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This Is the Work

April 9th, 2015

Early in my career (OK, a really long time ago), I was a hall adviser at Iowa State University. I was responsible for providing support services to students, primarily 800 women who lived in Maple Hall. Our staff had all kinds of plans for programs we wanted to implement and activities to engage students in optimizing their development. Yep. We were a pretty idealistic bunch.

But when you bring 800 people together, things happen. Some of them get sick. Some have really tough break-ups with their boyfriends. Some get engaged. Some lose their parents. Some fail a class. Some get scholarships. Some make poor choices, like the ones who decided to rappel from the top of the hall.

One frustrating and long day, one of my staff said it would be nice if we didn’t have so many distractions so we could just get our work done. But here’s the thing: this is the work. That’s true in ISU Extension and Outreach too. We really are about the people and people change, people have emotions, people have unexpected things happen to them, people have lives. This is the reason Mike Kruzeniski, director of experience design at Twitter, says it is so important to make sure you are thinking about how you want to build your organization while you are designing whatever great things your organization builds.

Kruzeniski says “we all just want to focus on designing and making great things, but building the company is what will support you to do the work you aspire to do … and it takes a long time. When company stuff gets complicated, it’s easy to complain, to point at the people you think are responsible, or to just quit. But it’s your job to help. Your role in a company isn’t to just be the designer of products; your role is to be a designer of that company, to help it become the company that has the ability to make the products you aspire to make. When you joined your company, you probably didn’t think you signed up to help build the company too, but you did. By helping to make your company a better place to work, you make it a better place to design and build things.”

Kruzeniski also says “don’t just think about that one product you need to design in the next three, six, or 12 months. Consider the skills, relationships, and tools that you and your company will need for the next two, five, seven, or 10 years and start working on them now. Don’t just measure yourself by the output of your very next project; Measure yourself by how you’re improving quality over the course of your next 10 projects. Measure yourself by the quality of the projects of your peers. When you see problems, go tackle them, even if nobody told you to. Put it on yourself to make it better, so that your current and future colleagues won’t have to deal with that same problem. Your job is to be the shoulders that the next generation of designers  —  and perhaps your future self  —  at your company will stand on.”

At ISU Extension and Outreach, we all have very busy days conducting needs assessments, developing programs, managing finances, delivering educational programs, managing people, collaborating with key partners — and designing the future Extension and Outreach. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Attitude, change, Quality , , ,

Forward-Thinking People

March 26th, 2015

When it comes to people, Iowa is a small state. With a population of 3 million, we’re just slightly bigger than Chicago. But more than 30 million acres of the world’s best agricultural land lies between the two rivers that make up our state’s borders. On it, we produce about 19 percent of the nation’s corn supply and 15 percent of the soybeans. In addition, Iowa produces nearly 30 percent of the pork, 22 percent of the eggs, and 2 percent of the milk: Talk about a complete breakfast! Not to be outdone, our state also produces 10 percent of the nation’s cattle, 3 percent of the turkeys, and a staggering array of yeast, enzymes, sweeteners, flavors, proteins, fibers, gelatins, and binders critical to the world’s food industry. And did I mention this? We produce about 25 percent of the nation’s ethanol.

We also produce special people. Iowa has been known for people who are ahead of their time, bolstered by common sense and determined to make life better for others. Have you ever heard of Norman Borlaug, Henry Wallace, or George Washington Carver? How about John Atanasoff, Black Hawk, or Carrie Chapman Catt? And then there’s Arthur Collins, of electronics fame; Jesse Field Shambaugh, the mother of 4-H; and Alexander Clark, who was tireless in his efforts to improve the lives of African Americans. And that’s only the short list, here are a few more.

Iowa is the state whose people first accepted the terms of the Land Grant Act, to create access to education for the common people; the state whose farmers engaged with their land-grant university to begin extension work. Iowa was home to American Indians who utilized domesticated plants more than 3,000 years ago, leading to flourishing settlements. This state provided a disproportionate number of our young men to fight in the Civil War and support President Lincoln. When Saigon fell in 1975 and pleas went out to U.S. governors to provide a home for the Tai Dam families and preserve their culture, it was Iowa’s governor who answered.

