Here’s to Bright Days

Thanks to recent rainy mornings and later day sunshine, an old song lyric has been playing in my head (thank you, Johnny Nash): “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.” (And yes, it’s at about this point in the song that my children start rolling their eyes.)

With summer two-thirds gone, field day season in full swing, Community Gardens popping, 4-H camps and activities in rain and mud, and several more county fairs and the Iowa State Fair still to go,  ISU Extension and Outreach is caught up in a whirlwind of activity across the state. In addition, we’re dealing with both the farm and the human side of avian influenza. And let’s not forget the emerald ash borer. The insect pest has been found in 26 counties and that number will increase. It all certainly can feel overwhelming, particularly when you throw in Iowa summer heat indices in the 100s, deluges of rain and mud, and trying to keep up with all that email back in the office.

I encourage you to give yourself a moment to step back and to see clearly what are (and what really aren’t) obstacles in your way. Because even with the rain, the heat, and musical earworms, ISU Extension and Outreach is still the #BestJobEver. Thank you for your long hours, hard work, patience, and unending dedication as you provide research-based education and continue this lifelong partnership with the people of Iowa. We have many bright days ahead. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.
Learn more about ISU Extension and Outreach at the 2015 Iowa State Fair.

Legacy of Genius

C.J. Gauger and Cathann KressA few months ago we lost an Iowa icon, C.J. Gauger. As Iowa’s state 4-H leader from 1959-1979, C.J. was a visionary. He saw the need for change in 4-H and he knew how to make it happen. Even though it wasn’t always easy or popular, with his guidance, the boys’ and girls’ 4-H programs came together and emphasized life skills development for all youth, rural or urban. C.J. truly believed in listening to Iowa’s young people and involving them in shaping their 4-H program.

One of the first people I went to see when I returned to Iowa State was C.J. He was so very proud of Iowa 4-H and we shared ideas about how to enhance and grow the program. He also assured me that our desire to grow 4-H was shared by many all across the state. I have found that as usual, C.J. was right.

C.J.’s legacy lives on through one of every five Iowa youth, who participates in our 4-H programs today. His place in 4-H’s history paved the way for 4-H’s future. C.J.’s memorial service is July 17 and the Iowa 4-H Foundation has set up a “Genius of 4-H” endowment in his honor. That’s very fitting. Because as C.J. said, “the greatest contribution of 4-H is the leadership, both in youth and adults, it has developed and which has gone on to enhance the lives of themselves and others in unlimited, never ending ways. This is the genius of 4-H.”

C.J. simply enjoyed helping young people grow into their full potential. We carry on this legacy of genius. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Our Tenacity of Purpose

Cathann Kress receives Spirit of Crazy Horse awardA week ago representatives from Reclaiming Youth International, the Lakota Nation, and ISU Extension and Outreach wrapped a Lakota star quilt around me in a traditional Lakota ceremony. I was receiving The Spirit of Crazy Horse Award, and by wrapping me in the quilt they were symbolically honoring me and protecting me on my journey through life. A week later I’m still deeply honored by the experience. I’ve received awards before, but nothing comes close to this.

Crazy Horse was a significant leader as he cared for his people and their way of life. This award which bears his name honors those who have a tenacity of purpose in advancing work with children and youth. The ceremony was part of Reclaiming Youth International’s Circle of Courage Youth Development Conference in Rapid City, S.D. The Circle of Courage integrates the cultural wisdom of tribal peoples, the practice wisdom of youth development professional pioneers, and findings of modern youth development research — which demonstrate that to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. (Sound familiar? These are the essential elements of 4-H.)

We live in a world that tends to focus not as much on wisdom, but on metrics. We concentrate on GPAs and impact statements. We count the number of refereed articles we write and participants we reach, and, of course, the amount of grant dollars we acquire. We keep score of our accumulations of these metrics and others, and we assume that what we amass speaks to the totality of the work being accomplished. We have grown to believe that this equals value. But value and accumulation are not the same.

