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.

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

On Our Watch

I have a terrific job. Not only do I represent ISU Extension and Outreach and all of our dedicated workforce, but as a person with an unquenchable sense of curiosity, I find myself in all kinds of situations and environments, from driving a half-million-dollar combine last fall (which blew me away with its technology) to observing cutting edge research that I can barely wrap my head around most of the time. I highly value these opportunities to learn about the latest discoveries and to apply that learning in ways that enhance our communities.

Recently I was talking about organizational culture with some industry partners and one of them handed me a little card. It unfolded into a slightly larger document entitled, “The Courage to Care.”

“I have the courage to care. Worn with a lion’s pride, it means those I work with will have my back, and I will have theirs. I pledge to shield myself and my team from harm. I will take action to keep them safe, by fixing an unsafe situation, addressing an unsafe behavior, or stopping the line. In turn, I will have the courage to accept the same actions from my coworkers, who care enough to correct my path. We wear this badge out of respect for each other and those who have gone before us. On my watch, we will all go home safe to our families every day.”

This pledge comes from Union Pacific. The company wanted to develop a culture of safety, a culture in which their people would have the opportunity to recognize that they were part of a team, all looking out for each other.

Creeds summarize core beliefs that drive thoughts and behaviors and define culture. Many groups use them to repeat their most highly cherished values. When I worked at the Pentagon, we recited our creed before meetings. We were a team serving the people of the United States of America and living the values of mission first, never quitting, never leaving a comrade, being a guardian of the American way of life, and defenders of the Constitution. That’s heady stuff, but creeds usually are.  They call us to our most cherished values, to our greatest ideals, to our better selves.

This spring we closed our annual conference by reciting our Extension Professional’s Creed. Our creed helps us frame the beliefs of our profession and the unique work of Extension. How do we implement these beliefs in our daily work? How do we challenge ourselves to keep changing to best represent our ideals?  Because yes, to live up to our creed, ongoing change is required. If our creed doesn’t guide our work — what does? What will we ensure for our colleagues, our institution, and our citizens on our watch? See you there.

— Cathann

Key Influencers

County Office Professionals were in town this week. I always enjoy the opportunity to learn more about how things are really going out in the counties – and there’s no one better than this group of key influencers for finding out a thing or two. Here’s what we talked about, what I learned, and what I know.

  • This is a very important group of individuals.
  • They represent us. They are the first face, the first voice, the helping hand, the kind gesture, the gentle reminder, the history, the changing culture, the “get it done,” the good idea.
  • They are eager to learn. We introduced them to the brand new Hansen Agricultural Learning Center, we provided professional development key to their daily work, we encouraged, and we listened.
  • I reminded them that they are key influencers and the guardians of our educational mission. They have the opportunity to inspire people to live up to their talents and do the best work of their lives – work they never imagined they could do – and THEY have that same opportunity. I encouraged them to reflect, to care, and to be confident.

Our office professionals are working for ISU Extension and Outreach for the same reasons we all are. We all want to make life better, all across the state. Here’s something to consider: think about what even one day would be like in your professional lives without them. There; that says it all.

I hope our county office professionals – and all our office professionals – feel appreciated. I know I appreciate them. Whatever your role for ISU Extension and Outreach, I want you to remember that today– and every day that follows, for the rest of your life – each day is an opportunity for you to make the world better. See you there.

— Cathann

Understanding the Elephant

This summer, I asked a number of our Extension and Outreach colleagues to answer a few questions:

  • What kind of organization do we want to be?
  • What do you think is our organization’s purpose?
  • What do we aspire to bring to the world?
  • What kind of a culture do you think we need within Extension and Outreach to accomplish that?
  • What will the organization look, feel, and sound like if we are embodying that mission and culture?
  • How should we measure success?

Yes, I know. Just a few light questions for a summer afternoon. However, they had a lot to say — a couple even included reading assignments for me. Extension people are always focused on helping others learn.

Overall they expressed a good amount of excitement about the future. However, I had several “aha” moments as I read their responses. They voiced a lot of agreement about who we are and what we do. That’s good news.  But they also noted tensions as we contemplate the future: trust vs. risk in the organization, the delicate balance of our research-base with local needs, delivering information vs. providing education, responding vs. being proactive, and being one-way information providers vs. working in partnership. Several comments addressed communications as well as our organizational complexity. I’ll be sharing more of their insights in future blogs and want to thank each of them for taking the time to thoughtfully respond.

Their responses reminded me of the fable about the blind men and the elephant. Together they all come upon an elephant, but each person encounters only one part. One person touches the trunk, another the tail, a tusk, a leg, and so on. Each person experiences only a fraction of the elephant with no concept of the entire animal. But as they share what they learned, they come to understand that the elephant is the collection of their experiences.

I’ve heard feedback that a few people still are confused about our vision and unclear where we are headed, so this year I plan to work harder to communicate about the kind of organization we want to be and the vision that we articulated at our Leadership Summit. Our renewed emphasis in professional development will give us an opportunity to consider our organizational culture and how we fulfill our vision. I also intend to stay focused on securing more resources, working with our leadership team to strategically address gaps, strengthening our evaluation processes and metrics so we can better report our impacts, and listening closely to our partners and constituents.