Iowa always has been home to a blend of immigrants: French, Norwegians, Swedes, Dutch, Germans, Irish, English, Scots, the Sac and Fox who returned to Iowa, Italians, Czech and Croatians, Mexicans, African Americans, Tai Dam, Vietnamese, Laotians, and more. These are Iowa’s people.

People don’t come to Iowa or stay in Iowa because we have mountains (with apologies to our Loess Hills region) or seaside resorts (not even in Sabula, Iowa’s only island city). People come to Iowa for agriculture, for family, for community, for a better quality of life. Iowa is for people who want to make a difference. In ISU Extension and Outreach we amplify this legacy with our focus on signature issues: feeding people, keeping them healthy, helping communities prosper and thrive, and turning the world over to the next generation better than we found it.  Our work isn’t just about creating access to education. Our work is about people – forward-thinking people. We have an obligation to the forward-thinking people who came before us, and those who will follow us, to focus on what matters most. It’s all about people. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Attitude, vision , ,

Our First Name

January 29th, 2015

A lot of people know me by just my first name – family, friends, and colleagues at many levels. I’m often the only Cathann they know. The name’s a bit unusual. I was the first girl born in my father’s family after nearly two generations of boys. My parents put it together to honor Catherine and Annie, two family matriarchs whom, let’s face it, no one wanted to tick off.

I’ve had times when it was inconvenient or difficult to have such a name, such as the many times I’ve had to help people pronounce or spell it: No, it’s not Caitlin, Cathleen, Chatham, or Calhoun. Over time, I’ve discovered that there are two main ways to pronounce it (CATH-ann or ca-THANN). When I was younger, I resented that I could never find a personalized pen, necklace, or bike tag with my name emblazoned on it. It also could be cumbersome. I recall quite vividly that it took me a long time to get even one “Cathann Arceneaux” written during penmanship class in elementary school, while “Joe Fry” sitting next to me whipped through about ten repetitions of his name. And yes, it has often been shortened to “Cathy” or “Annie” or “Cat” or “Hanna.”

However, mostly I’ve loved my name, because of what it represents and because our names say a lot about who we are.

I’ve noticed the same thing with Extension and Outreach. Some people aren’t sure what to call us, given our 100 county offices, our program areas, and our many campus units and departments. It can be cumbersome to manage all the parts of our names.  We have a multitude of nicknames. However, one person who is sure is Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of the Iowa State University Alumni Association. According to Jeff, whatever your place in this organization, “Iowa State University is your first name.”

“Cardinal and gold aren’t everybody’s colors, but they’re our colors. If it wasn’t for Iowa State University, Extension and Outreach wouldn’t exist – not the other way around,” Jeff said. He isn’t asking us to become Iowa State cheerleaders. Rather, we’re partners, working together in the business of higher education.

We are Iowa State University Extension and Outreach whether we identify with a campus unit, a college department, or a county office or a specific program anywhere in the state. We are a capacity-building unit of Iowa State, providing access to education, developing diverse and meaningful partnerships, and creating significant impact throughout our state. We even have the personalized pens. It’s a first name we all can be proud of because of what it represents. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Attitude, Communication, Partnerships , ,

That Which Must Not Be Named

January 8th, 2015

Happy New Year!

There has been a lot of chatter in social media about the coming extinction of Cooperative Extension. (What a great opener to follow my new year wishes, huh?)  It’s not the result of people contemplating what lies ahead in a new year. It’s not because in 2014 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act. This kind of talk tends to come up now and again as people come to grips with change. How much longer will people seek out extension when they can be online 24/7? How will we meet the challenges of the future?  What will we need to do differently?  I’m glad to see this being discussed.

One of the people taking about it is Jim Langcuster (the “ExtensionGuy” on Twitter), a retired news and public affairs specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. He compares extension to a dinosaur and says that to avoid extinction, extension must become a “bona fide digital delivery system” with extension educators as technical professionals. (Read his blog post.)