Some things cannot be measured, but only felt. The value of kindness. The value of personal growth. The value of patience. The value of showing up year after year to do work that needs to be done – our tenacity of purpose. Just because our contributions cannot be easily measured in the short-term, does not mean they are not worth making. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Where We Are and Looking Ahead

Four years ago when I interviewed for the vice president position, I challenged the participants in my open forum to think about ISU Extension and Outreach five years in the future and imagine failure. Why? Because it’s a way for an organization to prevent its own death. The participants in my forum provided six consistent reasons ISU Extension and Outreach might fail. (See my blog post,  Pre-mortem for Organizations.)

As you know, I got the job and now I am beginning Year 5. So I’d like to take another look at those reasons for potential failure.

  • In 2011 my forum participants – these were ISU Extension and Outreach faculty and staff, mind you – said the first reason we would fail would be poor communication both internally and externally.
  • Second, they said our inability to change would do us in – our unwillingness to let go of familiar programs as well as irrelevant programs.
  • The third reason was isolation from constituents and critical partners, as well as field, campus, and upper administration.
  • Fourth, we were suffering from an unclear vision and mission – we weren’t in sync with the values of Iowa, constituents, and the university.
  • Number 5 was poor leadership – leaders who don’t motivate others, solve problems holistically, or build public support for the public good.
  • The final reason was insufficient resources, since the participants were concerned about continuing decreases in funding.

I think we have made gains in some of these areas, and in some we still struggle, but we are trying to figure out how to more fully address them. So what do you think? I challenge you to respond – and please be honest. Over the next three weeks, add your comments to my blog. Then I’ll summarize your comments, add my own, and get back to you with an update on where we are now. See you there.

— Cathann

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

The Magic Continues

Last week as I visited several communities across the state, it was quite common for Iowans to share their thoughts about Coach Hoiberg’s departure from Iowa State men’s basketball. While there is some sadness, for the most part Cyclone Nation is wishing Fred well as he pursues his dream to coach in the NBA. As I’ve thought about how we’ve been amazed by Fred’s coaching abilities over the past few years, I realized that with or without Fred we appreciate what we have going forward. We’ll show our support for the student athletes and our new Iowa State basketball coach Steve Prohm. The Mayor may have re-ignited Hilton Magic, but it will continue because of Cyclone Nation.

We also should appreciate what we have here in ISU Extension and Outreach. (Other extension services are amazed at what we have.) For example, we had the forethought 20 years ago to create our statewide online network. Other state extension services did not. When the network installation was completed on June 28, 1995, every county office had a local area network tying office computers with a file server and laser printer. A wide area network gave access to printers and file servers located in other offices. Plus, we all were connected to e-mail, Gopher (Remember Gopher?), and the World Wide Web. The project cost $2.1 million and was completed in 21 months. So as you read this message on your smartphone or iPad or laptop or desktop, wish a happy birthday to our ISU Extension and Outreach Information Network.

In addition, we’ve embedded ISU Extension and Outreach throughout the colleges of our university. Many extension services are astounded that we have elected county extension councils who guide local programs and levy taxes. In ISU Extension and Outreach, we continually have worked to build our capacity, and other extension services look to us to see what’s next on the horizon.

We appreciate the forward-thinking people who came before us (such as Perry Holden, Jessie Field Shambaugh, and more recently of course, Fred Hoiberg) and those who will follow us, as we strive to turn the world over to the next generation better than we found it. Even though our structure in ISU Extension and Outreach can be cumbersome, it has resiliency built into it, much more so than other states. We can rightly feel proud to be part of Iowa State University. We’re helping our state be strong. Our magic was ignited a long time ago, but it will continue because of ISU Extension and Outreach Nation. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Plan for Friction

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but friction plays a pretty big role in our lives –both positive and negative. Friction is part of what makes it hard to get my bike up the next hill (take note those of you planning to ride RAGBRAI), but it’s also what makes it possible to stop my bike before the railroad tracks. While we can reduce or minimize friction, it’s always present.

So it’s not surprising that when engineers design engines they plan for friction. They know that when an engine runs, unexpected stuff will happen. Determining the exact cause of the problem can be complicated. Seasoned mechanics often will combine computerized diagnostics with their own knowledge and experience to figure out the issue. It’s just part of the design process. There’s no drama involved. We could learn from that approach.