Seeing the “whole elephant” can be complicated in a complex organization such as ISU Extension and Outreach. But if we are willing to have patience, focus, and listen to each other, we will come to a clear understanding together. See you there.

— Cathann

The Shifting Divide

This morning when I opened the fridge to grab the milk, the tub of butter bounced off my head. As I attempted to shove it back on its shelf, I upset the bowl of grapes, and then what followed is best described as a major cascade failure. In other words, stuff spilled all over the inside of the fridge and out onto the floor. This happened because, well, we have been collecting stuff in the fridge for over a week and there is simply too much stuff in there. There’s a leftover pork chop, a container of fried rice, at least one dish of something no one remembers putting in there, assorted jars, tubs, bottles — and my favorite, the completely empty zip bag.  Clearly, we’re not adhering to the 4 Day Throw Away guidance (http://www.4daythrowaway.org/ ).

As we cleaned up, I thought about how in the past few days the contents of our fridge, which you would think would help in our food preparation, had actually slowed us down. We couldn’t find things. At least one of us admits she didn’t even want to open the door, because stuff might fall out; or we opened it and were overwhelmed by all that stuff in there. It got easier to not use the fridge or its contents at all and just go grab something to eat somewhere else.

On my drive to work, I considered an idea shared by church strategist Rich Birch about how there is a dividing line on a continuum between things that push a mission forward and things that slow a mission down. As leaders, we want to stay on the side of the line that pushes us forward; but the problem is, the world is constantly changing. In other words, where the dividing line sits can shift; and activities that used to push the mission forward now may actually slow the mission down. Just like all that Tupperware in my fridge.

This idea is unsettling. I don’t think it’s easy to stay aware of when the dividing line shifts. I don’t know when my fridge crossed over — from being full of useful items for making dinner to a science experiment — but now that we’re there, I know it happened. I believe it’s our job to anticipate where we are no longer effective and push to be ahead of changes, so we can best serve our state. This was one of the reasons we just wrapped up the five town hall meetings. We heard some affirmations: that our partners and constituents are excited about our focus on our signature issues, particularly in STEM education and economic development, and many of them feel more connected. We also heard some ongoing concerns, particularly related to the expectations on extension council members and how we maintain local connections. How do we make effective organizational change in the context of a world continually changing? Listening is a good start. See you there.

— Cathann

A Good Partner

I had the opportunity to introduce one of our partners, Tim Smith, of Hills Bank and Trust, to my regional colleagues when he gave the capnote address at the North Central Cooperative Extension Association Fall Conference in Ames on Sept. 7. Whenever I talk with Tim, what I find fascinating is his concept of engaging partners who share the same mission and building a relationship based on that, rather than an alliance of convenience or where there are unclear benefits to those involved.

I came across an article quoting Tim that appeared in “The Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers.” In the article he talked about the list of characteristics they look for in farmers with whom they can partner. I thought his points also made a really good list of things that we should be striving to embody as we seek partnerships with others. A good partner can access information and evaluate operations, is a good steward, is consumer oriented, sustainable, productive, and efficient. A good partner understands how to be interdependent and is ready and willing to deal with change, constantly seeking new opportunities and best practices.

In his capnote message, Tim said that the partnership between Hills Bank and Extension and Outreach works because both organizations share two basic ideas.  First, we both believe education provides an effective way to address today’s challenges and best prepare for the future; and second, we both have deep roots in our communities.  Community involvement allows the opportunity to build personal relationships. “You can always find something cheaper, but we want the relationship that goes along with it,” he said.

All in all, the Hills Bank and ISU Extension and Outreach partnership works because of both parties’ sincere interest in customer/client development, the willingness to invest resources, the commitment of time, communication, and trust — knowing the players and the ability to see from the other’s point of view. He says we share values and successes, as well as challenges. We have a shared clear mission.   Turns out the better we know ourselves, the better partner we can be. See you there.

— Cathann

Tim Smith - Cap Note speaker at NCCEA Conference from Iowa State University Extension.

The Greatest Results

It’s good to periodically scrutinize what you do to figure out if it’s worth doing. Over the years, extension work has been the subject of numerous studies ― nationally, at the state level, and in the counties.

Reasons for the studies vary: war, drought, surpluses, shortages, economic issues, social concerns. The studies addressed programs and methods; clientele, training, or financing; or the ever-changing environment in which we operate. But whatever the study, whatever the reason, it led to a similar outcome ― perhaps best stated in the 1948 national study of extension, known as the Kepner Report:

“whereas extension has done much for people, it is what extension has helped people do for themselves that achieves the greatest results.” (See Journal of Extension, http://www.joe.org/joe/1984september/a1.php)

This summer, we began celebrating county centennials in the first five counties that organized for extension work and hired the first extension agents. One of these was the first county home economist hired in Black Hawk County, Tura Hawk, who had to be proficient in many areas. With a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State Teachers College and two master’s degrees from Iowa State College, she was well prepared, and in her first three months created interest in sanitation, convenient kitchens, food conservation, and clean and pure milk. She also started 4-H club work, mostly in sewing. According to county records, she demonstrated to the county board that she could even shoe a horse. I’m grateful that while I was out celebrating last week, Extension Council members didn’t require my demonstration of that particular proficiency.