We’d be fools not to pay attention to this challenge. However, I don’t think extension is facing a precipice where we must go completely digital or go home. True, people want easier access to information – and the research in library science points that out more and more. But they also want an “experience,” which is hard to have with only a digital presence. We need to enhance our digital access while focusing the experience of extension for our constituents. A great example of that was a recent Farm Bill meeting I attended in Blairstown. Ryan Drollette did a great job of combining a face-to-face experience, which allowed him to tailor the pace and content, with the online resources including our Ag Decision Maker.

We need to talk about these challenges and how we do our work. If for no other reason than it’s good to do what my kids and friends call “naming our Voldemorts.” In the Harry Potter movies, the bad guy gains power through fear, even the fear of saying his name. We all have Voldemorts, fears we are too nervous to even name, and these fears prevent us from really exploring how we more fully address and resolve them. However, we diminish their fear-inducing power when we can name them. Let’s name this Voldemort and accept the challenges that change brings by focusing on how we provide access to education and develop meaningful lifelong partnerships to create significant impact for Iowans. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Attitude, change , ,

On Our Watch

May 1st, 2014

I have a terrific job. Not only do I represent ISU Extension and Outreach and all of our dedicated workforce, but as a person with an unquenchable sense of curiosity, I find myself in all kinds of situations and environments, from driving a half-million-dollar combine last fall (which blew me away with its technology) to observing cutting edge research that I can barely wrap my head around most of the time. I highly value these opportunities to learn about the latest discoveries and to apply that learning in ways that enhance our communities.

Recently I was talking about organizational culture with some industry partners and one of them handed me a little card. It unfolded into a slightly larger document entitled, “The Courage to Care.”

“I have the courage to care. Worn with a lion’s pride, it means those I work with will have my back, and I will have theirs. I pledge to shield myself and my team from harm. I will take action to keep them safe, by fixing an unsafe situation, addressing an unsafe behavior, or stopping the line. In turn, I will have the courage to accept the same actions from my coworkers, who care enough to correct my path. We wear this badge out of respect for each other and those who have gone before us. On my watch, we will all go home safe to our families every day.”

This pledge comes from Union Pacific. The company wanted to develop a culture of safety, a culture in which their people would have the opportunity to recognize that they were part of a team, all looking out for each other.

Creeds summarize core beliefs that drive thoughts and behaviors and define culture. Many groups use them to repeat their most highly cherished values. When I worked at the Pentagon, we recited our creed before meetings. We were a team serving the people of the United States of America and living the values of mission first, never quitting, never leaving a comrade, being a guardian of the American way of life, and defenders of the Constitution. That’s heady stuff, but creeds usually are.  They call us to our most cherished values, to our greatest ideals, to our better selves.

This spring we closed our annual conference by reciting our Extension Professional’s Creed. Our creed helps us frame the beliefs of our profession and the unique work of Extension. How do we implement these beliefs in our daily work? How do we challenge ourselves to keep changing to best represent our ideals?  Because yes, to live up to our creed, ongoing change is required. If our creed doesn’t guide our work — what does? What will we ensure for our colleagues, our institution, and our citizens on our watch? See you there.

— Cathann

Attitude, change, Mission , ,

Carrying the Best Parts Forward

April 25th, 2014

Becky BrayThis week’s message is from guest contributor Becky Bray, Scott County Extension Director.

Some people are still feeling the effects of the changes, uncertainty, and stress of the 2009 reorganization. Although we have moved on in many ways, there is still some feeling that the “old” Extension is gone and we don’t know what the new Extension really is. I’ve felt, and noticed in others, some negative feelings at times and it hasn’t set well with me. This is an organization that has been important — at times even crucial — in the lives of our clientele, and we want to continue to serve. How do we best do that with volunteers and staff who still feel unsettled and uncertain?

In my search for ideas, I found appreciative inquiry, which notes that all organizations have some good things going on and that we should focus on those good things. Rather than look for problems (and, therefore, find them), appreciative inquiry encourages organizations to find what they’ve done well and figure out how and why those things have been successful.