When stuff happens in life, things get more complex. Friction in human relationships or endeavors is more difficult to understand. Maybe we don’t like drama, but most of us will respond in similar ways. Often, we increase complexity even more by seeking more information and conducting more analyses. That’s not all bad, but it can spiral into levels of complexity, including organizational complexity — more meetings, decision delays, and specialized teams. We add layers of policy and processes intended to address the complexity, but it could make it worse. Essentially, we replace clarity with detail. As a result, activity increases and so does confusion. At the same time, trust decreases and so does effectiveness. It’s hard to stay focused on staying clear and focused when your legs feel like lead weights from trying to pump up that last hill.

Just because we encounter friction doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction or need to abandon the project. We rarely will have the ideal conditions we might wish for. Stuff will happen, so plan for friction. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Working at the Speed of Trust

Your mindset matters when you want to get something done. What’s in your head affects who you decide to engage with, how you work together, and how you progress toward your goals. I’ve been reading lately about the difference between collaboration and organizing for collective impact. The authors said collective impact succeeds only when it uses evidence and builds relationships, because change happens at the speed of trust.

The speed of trust. Isn’t that true? I thought about that a lot this past week as I was out traveling across our state. I’m fortunate to work with so many whom I not only respect, but also trust. When you think about it, we don’t want Iowans just to have an experience with us. We don’t want just to have a relationship with them. We want them to trust us.

From where I sit, trust requires a few things. You all know what I’m talking about — being reliable, honoring promises, and being loyal. A few that don’t get as much attention, but should, are to seek clarity and to be clear. In other words, when an opportunity to be vague arises, don’t take it. Create transparency whenever possible, right wrongs (there is perhaps a whole post I could write about just that), and keep trying to be better.

However, the number one ingredient for building trust is the ability to offer it to others first. My dad firmly believed that any of the important things we want in life (trust, love, respect, happiness, success, etc.), we get only by first giving them to others.

More than 100 years ago, Iowans throughout the state began turning to Iowa State because they trusted their land-grant university. The original extension workers provided farmers and families and 4-H’ers with research-based information that they could apply to their own farms and in their own lives. Extension also extended trust back to Iowans by engaging them in this work, not just as recipients but as co-creators. Together, we create the social experience through which innovations spread. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. You can read “Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

We Have to Care

A few years ago, I made a commitment to having a healthier lifestyle and began seeking a plan to do so. However, I had trouble staying motivated. I’d give my attention to nearly anything other than any plan I was attempting to follow. You see, I didn’t know exactly what I cared about. Losing weight? Maintaining my health? Managing stress? I followed complicated plans that someone else cared about, because complicated must mean important. However, I wasn’t sure if I was doing these complicated plans correctly. I got bored running. I fiddled with machines at the gym. I’m pretty sure I spent more time reading about how to be healthy than doing something that would make me healthier.

A friend suggested I throw out all the complicated plans and simply move 3 miles or 30 minutes a day. Huh? I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be enough to change anything, but it was simple and measurable, and I figured at the very least I could walk around campus for 30 minutes and call it good. A funny thing happened, though. At first, I did the bare minimum: I walked (OK, I might have ambled or strolled) exactly 30 minutes. No more, no less. But I liked it. It gave me time to think, to breathe fresh air, to notice changes around me. So, I decided to shoot for 3 miles. Sometimes I walked. Sometimes I ran. Sometimes I rode my bike. I even roller-bladed around campus. Before I knew it, I was going out for at least an hour and blowing past 3 miles as a warm-up. Because it was fun. That’s when I realized when it came to my health, what I cared about was having a little island of fun in my day, not more tasks to be done.

To get stuff done, I think it’s important to know what we care about – and what we don’t; to know where the boundaries begin and end. If we’re not sure what we care about, others will have things that can sway us. It can be deceptively easy to move from what we care about, one small step at a time, to what others care about. Eventually we will be far away from the very thing that stirs our passion and gives us purpose. We think it should be easy to stay focused because usually we have some level of motivation about whatever it is. After all, it’s defined by the fact that we care about it. But it’s not that simple. Our energy levels wax and wane. Even invigorating work becomes routine and includes a few boring tasks. I’ve read the inspirational stories of successful individuals who are driven by unlimited passion and energy. And when I feel weary or unmotivated, I might think I’m just not blessed with the same zeal.

