Because of ‘We’

This week’s message is from guest contributor John Lawrence, director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension and Outreach, and an associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

I always have been proud to be part of our Iowa State University Extension and Outreach team. Although we don’t wear a full uniform like a sports team, we have name tags and similar shirts that say Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Administrators, specialists, and county staff all wear the same brand. We all wave the same flag when things go well, and we’re all painted with the same brush if something goes wrong. So it’s in our best interest when we all are at the top of our game.

ISU Extension and Outreach is strong because we are talented people working together. Promotion and tenure or revenue generation may cause us to focus on “me” from time to time, but our success is because of “we.” We find comprehensive solutions from across programs and disciplines to educate and serve Iowans. We help colleagues to be successful by sharing information, lending a hand, or being a sounding board. The communication and camaraderie make us stronger as we care for our organization and our colleagues.

Our new Mentor Academy is one way we are formalizing this culture. Iowa State hasn’t mastered cloning, so effective coaching is our best chance for replicating great colleagues. The academy will help participants become great mentors to carry our culture and skills into the next generation of our organization.

Effective mentoring takes time to learn and do, and it will compete for time with programming, revenue generation, and engaging stakeholders. All of us may have to shoulder more of the load as mentors work with our new colleagues. Administrators and program leaders must encourage mentoring and acknowledge the mentors’ time and talent. We all have an investment to make in the next generation of ISU Extension and Outreach professionals who will proudly wear our brand.

See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can share your comments about this message on the blog, at You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Kind and Brave

Cathann Kress and Cy with young girl in an elementary school classroomAuthor and blogger Glennon Doyle Melton says kind people are brave people. That’s because brave is a decision that compassion is more important than fear or fitting in.

When I read this in her blog, I remembered something a young Iowan once told me: “I wish that everybody – everybody – would be kind.” That was her brave wish for the future of our state. I met this young Iowan a few years ago while we were shooting an ISU Extension and Outreach video. She told me how she dreams that cities won’t have pollution and everybody will be healthy. We talked for several minutes about her ideas for the future, and then she was off on her way.

The grownup blogger and the young Iowan have the right idea. To be kind we have to be brave, because it requires putting the needs of others ahead of our own: like when we’re helping those hit by flooding to deal with the aftermath, or offering guidance to farmers under financial stress, or developing the necessary skills to engage in a diverse and global society. In ISU Extension and Outreach we have about 1,200 faculty and staff all across the state so we can be everywhere for all Iowans. We strive to be really good at what we do and provide exceptional service. I think it’s safe to say we also strive to be kind and compassionate as we work with Iowans to meet common goals and aspirations. That’s what cooperatives do.

And that’s how we’ll achieve a strong Iowa – when we take care of each other, when we pay it forward, when we act with kindness. Because when we are kind, we are brave. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Maybe you’ve seen our video, but it’s worth watching again to learn what some young Iowans think about “Whatever the Future Holds.” You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Extension and Outreach Is for Problem Solvers

This week’s message is from guest contributor Linda Brinkmeyer, Administrative Assistant in my office.

This harvest season my new daughter-in-law pickled jalapeño peppers from her garden. Impressive. I have enjoyed hearing about how she started her garden from a seed tray, her success with the kale and pepper crops, and the struggles with her tomatoes.

This woman is a down-to-earth problem solver. However, she became frustrated enough with her tomato plants’ non-performance that she pulled them out and threw them into the compost pile behind the garage. (Extension and Outreach has something to say about that: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Composting.”) Come to find out, those tomatoes really took to that compost, and before too long she was showing me her hearty tomato plants growing cattywampus out of that compost pile.

Her subsequent plotting (no pun intended) resulted in great ideas. First, she realized there was too much shade in the back yard, so she thought she might put a raised bed in their sunnier front yard for tomatoes and other sun-loving plants. (See “Raised Beds for Vegetable Production.”) Second, the situation with the compost pile led her to believe that the soil in her raised beds in the back yard may need a boost. (Check “Yard and Garden: Soil pH and Testing.”)

