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.

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.

Do Things Which Count

I recently learned some interesting extension history from my friend and fellow extension director over in Kansas, Daryl Bucholz. He asked me if our regional director Alan Ladd had ever shared the story of the re-discovery of The Extension Worker’s Code after years of it being somewhat forgotten.

The Extension Worker’s Code, Extension Bulletin No. 33, was published by the Division of College Extension at Kansas State Agricultural College in February 1922, and there’s a great deal of wisdom packed into the booklet’s 20 pocket-sized pages. Author T.J. Talbert covered everything from basic decorum – arriving promptly, dressing appropriately, and not smoking on the job – to building relationships and reaching as many people as possible with research-based educational programs.

Daryl shared that a doctor and his son were restoring their old stone house on the west side of Manhattan and up in the attic found a stash of extension publications, including The Extension Worker’s Code. The doctor knew Alan and presented him with the treasures. When Alan gave a program on the principles in the booklet, Daryl told him that they needed to reprint the publication and get it back into circulation to remind everyone of these important principles of extension work. Many of his colleagues know that Daryl carries this small booklet with him, so I asked him what the code means to him.

“With all the changes that have taken place in technology, transportation, communication over the past 100 years, human connection and relationships remain constant,” Daryl replied. “To become a trusted source. Also, the principles of planning, implementing, evaluating, and reporting were all cited in this 1922 publication! It carries such a great message of extension’s foundational principles, and is a simple, fun read. I carry it in my computer bag all the time. I present a copy of it to our new employees, and tell them I expect they will read it!”

At one time all the USDA CSREES workforce was provided a copy. When Rajiv Shah was REE under-secretary and chief scientist, he carried copies with him when travelling the world. Daryl learned of that when he received a call from Dennis Kopp, USDA – CSREES, asking if they could send more copies because Dr. Shah had given his last copy to a minister of agriculture in an African nation as they were talking about taking the research to the people and the need for extension.

Daryl said he finds it useful to reference with people asking about “the why or how of extension.” Much has changed, but many foundational elements of our ability to know and serve the people have not changed, and T.J. Talbert captured those principles so well in his description of how to be successful as an extension professional. It’s a great reminder and refresher from time to time, simply thumbing through the topical headings and then reading a paragraph or two.

While there are great sections throughout, Daryl and I recommend our favorite sections which start on page 15: Have a Vision, Keep Your Eye on the Big Things, Do the Things Which Will Count, and Finish What You Start. Great advice for all extension professionals in being successful in our work. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. The Extension Worker’s Code is available online from K-State Research and Extension.

Becoming Less Wrong

The other day I was working on figuring out how to reorganize the kitchen at home. This is an ongoing effort because there are now small appliances in my house which apparently, the original designer never foresaw when the kitchen was designed. Like the Keurig coffee machine, which doesn’t quite fit under the cabinet. Or the major duty blender which makes smoothies but is not like the old blender we used to have. I will admit, there are a few items in the drawer in my kitchen that are a bit of a mystery to me, like the ice sphere mold my son bought me and the remote grill thermometer my brother sent last Christmas. In other words, my kitchen has gotten somewhat complex.

Some things are complicated. Other things are complex. For example, airplanes are complicated. But air traffic control is complex. The more complex something is, the more information it takes even just to describe it. To manage complexity effectively, we have to account for that which is beyond our understanding. Complexity tends to yield what many call “wicked problems”- those predicaments that cannot be definitively resolved and attempts to fix them often generate more trouble. Wicked problems emerge when we have uncertain data, multiple value conflicts, economic constraints, ambiguity, resistance to change, limited time, no central authority, or no clear answer.

Business consultant Greg Satell says that instead of assuming we can find all the right answers to complex problems, we should strive to become less wrong over time. That means shifting from finding solutions to improving our problem-solving abilities. We have to think through problems to figure out whether we’re even applying the right type of solution.

The truth is there are few problems left which have easy and simple solutions. To break down complexity, we need to stay focused on our priorities. We have to keep our principles in mind. We have to ensure that people understand their roles and purpose, because it’s easier to innovate when you know where the  boundaries are, and we have to be comfortable with the ongoing experimentation. We may have to partner with others who have expertise we don’t have. We may have to operate in fiscal situations we did not foresee and evaluate opportunities that are uncertain. We have to be ready to take responsibility for that which we cannot control. In Extension and Outreach we can solve some problems. We can strive daily to become less wrong. See you there.

— Cathann

Fair Winds and Following Seas

This week found me attending the naming ceremony for the fifth USS Iowa. It will be one of the Navy’s newest Virginia Class attack submarines. As someone who came here from the Pentagon, with two Air Force veteran parents, and a brother who was a career submariner in the Navy, these moments mean a lot to me.

I’ve mentioned a few times the important role Iowa has played in our nation and the world with our forward-thinking people. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reminded me that ships bearing our state name also are similarly distinguished. The previous USS Iowa BB-61 was known as the Battleship of Presidents and carried Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic to meet with Prime Minister Churchill and Josef Stalin. The first Iowa was a gunboat dating back to 1864. The second Iowa fired the first shot at Santiago Bay in the Spanish-American War.

Last Saturday, I was up in Forest City for Operation LZ to officially welcome back Iowa’s Vietnam and Vietnam era veterans and thank them. I learned about the distinguished service of some of Iowa’s veterans and their selflessness. Iowans have a long history of showing up, serving others, and being pretty humble about it. That’s certainly what I find with my colleagues and partners with Extension and Outreach, too.

As summer fair and field day season winds down and fall programs gear up, it may be easy to feel overwhelmed with all we have to do. Maybe it’s the nature of extension work, or maybe it’s our desire to give our all to help Iowans. I understand that, but I also know that along with meeting the needs of Iowans, we have to take care of ourselves. Vietnam veteran and POW Larry Spencer, speaking at Operation LZ, said that when you get down, remember if there’s a doorknob on your side of the door, it’s a good day. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

This Is the Work

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.

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