healthcare, but it was a reminder that I needed to stand out, I needed to be remarkable. Something remarkable was worth talking about.
“What I tried to instill in all my staff is, if you were driving down a main road and saw all of these cows (a.k.a. pharmacies), why are you going to go to one over the others? You just must be the purple cow — be remarkable — so people will come in to allow you to take care of them.”
Currently vice president of healthcare strategy for KPH Healthcare Services and serving his second term as chairman of the New York State Board of Pharmacy, Marraffa has been a preceptor since the year after he became a registered pharmacist in 2003. Work and professional responsibilities take up more of his time now, but he still manages to precept for most of the colleges in New York state.
“It’s not a ton of students because what I do has changed and it doesn’t really allow a tremendous amount that a student can see and participate in, but early in my career I was taking 15 to 20 students a year and that was awesome,” he said.” To this day I look at some of the students that I’m still in contact with. I knew they would be someone to be proud of.”
Of course, future achievement and success is never a guarantee — Marraffa believes that he must plan for, and more importantly, earn that success. “No one ever attains greatness accidentally, or simply because they have the potential. You must first be able to imagine and describe what your success will look like, and then plan and implement strategies targeted to actualize that vision,” he said.
Marraffa is a busy guy. Married with two children, two dogs and a demanding job; why does he give of his time to professional organizations — and to students as a preceptor?
“You have to really think about someone’s internal motivating factors,” he said. “For me it is about the protection of the public, advancing the profession so we have a healthier world — I want to leave this profession better than I found it. I am not an architect, I don’t build massive buildings, so what am I going to be known for professionally? Turning challenges into opportunities and giving my all to the profession, whatever that might be.”
He believes that experiences have so much power and wants to make a difference and ensure that he protects the public. He will be satisfied with nothing less.
And, as a preceptor who is not clinically based, he tries to help students see the many paths they can take once they earn their Doctor of Pharmacy degree. “I try to extract that clinical mindset from the students to see how they can have a positive impact on any job,” he said.
For example, Marraffa’s sister earned her PharmD, along with extensive post graduate training, and is a clinical toxicologist at the New York State Poison Control Center at SUNY Upstate Medical University — a very different path than he has taken.
“A student might want a rotation with me, but might not want to do what I do,” he said. “But how does what I do translate into other career paths? Everybody is different. When I first meet a student, I ask them some questions: ‘What do you want to get out of this? What do you want to learn?’ This rotation experience is not about me, it is about what I can offer the candidate. They must come prepared the first day with a list of questions, what they want to get out of this experience, their bio, their strengths and their weaknesses and thoughts on how I can help them get to their end game.”
A member of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Advisory Board since 2016, Marraffa is passionate about advancing the profession, and developing PharmD students into the best they can be. “I don’t want the profession to look the same in 2030 as it does now,” he said. “I want to be able to look at the evolution of where we’ve been and where we’re going and know that I had a positive impact. My goal is to help put the professionalism back into our profession.”
Marraffa said that being a preceptor is about being a mentor.
“What people see on a rotation with me is the CEO pops in or we have a casual conversation around the water cooler,” he said. “Intrinsically, I’m not afraid to knock on the CEO’s door or call Dean Meredith. But that is not for everyone. I really must bring people [students] out of their shell and get them to understand that we all have something unique to bring to the table.
“For instance, you might not be a clinical pharmacist, or you just don’t belong in the community pharmacy setting for some reason,” he said. “Somebody has to tell people that. Some people are not self-aware enough and end up hating their career choice as a result. But it is just because they focused their energy on the wrong thing.
“Instead, let us talk about putting you in a different setting to make you excel, then patients get better care and the whole ecosystem works better. As a preceptor, your job to help them figure this out,” he said.
Marraffa sees his role with the New York State Board of Pharmacy and other professional organizations as one of protecting the public. “The goal of any professional board isn’t to advance the profession, it’s to make sure pharmacists are providing the appropriate care and advising on practice issues,” he said. ‘The protection of public health is a big deal. My family, my friends, my people, my neighbors are the public. I think, ‘What would I do if this were my family and how do I want my family treated?’ versus ‘This is a good business decision.’ While I do not have a detailed blueprint, I strongly believe that the fortune of the profession of pharmacy and the protection of the public rests with us.”
Marraffa met Founding Dean Gloria Meredith through the board of pharmacy. “At that point, I was passionate about developing future pharmacists and my role was employing them,” he said. “But I was finding that those who were graduating weren’t what I wanted, so I had discussions about how we get this super-smart pharmacist who can also connect with people rather than ones who had no idea how to interact with people.”
And he has evolved as a preceptor over the years. “As a new preceptor, I had no idea what I was doing and took a lot of feedback from the students,” he said.” I tell the student that I need to know what they like about this, but even more, what could I do differently for the next student?
“From day one I set expectations that they have to help me be a better preceptor for the next student. They have to tell me, “He said. “Along the way, what did you learn?
“Most often, I get that I taught them how to be a better leader, better team player, the whole big picture,” Marraffa said. “People know all the time where they sit with me. I’m going to tell you along the way so we can work together. I think everybody can work on improving their communication. Nobody likes confrontation, so I set those expectations up front. Show up to work on time. This is a six-week job interview. I could pluck you right out and plant you into a role. That’s a pretty cool opportunity to have and sometimes people take it seriously and sometimes they don’t.”
Marraffa has had some fantastic students and some not, but it boils down to setting yourself up for the interactions that make you remarkable, so people do not forget you — being that purple cow.
His first student was a senior in high school in a New Visions program who spent two mornings a week with him over six months back in 2004. The former student recently attended a conference and saw a big porcelain purple cow there. “He reached out on LinkedIn and thanked me for all my help when he was younger. He said, ’Funny how a simple yet provocative concept can resonate with many students over the years. I truly appreciate you kickstarting my career, and to this day I try and stand out from the rest with your “purple cow” mentality,’” Marraffa said. “Nearly 20 years later a high school student remembers. That shows how it delivered into the future.
“This is fun for me,” he said. “It’s the most exciting time when I have students around that I can help. I wish I had the capacity to have more students.”