She went on to tell me about a conversation she’d had with a friend about strategies for preparing garden soil in the fall for spring planting. She shared that he had informed her about this really great collection of knowledge built into a website and even a hotline! I said, “You mean ISU Extension and Outreach, right?” Yes, she replied, although she felt a little sheepish about not having connected me with ISU Extension and Outreach. (It’s not like I’m a vice president or anything. I just work for one.)

I was absolutely delighted to talk with her about her ambitious gardening, which led into another discussion about how she and my son are experimenting with preparing their weeknight meals on the weekends, to stay in line with their budget and keep their hectic lifestyle more manageable. I wonder if there is anything on the ISU Extension and Outreach website about that? (Try this tip from Spend Smart. Eat Smart.)

Extension and Outreach is for problem solvers.

See you there.

— Cathann

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

Coming Together in Mutual Interest



Recently we dug out a few archival photographs for the office walls here on campus. We thought it fitting to celebrate both where we are today, as well as where we came from. That’s when we came upon this one from over a hundred years ago. This was pretty much the entire extension staff and faculty in those days. What a crew they were. Although they look rather somber given photography at that time, the truth is they were on the cusp of greatness. They were forward-thinking people committed to the land-grant mission and the cooperative extension idea. These folks led Seed Corn Gospel trains and short courses, and provided demonstrations to improve farm homes and families. They also recognized the importance of educating rural youth – with corn clubs that later became 4-H. Their work led to the establishment of extension nationwide, and their stories and so many more are part of our history in ISU Extension and Outreach, a history we continue to celebrate this year as 13 more counties observed their 100 year anniversaries of extension work.

What strikes me is how this small group of people came together to accomplish something really big. It wasn’t just shared self-interest. It rose above and embraced the ideals of sharing with and helping others. It wasn’t just a pipeline for technology transfer, but a mutual, positive view of others in society, and a particular identification with the ordinary, the humble, and the least privileged. The beginning of extension funneled the mission of our institution to a commitment of limiting self-interest and focusing on altruism. That’s what cooperatives do.

Some people say, the more things change, the more they stay the same – and in some fundamental ways that is true. We remain true to our land-grant mission and we continue our goal and role: Together, we provide education and build partnerships designed to solve today’s problems and prepare for the future. Look again at the photo, at the faces of people who could have chosen to just look out for themselves, but instead chose to build an extension system, which looks out for others. That’s who we still are. That’s who we will always be. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Between Two Seasons

This morning I found myself wondering if, like me, some of you are sitting at your desks feeling a bit weary. I know it’s the beginning of a new school year, with all those shiny new supplies at the stores. But the end of August always feels like I wasn’t quite done with all my summer commitments, and now I have to turn and catch up to fall.

My house looks like it, too. Sunscreen and flip-flops, vestiges of a more carefree summer, still are scattered by the doorway, but so are the boxes Wren didn’t need as she moved to her residence hall at UNI, and my light jacket I pulled out to walk my dog, Oka, the other night while grumbling to her about how it was getting dark so early again. (Yes, as a new “empty nester” I’m grumbling to the dog these days.)

Summer is so much about growth and expansion. The long days stretch out and feel like they will always be with us — and then, so soon, autumn is upon us with its shorter days, cooler weather, and the last of the flowers.

Of course, it was an ongoing process. It isn’t like one day the earth suddenly shortens the days and gets chilly; it’s been coming on this whole time beneath our level of perception. It seems like a lot happens that way, that caught up in the “busyness” of my days I sometimes lose track of the slight changes occurring around me, which seem to suddenly become big. I would have liked one more week of flowers, flip-flops, and my daughter’s laughter. I’m not quite ready yet for turning leaves, football, and sweaters.

For those of us who work all across the state in ISU Extension and Outreach, we need to keep our eyes open to those slight changes. We need to recognize the subtle shifts that signal something which will eventually become a big change or a central need. And I encourage us to think about how we do something about it, even when we’d rather stay where we were. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Leading Indicators

I wonder how the Eared Grebes are doing. You might remember that during a storm nearly five years ago, thousands of them crash landed in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Utah, mistaking the rain-slicked pavement for a lake. As I wrote in my blog at the time, the impact left some birds dead, some injured, and some terribly confused. They needed some time to recover. (See “No More Crash Landing.”)

