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.

The Secret Sauce

Kelsy Reynaga is a junior at Iowa State, recently selected to be a national Project YES! (Youth Extension Service) Intern, a program I helped start at the Department of Defense. While I’m proud of being there at its beginning, I’m even prouder that the talented educators I turned it over to have created an educational experience that greatly benefits the interns, the military families, and extension. Kelsy wrote me recently about starting this new internship and had a number of tough questions she wanted to ask, most without easy answers. Since Kelsy will likely expect some wisdom when we meet, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on her questions.

What drives me? As I begin my fourth year as vice president for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University, I find our work of creating access to education to be incredibly meaningful. I feel an obligation to extension’s early educational pioneers to rise to their level and create educational opportunities and solutions for the future. I am regularly delighted by the dedication, creativity, and talent of the people I get to work with, and I want to leave things better than I found them.

Is this the path I envisioned for my future? Um. No. I’m not good enough at predicting the future, or understanding what opportunities might come up. Instead, I’ve learned to be ready and open and willing to leap.

So, is it possible to accomplish everything you want to do? Not alone. Not in a direct line. Not in the way you thought it would happen. Not as quickly as you might hope. Accomplishing things really depends on understanding the fundamental conditions that support accomplishment.  At the most basic level, there are only a few things one needs for accomplishment to thrive: Vision. Resources. An action plan. But the real secret sauce to getting things done is nurturing talented colleagues, making it easier for them to do their work, and recognizing and rewarding their efforts. In other words, our ability to strengthen Extension and Outreach lies in improving the conditions that shape our organizational culture.

As I thought about what to say to Kelsy, I realized I don’t really think so much about “accomplishing stuff” anymore — instead, I think about trying to create the conditions for good things to happen. See you there.

— Cathann

Report Card Time

Cathann and friends at ISU graduationSelfie taken at ISU Spring Commencement – President of the Senior Class Ben Zelle, Associate VP for Student Affairs Martino Harmon, Provost Jonathan Wickert, Dean of the Graduate College David Holger, Senior VP for Student Affairs Tom Hill, VPEO Cathann Kress, and Dean of Students Pamela Anthony.

I always enjoy graduation season. As usual, Iowa State’s commencement was a fine occasion of pomp and circumstance, as well as tweets and selfies and unfettered happiness as our students became graduates and alumni of our land-grant university. Hilton Coliseum was filled with young people in their caps and gowns, triumphantly walking across the stage and out into the world. (There were a few not-so-young people there, too, as this selfie attests.) Similar scenes have been playing out in high school auditoriums and gymnasiums throughout the state in recent weeks, with so many of our young people moving on to the next stage of their lives. But even the younger students, who may have a long way to go before their graduations, are filled with anticipation at this time of year as they await their report cards.

Report card time, for many of us, was a time of wonder, as in, I wonder what grade I’ll get in math class. Did that last English paper make the difference? Was that chemistry final good enough to land a passing grade for the semester?

We’ve all had our performance reviews so we know how well we did individually this past year. But how did we do as a group? What does Extension and Outreach’s report card look like? Let’s take a look at some of the things we said we’d do.

  • Update and finalize the ISU Extension and Outreach Strategic Plan: Done
  • Streamline ISU Extension and Outreach Administration into functional units responsible for key actions: Done
  • Develop and support systems to improve internal communications, coordination, and collaboration: Underway
  • Complete our business plan: Underway
  • Invest in meaningful partnerships: Underway
  • Refine a system to collectively identify emerging and current needs: Done, and sharing
  • Develop and support a structure to sustain professional development: Launching

We set these goals at our leadership summit, and we’ve made substantial progress in the last two and a half years. Yes, there’s more we can do. That’s why we began examining our organizational culture during our 2014 annual conference, so we can better align our behaviors with our values and vision. The conference report, with action steps based on our facilitated discussions and our post-conference evaluations, will be released next week.

We are a learning organization, with shared values and a collective history of making a difference for Iowans. Together we try new ideas and approaches, we get our report card, and we learn from our experiences. See you there.