It occurs to me that in Extension and Outreach, we have written “success stories” for years. We have been told that they are used for communicating with legislators and stakeholders about our good work so they will continue to support our efforts. If we follow the ideas in appreciate inquiry, we would write those stories and share them with each other. We would learn what works and what we should feel good about in order to do even better.

Two of the assumptions made in appreciative inquiry resonate strongly with me: People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known). And, if we carry parts of the past forward, it should be what is best about the past.

Moving past the 2009 reorganization was part of the discussions at our annual conference in March. People acknowledged some lingering negativity, but also expressed the need to get past those feelings to create a more positive organizational culture moving forward. Becky makes a strong case for this approach – appreciating what we’ve done well and understanding the reasons for our success. We also recognize there is much for us to be positive about, we are carrying the best parts forward.  See you there.

— Cathann

Attitude, change , ,

Remember Who We Are

April 10th, 2014
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I’ve watched some great animated movies with my kids through the years, and I’m always appreciative of a movie with a message. In The Lion King, Simba reaches a turning point on his journey to adulthood. He is sorting through what is really important to him and to his family legacy, when the music swells and he hears the voice of the father he so admired and recently lost … “Remember who you are.”

I believe it is critical for us in ISU Extension and Outreach to remember who we are. I don’t want us to get so caught up in tasks, that we forget what our work really is. I want us to be relentlessly getting better – and continuing our national reputation for premiere programs in extension. I believe in our collective greatness. I believe in our evolving culture because it is the product of exciting innovation blended into our rich tradition. I believe it is our willingness to keep doing it better that has earned us our support and accolades.

At our annual conference last month our speaker, Debra Davis, discussed how our experiences lead to our beliefs, how a healthy culture belongs to an organization with a shared vision, accountability – where there is trust, respect, communication and engagement. Back in 2011 at our Leadership Summit we came together and agreed to the following fundamental principles which guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities:

• Our core purpose is to engage citizens through research-based educational programs. We extend the resources of Iowa State University across our state.
• We accomplish our goals by developing diverse and meaningful partnerships.
• Through our purpose and partnerships, we provide relevant, needs-driven resources, and as a result, we create significant impact in the state of Iowa.

As a result of these fundamental principles, we agreed to invest in meaningful partnerships, refine a system to collectively identify emerging and current needs, develop and support a structure to sustain professional development, and develop and support systems to improve internal communications, coordination, and collaboration. The documents outlining our principles and priorities are located on my See You There page. I encourage you to review our planning documents along with our annual reports, and let me know how you think we are doing. As we celebrate this great work we call extension – all 100 years of it – I challenge each of us to think about our evolving culture and how it aligns with our guiding principles. When you do, I hope you are as encouraged as I am.

Remember who we are. See you there.

– Cathann

P.S. You can share your comments about this message on the blog, at http://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/seeyouthere/.

Attitude, Mission, Partnerships, Programs, Quality, Uncategorized, vision

A Culture of Innovation

October 11th, 2013

I follow several bloggers, journals, and other sources that often talk about innovation within large and established organizations. The consensus seems to be that if you want to encourage innovation and actually see some success, you have to pay attention to the culture and structure of the organization. I find this compelling because I am a firm believer that Extension was created to transmit and communicate innovation to our citizens.

Business leader and author Fred Hassan described how “internal tribalism” was hurting a company, and I wondered how that might apply to Extension and Outreach. We have many tribes within Extension and Outreach and often that’s a good thing, but sometimes it limits us. We’ve had a somewhat disjointed leadership structure in the past, and some tough challenges — which may have hindered our ability to align faculty and staff toward our common purpose. My informal organizational survey this summer suggested we have issues with messages being transmitted across the communication barriers of our internal tribes.