Back then ISU Extension and Outreach had been recovering from the aftermath of earlier leadership decisions, seemingly random processes, and unclear principles. That’s why we came together for a leadership summit, where we agreed upon the fundamental principles that would guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities across our programs. Our work over the past five years has made us a stronger organization, enabling us to better focus on what we all want – a strong Iowa.

As we’ve focused on our goal – providing education and building partnerships – we’ve discovered a few things about ourselves and our organization. We understand that our relationships – among our staff and faculty and with our clients and partners – make what we do worthwhile. We’ve become more comfortable using our values and purpose to guide our work. And we’re beginning to accept the continually changing, dynamic nature of ISU Extension and Outreach. That’s how we increase our capacity to be effective, to evolve, to develop opportunities, and to fully express the vision and mission first articulated by our extension pioneers. We are a learning organization, with shared values and a collective history of making a difference for Iowans.

There are a few leading indicators that help us see where we are headed:

  • The proposed university strategic plan includes ISU Extension and Outreach.
  •  ISU Extension and Outreach contracts and grants are up – an increase of $2.7M or almost 19 percent.
  • As appropriated funds remain level, we redirected resources to leverage four new Presidential High Impact Hires (faculty) and by streamlining processes grew “Program” vs. operations funds to 73 percent of all appropriated funds.
  • Our Engaged Scholarship Funding Program has launched with two projects and eight counties participating in the program. Projects begin July 1.
  • Our Data Indicators Portal has launched.
  • We completed the county wireless project to maintain technology in all 100 offices.
  • Our faculty and staff are leading the applied research, demonstrations, and education on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Monarch and pollinator habitat revival, managing herbicide resistance, managing farm financial stress, and other issues facing Iowa.
  • We’re rebuilding strong linkages between ISU research farms and extension districts.
  • Extension expenditures in 2015 totaled $90.2M, of which counties invested 38 percent and ISU (federal, state, and other resources) 62 percent.
  • The Rising Stars program continues to expand and grow within the state, starting with six interns during the summer of 2014 and now has grown to eight.
  • Extension and Outreach in the state of Iowa currently employs 1,200 people: 450 county paid and 750 ISU paid (all sources of funds).

Now back to the Eared Grebes. Wildlife officials relocated many of the survivors to a nearby lake so they could recover and continue their migration. We have focused on our structure and priorities and continue to serve the university and the people of Iowa. Thank you for all you do to keep building a Strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Our Collective Genius

“Good” leaders take charge and set the course for their organizations, or so some textbooks would have you believe. That might work for making widgets, but for education and partnerships? Not so much. The work we do in ISU Extension and Outreach requires a bit more give and take from all of us, particularly if we’re interested in innovating. Innovation is the creation of something both new and useful. It doesn’t necessarily stem from the “good” leadership model in which people follow the vision of their leader and do what they are told. Instead, leading innovation requires creating conditions for good things to happen.

Authors Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback call this “collective genius.” (See their article in Harvard Business Review.) It occurs when companies – or organizations – develop their ability to innovate. But it doesn’t just happen; it takes work. To be innovative, the authors say, an organization has to develop three capabilities:

  • creative abrasion – the ability to generate ideas through discourse and debate, allowing for collaboration;
  • creative agility – which enables discovery-driven learning, being able to test and experiment through quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment; and
  • creative resolution – the ability to make decisions that combine disparate and sometimes opposing ideas.

There’s one more crucial piece to creating collective genius: People who want to make good things happen. People who are willing to generate and try new ideas. And as we say in the Extension Professional’s Creed, people who believe in their work and in the opportunity they have to make their lives useful to humanity. In ISU Extension and Outreach it’s about people – and our collective genius – working and partnering for a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Remember to use #STRONGIOWA and share your stories on Twitter.

Stay Curious

A few weeks ago Lyn Brodersen, our assistant vice president for Organizational Development, welcomed junior high and high school students who’d come to campus for the State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa. Here’s an excerpt from her remarks.

