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.

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.

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.

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.

Getting to “Could”

Life in the fast lane sometimes can lead to operating on automatic pilot. I recently read an article about a work team in a large organization that was so caught up in doing what had to be done, that they never focused on what could be done. They were tired and burned out, so much so that complacency had become the new normal.

To get them out of this rut, their team leader started giving low-cost prizes for random deviant behavior; in other words, rewarding team members when they would deviate from their complacency and try something new. In fact, any member of the team could award a prize to any other member. Simply acknowledging that someone did something differently, didn’t ask permission, or broke a norm in search of better results ignited the team’s creative sparks — and actually led to better results overall. It’s an example of disruptive leadership that leads to innovation.

Disruptive leadership and the innovation that can stem from it often conflicts with “the way we’ve always done it” in an organization. However, it’s the type of change that can lead to transformation, when it causes us to go after new audiences or new methods.

Because there is so much to do in Extension and Outreach, we also can get caught up in doing what has to be done. We may not need cheap prizes, but a dose of disruptive leadership would do us all some good. We can challenge each other to move from what has to be done so we can get to what could be done. See you there.

— Cathann

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

The article I reference can be found here:

Pick Up the Can

When you’re a kid, kicking the can down the road means just that: When you’re out walking, you stop and kick the can that’s lying in the road in front of you. Then you continue walking until you reach the can and you kick it again. It’s a way to while away some time when walking down a country road.

When we’re talking about leadership, kicking the can down the road is delaying a decision in hopes that the problem or issue will go away or somebody else will make the decision later. We avoid really dealing with the issue and finding the longer-term solution, because it’s often messy, difficult, or expensive. It’s a habit that, once started, can be awfully hard to break and yet, in the long run, it does little to serve the organization. While “kicking the can down the road” might allow us to solve the immediate problem or at least alleviate it, we are creating a new problem that likely will be inherited by those who follow in our footsteps, because our organization will get to the can again. And by then, the situation may be worse.

Our extension councils and Iowa State picked up the can when we renegotiated the Memorandum of Understanding and had the tough discussions about how we wanted to work together to be a stronger organization. Our program areas have been picking up the can as they consider how to focus and prioritize programs and determine outcomes.  I like to envision the person who will occupy my seat when I’m gone, and I consider what issues I should deal with to make it easier for him or her to fully live our mission.  All of us need to be willing to take on the issues and address them so that future leaders can move on to other opportunities and challenges, and not just react to the ones we delayed. Let’s keep thinking about how to pick up the can. See you there.

— Cathann

Uncharted Territory

If you’ve ever watched Star Trek in any of its television or movie versions, then you know the captain and crew had one key mission: to boldly go where no one had gone before. That also holds true for Extension and Outreach. We are bound by our charter to explore what’s out there – to engage and discover – without knowing if we have the research, ideas, answers, or resources to fully address a particular need or issue. This has always been the case with Extension and Outreach. But now, for some reason, we think there should be a blueprint for the future, and if we just crunched the data, got the grant, or hired the right team, everything would go smoothly. However, we can’t control the experience of Extension and Outreach any more than we can control the experience of democracy. It’s full of interruptions, distractions, red herrings, serendipity, and glorious messiness.

The essence of Extension and Outreach is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it’s effective with a lot of participation from our clients and partners, and sometimes not as much as we had hoped. Trying to tie up the loose ends or clinging to what worked well in the past would surely kill Extension and Outreach, because those types of approaches reject the basic experience of extension work, which exists in the ongoing interaction of data, ideas, and people.

What I would offer is to embrace the experience. Thinking we can find the one solution for the future or that we can maintain exactly as we were in the past is futile. Just as our early educational pioneers did more than 100 years ago, we must step into the uncharted territory and accept the tension of creating as we go, co-creating with others, even those whose voices make us uncomfortable or rankle us. If we accept the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of Extension and Outreach, we increase our capacity to be effective, to evolve, to develop opportunities, and to fully express the vision and mission first articulated by our pioneers.  Go boldly. See you there.

— Cathann

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