It’s easy to do the work when we’re motivated, when everyone agrees, when we’re fairly sure of the outcome. Sometimes we even think the outcome is the pinnacle, rather than appreciating the ongoing (and sometimes dull) process. But I’ve come to understand that people who consistently get things done don’t focus on one event or goal; they commit to the process. They hang in with the daily practice, the small steps, and the 30 minutes – not the outcome. In other words, if we want to be better at anything, we have to care about the process of doing it. We have to care about being someone who does that kind of work, rather than merely thinking about the outcome. Let’s care about our process, our small daily things, our 30 minutes. The results will take care of themselves. See you there.

— Cathann

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

4 Points about Leadership

It’s the end of the semester and many awards banquets and celebrations are underway, so I’ve been presenting awards to some impressive people and contemplating words of wisdom to share with young leaders. In ISU Extension and Outreach we work to provide Iowans with high-quality, research-based education and remarkable experiences. We aspire to be national leaders in this endeavor. It’s not always an easy task. Recently, we’ve talked about Iowa’s forward-thinking people whose legacy we follow. Forward-thinking people understand a few things about leadership that are worth our attention. I thought you might want to consider a few things I’ve shared in the past few weeks.

1. Disappointment isn’t failure. In the course of leadership, we will be disappointed. Perhaps many times. Here’s an important thing to remember: disappointment is not the same thing as failure. Disappointment is almost always what I call an ego “toe stub.” My ego didn’t like how something went, things didn’t go the way I had it planned out in my head. But I’ve come to learn, once I accept that there may be many ways ahead and let go of the ego, things work out.

2. People will judge. I once read a quote by Abraham Lincoln which said: “I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” That pretty much sums it up. People will judge – whether we are doing the right things, the not quite right things, the innovative things, the things that must be done. Get used to it.

3. It’s OK to be unsure. Not only is it OK – I get nervous around leaders who are never unsure. How could they possibly know? Give me a leader who is still a learner, still asking “what if?” and still experimenting.

4. Go out to meet it. This is the essence of leadership: commitment. Until leaders are committed, there is little reason for people to show more than the minimum level of initiative required. Once leaders demonstrate commitment, then it’s easier for others to step up. Leaders secure commitment through commitment.

All good points to keep in mind as we engage with others, design experiences for those we serve, and as we seek to encourage young leaders. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Ask Beautiful Questions

Earlier today I met with the Community and Economic Development (CED) faculty and staff and the regional directors as they held their joint in-service. One of the things we talked about was how I always know it’s going to be a good conversation when Tim Borich (Program Director, CED, and Associate Dean, College of Design) wanders into my office and begins a conversation with “What if …?” Tim, you see, has mastered the art of asking beautiful questions.

Author Warren Berger says we should ask beautiful questions – the kind that help us shift our reasoning and assist in bringing about change. These questions are ambitious and the mere fact of asking them involves taking action. When we ask a beautiful question, we ask “how.” We ask, “what if.” Engaging with these types of questions makes us think.

Asking beautiful questions in Extension and Outreach has resulted in some amazing answers. When we asked how we could engage Iowa State students with local foods education and potential extension careers, we developed the Rising Star Internship program. When we asked how we could help young livestock producers connect with each other for success in agriculture, we established the Beginning and Young Livestock Producer Network. When we asked how we could reach Latino audiences more effectively, we decided to integrate our Latino youth, family, community, and business development programs. Berger points to a University of Illinois study which found that when trying to motivate yourself, questions work better than statements or commands. Questions apparently help us to begin to act when we are uncertain. But there is an art to shaping a beautiful question. According to Edward Witten, that means “a question that is hard (and interesting) enough that it is worth answering – and easy enough that one can actually answer it.”

How might we create more collaboration? How can we engage more faculty with communities? How can we embed students in real world experiences? How can we help farmers with effective succession planning? Beautiful, ambitious questions can be game-changers and lead to breakthroughs. But you won’t know until you ask. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Read Warren Berger’s article in Fast Company.