These centennial celebrations are honoring extension professionals past and present, not just for what they’ve done (and they’ve done great things), but for what they helped citizens to accomplish.

The Extension Professionals Creed says it best: we believe in people’s “right to make their own plans and arrive at their own decisions; in their ability and power to enlarge their lives and plan for the happiness of those they love.”

This idea was affirmed this past year as we articulated our guiding principles and our core purpose. And it’s exemplified in stories such as the work of Joe Cordray in our meat science extension program that Meat & Poultry magazine has ranked first in the nation. “Perhaps nowhere is the commitment to keeping industry managers more informed about food processing and food safety technologies more evident than at Iowa State University,” said the editors in the citation. Joe conducts workshops on meat processing skills and safety for small processors in Iowa and the nation. He also develops and delivers training programs for some of the nation’s largest processors: West Liberty Foods and Smithfield. West Liberty Foods is an Iowa farmer-owned cooperative that, because of its food safety program and performance, is the major supplier of sliced meats for Subway. As part of Smithfield training, employee-developed plans have saved the company several million dollars annually.

We truly are people advancing people, putting university research into action.

What ISU Extension and Outreach helps people do for themselves achieves the greatest results. See you there.


Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

Today marks one year that I’ve served as Vice President for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University, and I want to thank everyone who helped orient me, who supported my efforts, who challenged my ideas, or who commiserated with me when things sometimes didn’t go exactly as planned.

Together, we did some important work this year, not the least of which was articulating our fundamental principles and core values which position us well for the future.  As I reflected on the past year, three words summed it up in my mind: focus, visibility, partnerships.  I asked a few colleagues what they thought was different in ISU Extension and Outreach after this year, and I’d like to share their responses:

Iowa Beef Center Director Dan Loy says, “One year ago, many of us in Extension were still licking our wounds from budget cuts and reorganization. What we needed to get us on our feet and moving forward was a more common purpose and direction, and that is what we found. New leadership, a name change, an organizational summit that helped us focus on partnerships and research-based education, together have brought us focus as well as visibility to our efforts. On campus this improved visibility is helping solidify the importance of extension to the land-grant mission. With visibility comes accountability, but we are up to the task.”

Joyce Schoulte, president of the Clayton County Extension Council, says, “As an attendee at the summit last fall, I felt that we, out here in the county, are not only having a voice, but are being listened to. I was hesitant to attend the summit because of past experience. I am so glad that I went and that my voice was heard. It seems to me that IACEC has been given a more important role as well. There seems to be more interaction between all facets of ISU Extension and Outreach. Bottom line: I feel that we are being listened to when we have questions to ask and ideas to share.”

Dean Luis Rico-Gutierrez of the College of Design says, “ISU Extension and Outreach has become, in a very short period of time, an indispensable partner for many of our activities in the College of Design. Through innovative affiliations like ours, Iowa State University has become a more effective partner with communities, organizations, and industries, involving people directly in identifying and implementing solutions that fit their aspirations, dreams, and needs. Our work together highlights a renewed commitment to ‘extend’ the reach of the nation’s knowledge infrastructure — our land-grant institutions — to improve the quality of life in our state, the nation, and the world.”

Andrea Nelson, office manager in Polk County, says, “I think the message we’ve been embracing in conferences, blogs, emails, and webcasts in the past year is, it doesn’t matter if you’re county or state paid, field or campus based — we’re all in this together on the same team…I think we’re working on improving ourselves and ultimately a better job at fulfilling our mission.”

Region 3 Director Gary Hall says, “ISU Extension and Outreach today compared with a year ago has been marked with an increase in leadership and vision. Yes, there are many differences to point out, but the overall change would be that a new driver has gotten behind the wheel of this vehicle we call Extension and Outreach, and she is skillfully navigating her way down the roads of partnerships, campus relations, county engagement, and staff development.”

Gary’s vehicular reference reminded me of the advertising campaign, “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” In the late 1980s, Oldsmobile began using this slogan to try to appeal to a younger demographic. The trouble was, the slogan had no substance. Oldsmobile didn’t change; it was still your father’s car. The slogan couldn’t save the company, and Oldsmobile went out of business.

Whether you’re selling cars or providing access to education, you have to offer what customers want. That means you have to be willing to change what you do  — not just how you talk about yourself — so you’re better equipped to meet needs.  President Leath has said that he wants Iowa State to become the university that best serves its state. Extension and Outreach plays a key role in the university achieving this goal.

Program specialist Karen Lathrop says, “It is much easier to define what we do well, and it is now clear why we must say no to opportunities that don’t fit into our vision and mission. This frees up the extension professionals to focus on the relationships and things that matter most, so that we can make an impact in our communities with our clients… I feel Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is on the right path and on the cusp of something really big.”

See you there.

— Cathann

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