— Cathann

Let Freedom Rock

freedom-rockLast week I had the opportunity to visit southwest Iowa, specifically, our ISU Extension and Outreach Region 18. My trip included tours of Owner Revolution Inc. (a plastics manufacturing company that works with our partner CIRAS), a wind turbine, and the Warren Cultural Center and Adair County Extension office. I also had a great conversation with ISU Extension and Outreach staff about our organizational culture, outcomes from our recent annual conference, and where we’re headed as an organization.

I always appreciate the opportunity to stay in touch with our partners and the work our staff, faculty, and specialists do throughout the state. But this visit also was inspiring, because along the way I met an individual who in his own way is making a difference for Iowans. Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II painted Iowa’s original Freedom Rock, a 12-foot-tall boulder located along Iowa Highway 25 about a mile south of exit 86 on Interstate 80. He repaints it every year, just in time for Memorial Day. It’s his way of thanking U.S. veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice for our nation. He doesn’t get paid and he doesn’t receive a commission to do it. He just does it, with his own funds, donations, and sales of Freedom Rock merchandise. Last year he began The Freedom Rock Tour, with the goal of painting a patriotic-themed rock in every Iowa county.

My family still calls it Decoration Day, but Memorial Day was intended to remember those who died in service to our country. I think of it as a day to reflect upon service, and Ray’s artwork provides a powerful visual of what service can entail. While I worked at the Pentagon, I attended national ceremonies at Arlington — a definite reminder of the service of so many. Next week many communities will be having parades, celebrations, or service events to commemorate the day. There are many kinds of service and at its best, it’s action necessary for communities to thrive and prosper.

Whether you celebrate with marching bands and 21-gun salutes, or let freedom “rock” in quiet contemplation by a painted stone, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on service and how critical it is for freedom. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Special thanks to Deena Wells, Adair County office assistant, for taking this photo.

Extension and Outreach Can Be Gloriously Messy

One of the many joys of my job is the breadth of people I get the opportunity to interact with on a regular basis.  Yesterday for example, I was at a meeting with the Lt. Governor and heard fifth graders explaining their STEM project on habitats for small creatures.  There were frogs and millipedes involved in the demonstration.  A few weeks ago, I was meeting with winery owners and hearing their challenges with Iowa’s temperature extremes.  NOTE:  Wine was not  part of that demonstration.  And this morning, I was in a meeting with some physics professors as they attempted to “dumb down” the latest thinking on a coherent theory of the universe so I could grasp it.  I go home with my mind blown a lot.

That last one, though, is worth pondering. It used to be that physicists believed that they would one day uncover a coherent theory of how the entire universe holds together and works.  Now, the thinking is — maybe not.  Marcelo Gleiser at Dartmouth College argues against the likelihood of a unifying theory to explain the origins of the universe and our place in it.  In fact, according to Gleiser, the latest evidence reveals not only that there are imperfections in the fabric of the universe — they are the driving, creative forces behind its very existence. The universe, it turns out, is not elegant. It is gloriously messy.

I loved that idea when I heard it — and I saw Extension and Outreach as one small microcosm in that universe. The beauty of Extension and Outreach is that it IS kind of gloriously messy, and that’s where creativity happens. There isn’t one formula, or one way to organize, or one easy-to-follow blueprint that explains Extension and Outreach or predicts success in programming.  Our diverse partners and their ideas are wide-ranging and we want them engaged with us.  They often have different ideas about what they want, sometimes even contradictory.  This messiness gives us permission to experiment and be innovative. There likely will be more messiness this year as we take a closer look at our organizational culture and the direction we want Extension and Outreach to take moving forward.

To that end, all faculty, staff, and council members are welcome to participate in the 2014 Extension and Outreach Annual Conference. You’ll learn about our organizational culture, project and budget management, and putting new technology to work for programming — skills to help you navigate in this wonderful, organized chaos of Extension and Outreach.

It takes really dedicated people to do Extension and Outreach work. You have to be willing to experiment, to try different approaches, to live with ambiguity and imperfection. Sometimes our ideas work — sometimes even better than we thought they would. But sometimes they don’t work or don’t fit what our partner wanted and we have to start over and that’s part of the process. We are a learning organization. An important part of how we operate is that we try things, we learn from the experience, and we go on. Our 2014 annual conference will help us move Extension and Outreach forward. Here’s to embracing our gloriousness. See you there.

— Cathann

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