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.

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.

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

Strength to Your Sword Arms

Earlier in my career, I had the good fortune to work with a mentor who had a long and distinguished extension career. He frequently reminded me that our work is a social enterprise, meaning we seek to achieve our educational goals through social, cultural, community, economic, or environmental outcomes. An equally important component of social enterprise is the involvement of the marginalized, thus creating capacity and self-sufficiency for individuals, and impacting their communities.

I was reminded of this the other night, as our north central region leadership gathered in Fargo, ND, and heard a recounting of our history leading up to the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. I was struck by the energetic personalities and the passion of ideas that shaped our early history. I’m also impressed that they persisted and didn’t get mired in the “what” and “how” and forget to turn it into action. As part of our discussions, there was some reflection on the role Extension has had in supporting our democracy. I perked up at that point, and I hope you do as well, because as we’ve rolled along for 100 and some years, we may sometimes get comfortable and forget that our work isn’t just for those who already know us and love our programs — it’s about trying to be in the shoes of any of our citizens and trying to engage them with the resources of our university.

This is where leadership comes into play; not just any leadership, but transformational leadership – the kind of stuff that moves a collection of ideas to significance. This type of leadership is hard. It is partly fueled by the “what” and “how,” but there’s the ingredient that kicks leadership up, that goes beyond its single components: and that’s the “why.”

My mentor used to remind me of this concept and would point out that the why was truly our strength in Extension – our sword arm, if you will. The why is what unites all of us. It’s what we all found so easy to agree upon at our Leadership Summit and again at this year’s annual conference.  (Take another look at the annual conference report.) There is ample evidence demonstrating that all it takes is the joint effort of a group of passionate people to create momentum for the future. Strength to your sword arms. See you there.

— Cathann

Weaker for the Kindness

Well, campus is full again with students and I noted parents hovering around some of them. You’ve probably heard the term “helicopter parent” used for parents who watch over their child’s every move, guiding everything they do and protecting them from all potential dangers. I have a confession to make. When I was a kid, I played on the monkey bars, I rode my bike without a helmet, and my softball team not only didn’t win, we didn’t get stickers for showing up. And yes, it’s true – my group of friends and I trick-or-treated without supervision on the streets of Kalona.

It’s not that our world became much more dangerous in the last 30 years, but we’ve become more aware of the dangers, which resulted in fears about letting children become independent. Here’s the thing: these parents mean well – they want what’s best for their children – but they may be doing more harm than good. My grandmother used to say that doing too much for other people and not letting them learn to do things on their own was ensuring they would be weaker for the kindness.

I read a Forbes article describing parenting behaviors that keep children from becoming leaders. The author referenced Dr. Tim Elmore, an expert on developing emerging leaders. Elmore says children will have a hard time becoming leaders if we don’t let them experience risk or if we rescue them too quickly. He says kids can’t learn to lead if we rave about them too easily or reward them regardless of their performance, if we let our own guilt get in the way, or if we don’t share our own mistakes. If our kids are intelligent or gifted, we may assume they also are mature. But most of all, if we don’t act as the example, who will our kids follow?

I find myself wondering whether these concepts extend to Extension and Outreach as well. Do we hover like helicopter parents, trying to save each other, our partners, and our clients from risk, or do we help others take calculated risks? Do we work through frustrations or try to simply minimize them? Are we willing to experiment, to learn from and share our mistakes, to be the example we want others to follow? Do we allow others to grow out of their comfort zones? Essentially, if we treat them as fragile, our partnerships and staff become fragile. If we encourage resilience and reward perseverance, we just might get it. See you there.

— Cathann

One Thing Leads to Another …

You know how easy it is for one project to grow into another … and another … and another?

Maybe you start by thinking you need to mow the lawn, then you notice the garden needs weeding, the roses need pruning, maybe you need a new plant for that empty space, and before you know it you’ve overhauled the backyard (or at least it feels like it).  Sometimes these chains of events lead to great things and that’s certainly the case when you combine Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with the World Food Prize – you get the Iowa Youth Institute.

The first Iowa Youth Institute is set for April 30 at Iowa State University and gives Iowa high school youth the opportunity to take action in the global fight against hunger. Interested youth researched a global issue and wrote a five-page paper under the supervision of a teacher mentor.  Students with the top-ranked papers have been invited to participate in the institute. Once on campus, they will

  • present their research and recommendations;
  • share ideas with other Iowa students;
  • interact with global leaders in science, industry, and policy;
  • participate in educational sessions and interactive tours at Iowa State to explore current research and issues in international development and life sciences; and
  • meet innovative researchers, professors, and college students working to end hunger and poverty and improve world food security.

During the Iowa Youth Institute, 80 exceptional students will be competitively selected to represent the state of Iowa as delegates at the Global Youth Institute in Des Moines on Oct. 18-20. They will join more than 250 other outstanding high school students and teachers from across the country and around the world to interact with Nobel and World Food Prize Laureates and global leaders from 75 countries attending the World Food Prize’s annual international symposium. By participating in the Global Youth Institute, the students are eligible to apply for a Borlaug-Ruan International Internship or USDA Wallace-Carver Internship.

All the students who will participate in the Iowa Youth Institute are demonstrating that with planning, hard work, and determination, one good thing will lead to another. First, they’ve done their homework and prepared for the institute. But further, what they gain from this experience just may put them on the path to ending world hunger.