Innovation and communication (or the lack thereof) are part of an organization’s culture. That’s why our annual conference next March will focus on promoting an organizational culture committed to excellence and responsiveness to change. In a recent study, researchers identified four key pieces to fostering an innovation culture:

1. Inspire curiosity
2. Challenge current perspectives
3. Create freedom
4. Drive discipline

It seems to me that we need to create more opportunities for people to move from just passion for their unique programs to passion with accountability and an appreciation for the principles of our larger organization. Part of what I’ve seen in our organizational culture is a tendency for some of us to “delegate up” — we push tough decisions to our supervisors, while we embrace our program and passionately fight for the status quo. That prevents us from having to take responsibility or put ourselves at risk. However, the very nature of innovation IS risk. Innovation means applying a new idea or the novel combination of ideas or processes in ways that lead to impact. Innovation means doing something different, not merely doing the same thing better. See you there.

— Cathann

Attitude, change , ,

Plan for Lightning

September 27th, 2013

Thunderstorms can be beautiful, unless the lightning hits your house. That’s why we have lightning rods. Lightning rods don’t prevent lightning. They provide a path to safely pass currents to the ground. Perhaps we also can plan for the figurative lightning strikes in our lives. In other words, plan for chaos. Plan for frustration. Plan for resistance. Expect your fridge might break down during your most stressful week at work. Don’t be surprised when the deadline for the grant is announced late when key staff members are out of town. Plan for the possibility that your daughter will tell you at 10 p.m. she needs brownies for homeroom in the morning.

Plan for those lightning strikes and build a personal lightning protection system. Stash brownie mixes in your pantry. Keep your ideas for grant proposals in a folder, ready to be used. Eat the fudge ripple ice cream in the freezer so it doesn’t melt.  And learn to let go. Learn to let it pass through you.

Essentially, to manage frustration is to accept reality.  I read somewhere that it’s OK to swish your feet in the waters of self-pity, but don’t dive in. Refocus yourself and accept that sometimes things don’t go according to plan.  I’d also recommend learning to be fully present where you are.  For example, if you sit through meetings checking email, you’re not contributing to the task at hand. If you’re focused on tomorrow’s big presentation, you could be missing great dinner conversations with your family.

Lastly, sometimes it’s not only that things don’t go according to plan, but sometimes I just can’t get the brownies made.  So, it’s probably good to learn to forgive yourself. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

See you there.

— Cathann

Attitude, change ,

Crazy Super Awesome!

November 15th, 2012

My daughter, Wren, now a high school freshman, is also a cheerleader. I was familiar with cartwheels and back flips, but now I know about aerials, straight cradles, and extended stunts, among other things. And I’ve learned a new phrase, something Wren’s coach often says. She describes the squad as “crazy super awesome!” (And I think an exclamation point may be required!)

Cheerleading originated in the United States, and while it may be easy to dismiss all that jumping about, these young people are ambassadors for their schools, promote school spirit, and essentially, organize a crowd to work together to support a common goal. You might be surprised to know that three U.S. presidents were once cheerleaders (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George W. Bush). It may not be a big surprise, but I was once a cheerleader too, for football, basketball, and wrestling. Go, Mid-Prairie Golden Hawks! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). I learned a few things that I think still apply:

  1. Cheer the whole team. Encourage all your team members, not just the stars. Success relies on everyone doing his or her job well.
  2. Move on. When something doesn’t go as planned (a fumble, a botched play), acknowledge the setback and move on.
  3. Harness momentum. Figure out ways to build on the interest and enthusiasm of the crowd.
  4. Focus on team success. Celebrate what the team has accomplished together.

My daughter cheers for Ames High, but we all can appreciate the success of our team, ISU Extension and Outreach. Looking back over the past nearly year and a half, we have a lot to cheer about. You all work diligently to serve the people of Iowa, and it shows. We have story after story that demonstrates the commitment and dedication of our entire team. All this awesomeness is due to one valuable resource: People. Thanks for everything you do — but be careful with those back flips. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. As a reminder, there are thank you notes for all of you in the video that debuted at our 2011 leadership summit. If you haven’t watched it in a while, take another look.

Attitude, Mission , , ,