Continue exploring science as you prepare for your career. The basic principles of scientific investigation — experimentation, shaping hypotheses, testing theories — are the foundation for formal education and the world of work. When I was your age, I was fascinated by botany, biology, math, and languages. Those topics encouraged me, as a college student, to engage in history and education, and to share the knowledge I had found with those around me. I explored literature, philosophy, and political science as well. Ultimately, the thing that bound these differing interests together was curiosity.

What changed for me along the way? The complexity of the problems with which I grappled. The culture and habits of the people around whom I lived. The context with which I approached issues and problems. What never changed? The fact that I was curious. I never wanted to stop hypothesizing, experimenting, proving, learning, and sharing. Because the one thing that no one can ever take away from you is your education. The ability to think, share, create, imagine, talk with other people, and solve problems for the benefit of all is a gift of infinite value.

Take advantage of your interest in science. Make it apply to other interests as well. Don’t stop experimenting, learning, and creating. Don’t stop sharing your dreams and approaches with others. And, above all, maintain your curiosity about our world for the rest of your life.

Lyn’s advice is appropriate for all of us. We should always believe in our ability to learn – and stay curious. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Remember to use #STRONGIOWA and share your stories on Twitter.

What We Really Cultivate

Spring field work can turn an extension professional’s thoughts to cultivation – and I’m not just talking about our agriculture and natural resources specialists. Though some of us in ISU Extension and Outreach regularly focus on tillage and planting, all of us should be centered on a much bigger and more important crop – the people of Iowa. Our real job is to cultivate an educated and informed citizenry.

Upon signing the Morrill Act, President Abraham Lincoln said, “The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence.” Ever since the first students arrived on the Iowa State campus in 1869, ever since the extension idea took shape in Sioux County in 1903, and ever since counties began organizing for extension work in 1912, Iowans have looked to the land-grant mission to guide their education and partnerships.

We can provide technical training and increase competency – that’s the easy part. (Iowa State’s motto is “science with practice” after all.) But while training and competency are important, they are not enough. Likewise, we can spur scientific and technological innovations, which also are important, but still not enough. We need people who can make wise decisions about how to use these innovations and knowledge in ways that grow our economy, enhance our world, and enrich our lives. When we cultivate educated and informed Iowans, we are building a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

What Extension and Outreach Means to Us

What does it mean to you, personally, to be part of ISU Extension and Outreach? I asked that question of the leadership team recently and I’d like to share some of their answers.

To Debra Sellers, associate dean and director of Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, being part of ISU Extension and Outreach means “to engage with others in a shared vision of empowering people and growing lives, to contribute to a legacy that is larger than just myself, and to have a little fun along the way.”

Our budget analyst, John Flickinger, says, “I have the privilege to provide assistance to program leaders and staff so they can focus on educational and training opportunities for the citizens and communities of Iowa, our nation, and our world – opportunities that will enable youth, adults, business owners, and community leaders to make better choices for themselves, their families, and their overall lives. Even though my role is ‘indirect support,’ knowing the end product and our mission for ISU Extension and Outreach is what brings fulfillment to me.”

According to John Lawrence, associate dean and director of Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension and Outreach, “There is not just one thing, but rather many things that it means to me. Being part of ISU Extension and Outreach allows me to serve agriculture and Iowa. I get to participate and to make a difference. Being part of ISU Extension and Outreach allows me to work with and earn the respect of great people as colleagues and clients. I’m proud to be part of an organization that has and continues to impact people, policy, and the planet.”

Bob Dodds, assistant vice president for County Services, says, “Through education, ISU Extension and Outreach improves the lives of Iowans. I work for ISU Extension and Outreach because of this, but equally important, I learn each day with those we serve. I appreciate the opportunity to be innovative and create, and the opportunities are endless. I know firsthand the impact the land-grant mission has had on my life, my family, and my community. To be a part of the Iowa State land-grant mission is very rewarding. I truly believe the land-grant mission is as relevant today as it was when Lincoln signed the Morrill Act.”

We all could provide our own answers about what it means to be part of ISU Extension and Outreach. Take a moment to ask a colleague and be sure to ask yourself. It’s all good food for thought as we continue building a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Remember to use #STRONGIOWA and share your stories on Twitter.