One thing leads to another — in a positive sense — also is true for ISU Extension and Outreach. One thing leads to another when we anticipate emerging issues and trends— partnering and providing resources, research, and education to assist Iowans. The very much intended result is significant impact throughout the state. See you there.

— Cathann

Crack the Whip

Saturday nights, when I was 13, meant the Skating Rink — the Wellman Skating Rink, located along Highway 22. Maple floor. Concessions. Big fuzzy pom-poms on your laces. And the games: “The Limbo” or “Mother, May I?” and best of all, “Crack the Whip.”

You remember Crack the Whip. Any number can play. Someone gets to be the leader. Other skaters form a line by the leader and hold tightly to the person next to them. The leader skates along and veers suddenly in a new direction, or speeds up or slows down. Sometimes the leader goes in circles and others try to hold on. Very small changes from the leader get amplified along the line, until the person at the end loses balance or is catapulted into the wall.  And we thought that was fun…

This happens in organizations too. We each think changes we make are small, hardly worth mentioning. What we’re really talking about is the interdependence and interconnections among all of us, and how we foster them. It’s easy to lose sight of the impact out at the end of our line. So it’s not so much the leader’s vision, but rather, how it plays out all along the way. 

This point came home to me this week as we hosted the Office Professionals Conference here on campus.  We listened carefully to the needs in the counties, and how changes we are making may be impacting them.  There were great suggestions on improving communications, training, and programs.  We appreciated the enthusiasm and dedication we heard, in spite of the challenges.

We are counting on the interdependence and interconnections among all of us as we forge our future. We have the results from our leadership summit, the Administrative Response, we’re developing a business plan, and we recently released our Strategic Plan. We have our map for where we go from here. Now, we all need to consider how this map informs our work and get familiar with where we are headed, so we move forward together. 

Thank you for the hard work and consistent efforts over the past several months. We are building on a firm foundation as we continue the work of ISU Extension and Outreach. See you there.

— Cathann

No More Crash Landing

Sometimes leaders, and their followers, get confused.

In December 2011, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that thousands of Eared Grebes had crash-landed in Cedar City, Utah. During a storm the migrating birds seemed to have mistaken a rain-slicked Walmart parking lot for a lake. As reported in the Tribune, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources estimated that nearly 5,000 birds landed at Walmart. Grebes aren’t built for ground landings, but are designed for the water.  The impact left some birds dead, some injured, and some terribly confused.

Maybe no one in ISU Extension and Outreach has ever crashed into a Walmart parking lot, but chances are, we’ve all been confused a time or two. It’s not hard to get mixed up when leadership decisions seem unclear, processes appear random, or basic principles are uncertain.

However, our leadership summit in November marked the start of our new way of doing business in ISU Extension and Outreach.

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

We agreed that these fundamental principles would guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities across our programs. That’s why we will be making strategic changes to streamline ISU Extension and Outreach Administration into four functional units to better support our overall mission:

County Services and Outreach. This unit will support county-based efforts and extension councils, build partnerships, and coordinate program implementation across the state and at the local level. This unit also will better align us with our ISU academic counterparts; ISU provides student services and is student centered, while Extension and Outreach provides county services and is citizen centered.

Program Leadership. Headed by our program directors, this unit will guide our efforts in educational program development.

Operations. This unit will focus on human resources, finance, and business activities; setting up practices, procedures, and processes that are clear and establish how to access resources or assistance.

Organizational Advancement. This unit will keep us on track with our mission, developing our people; communicating our efforts to partners, stakeholders, and others; coordinating fundraising and philanthropy; and advancing Iowa State and Extension and Outreach.

The Administrative Response to our leadership summit will include more information about the roles and responsibilities of these units and other actions we will be taking to clarify processes and decisions. This structure, along with our business plan and strategic plan, will move us forward on our path to becoming a relevant, vibrant organization, with a common mission and common principles. No more confusion, and no more crashes. See you there.

— Cathann

Liberty Hyde Bailey

“Whenever a piece of work comes to the point where maintenance of the organization is the principle aim, it begins then to lose its direction.”
— Liberty Hyde Bailey

That bit of advice is from “America’s father of modern horticulture.” Liberty Hyde Bailey began the first department of horticulture in the United States — at Michigan State — and later helped establish a State College of Agriculture at Cornell. Bailey also was a pioneer in extension work, playing a key role in formalizing extension across the United States.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt named Bailey chair of the newly appointed Commission on Country Life. The country life movement, as Bailey described it, focused on “the desire to make rural civilization as effective and satisfying as other civilization.” The Commission gathered data from public hearings and other meetings throughout the country and more than half a million questionnaires. The Commission’s report offered three recommendations: a campaign for rural progress; continuing fact-finding surveys (which fostered the development of agricultural economics and rural sociology in universities and the federal government); and a nationalized extension service, which became law with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914.

The Commission on Country Life lasted six months — from initial appointment in August 1908 to the final report that Roosevelt presented to Congress in February 1909. But think about what it accomplished! The Commission wasn’t concerned about its own maintenance; it was focused on the work it needed to do.

Five weeks from now, we’ll be coming together for our ISU Extension and Outreach leadership summit. This is the time to focus on big ideas. It’s time to focus on our mission and explore partnerships we could build, learning opportunities we could create, and the structures that would be most efficient to best serve Iowans and our institution in the years ahead. Liberty Hyde Bailey and the Commission on Country Life envisioned an extension service that connected people with land-grant colleges to take advantage of everything research-based knowledge had to offer.  We can reclaim that vision. See you there.


Subscribe to “See You There”

Enter your email address: