A Gift through Time

Cathann Kress touring USS IowaI recently spent some time out on the west coast with national meetings and conferences. Those of you who know my appreciation for history won’t be surprised to learn that I made a point of touring the USS Iowa, now permanently located in Long Beach as a museum. It’s impressive and I couldn’t help but ponder that I was standing where incredible leaders like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once stood. The USS Iowa was known as the Battleship of Presidents because NO other battleship in our nation’s history has been host to more U.S. Presidents than the IOWA. Her other accolades include designation as the “World’s Greatest Naval Ship” due to her big guns, heavy armor, fast speed, longevity and modernization. She kept pace with technology for more than 50 years.

As part of the tour, I read an essay by Professor James Sefton of California State University on why the Battleship Iowa museum matters. In it, Professor Sefton argues that one of the most important elements of education is continuity and the way we learn how we are related to earlier generations. This reflection helps us begin to understand how their decisions and actions affect ours and helps us contemplate what we have done with their legacy.

Professor Sefton (and I’ll forgive him for this, since he’s a history professor) also argues that history is the most important vehicle for securing continuity and enables us to educate ourselves and secure our heritage for the future. Here’s where I respectfully disagree: History is not the most important vehicle, relationships are. History is the collective story of people and their relationships, that’s why I find it so fascinating.

Of course, this made me think about our collective work — our decisions and actions and what our legacy will be that future generations of Iowans will experience. I regularly think about a future Vice President for Extension and Outreach (someday way in the future) and hope that my decisions and actions today will make his or her job easier and more productive. A legacy is essentially a gift handed through time from the past to the future. It’s a vision, a hope, and a commitment rolled up into a series of actions and decisions and delivered years later. Those sailors serving aboard this battleship had a vision of a strong IOWA. So do we. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Plan for Friction

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but friction plays a pretty big role in our lives –both positive and negative. Friction is part of what makes it hard to get my bike up the next hill (take note those of you planning to ride RAGBRAI), but it’s also what makes it possible to stop my bike before the railroad tracks. While we can reduce or minimize friction, it’s always present.

So it’s not surprising that when engineers design engines they plan for friction. They know that when an engine runs, unexpected stuff will happen. Determining the exact cause of the problem can be complicated. Seasoned mechanics often will combine computerized diagnostics with their own knowledge and experience to figure out the issue. It’s just part of the design process. There’s no drama involved. We could learn from that approach.

When stuff happens in life, things get more complex. Friction in human relationships or endeavors is more difficult to understand. Maybe we don’t like drama, but most of us will respond in similar ways. Often, we increase complexity even more by seeking more information and conducting more analyses. That’s not all bad, but it can spiral into levels of complexity, including organizational complexity — more meetings, decision delays, and specialized teams. We add layers of policy and processes intended to address the complexity, but it could make it worse. Essentially, we replace clarity with detail. As a result, activity increases and so does confusion. At the same time, trust decreases and so does effectiveness. It’s hard to stay focused on staying clear and focused when your legs feel like lead weights from trying to pump up that last hill.

Just because we encounter friction doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction or need to abandon the project. We rarely will have the ideal conditions we might wish for. Stuff will happen, so plan for friction. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Sustaining the Future

Coalitions, partnerships, and collaborations are built one relationship at a time. It may be relatively easy to bring a number of people and groups together around an issue. However, getting them to stay and work together is another matter — even though there is good evidence that people working together are better off and more successful than people working alone. They’ll have more ideas, develop more capacity to get things done, and feed off one another’s energy to keep the effort moving. If it’s possible, concerted action is almost always more effective in the long run than one person or organization going it alone.

To that end, we have started our Partnership Perspectives meetings around the state to bring together small groups of key partners to learn more about our positioning and collaboration with programs. Invitees include mayors, city council members, community college presidents, AEA directors, hospital foundation directors, Farm Bureau regional directors, chamber of commerce directors, extension council members, and other leaders. We are discussing their past involvement with ISU Extension and Outreach, as well as gathering their ideas on future opportunities to partner and further mutual goals.

The case for partnership in community-based education is compelling. The challenges facing communities across Iowa are such that solutions must be found and scaled up. Many of us must respond to increasingly complex challenges, usually with restricted budgets, so finding ways we can maximize impacts by leveraging the extraordinary problem-solving abilities of partners, and the reach and the complementary resources partnership can bring, is critical.

It’s worth noting that partnerships don’t just happen. Clear management allows partnerships to flourish and partners can focus on programs rather than the details and processes. We also should ask ourselves how well our organizational culture supports our ability to sustain effective partnerships. According to Katie Fry Hester, a senior associate with The Partnering Initiative:

Organizations that have historically operated using transactional relationships find it hard to relinquish control and are resistant to change; especially without the stimulus of a high profile success or failure. For others, while ‘humility isn’t the natural currency of most big organizations, there is a genuine recognition that the organization can’t go it alone.’ The research identified a number of key elements conducive to an effective partnering culture — humility, equity, transparency and adaptability.

It’s our relationships – among our staff and with our clients and partners – that make what we do worthwhile. Your efforts – small and large – touch and help many people. Staying focused on what sustains partnerships also sustains our communities, our organization, and our shared future. See you there.

— Cathann

It Really Is a Wonderful Life

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd Class

Like many of your families, this time of year one of my family’s traditions is to fill the chipped blue popcorn bowl, head to the couch, and watch classic holiday movies. Of course a favorite is the classic of all holiday classics, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You know the story: Clarence the guardian angel shows George Bailey how different his community would be if he had never been born. George learns that his relationships with the people of Bedford Falls are what really matter. Although his life didn’t turn out the way he planned, he realizes he has a wonderful life because of those relationships, and he has touched, and helped, many people. He has lived a life worth living.

Sometimes Extension and Outreach work doesn’t turn out the way we plan, either. But it’s our relationships – among our staff and with our clients and partners – that make what we do worthwhile. That’s why we’re focused on feeding people, keeping them healthy, helping their communities to prosper and thrive, and turning the world over to the next generation better than we found it. I thank each of you for everything you do to carry out the land-grant mission and serve the people of Iowa. Your efforts – small and large – touch and help many people. Especially at this time of year, may all of us remember that despite our challenges, it really is a wonderful life making a difference for Iowans. 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.

Taking Care of Our Future Self

“I am the designer of my own catastrophe.”

I don’t know the original source of that quote, but I like its basic truth. What we do, or don’t do, can indeed bring about catastrophic results — or at least a less than ideal outcome. Skip going to the dentist long enough and you’ll have a mouthful of cavities or worse. Don’t pay your parking fines and you’ll end up in court. Many catastrophes can be averted if we act wisely now to make things better for later.

Daniel Goldstein talks about this concept as the battle between a person’s present self and future self. Goldstein is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in New York City and an honorary research fellow at London Business School in the UK. He notes that every day we make decisions that have good or bad consequences for our future selves. He helps people imagine themselves over time so they make smart choices for their futureselves as they consider long-term finances, retirement, and other decisions. (See his Ted Talk.)

In Extension and Outreach, our present self was taking care of our future self when we gathered together for our leadership summit last fall. What we accomplished at that summit paved the way for our strategic plan, our business plan, and the reorganizing of our central administration — all actions that will help ensure our long-term viability and relevance to the people of Iowa.

Another way that today, we take care of our future is through our town hall meetings.  Terry Maloy and I hosted the first meeting in Ames on Aug. 27, and I am pleased to report that the discussion highlighted areas of focus in which we have been able to make an impact, and that our partners value their relationships with us.  It is always interesting to hear perspectives from our colleagues outside of Iowa State University who have appreciated participating in our programs or have ideas for new initiatives based on best practices. 

We have four more town hall meetings scheduled: Atlantic, Sept. 10; Storm Lake, Sept. 17; Oskaloosa, Sept. 18; and Waterloo, Sept. 19. Rather than designing our own catastrophe, these thoughtful conversations are allowing us to take care of our future. The insights we will gain will allow us to better fulfill our core purpose — helping Iowans make better decisions through educational programs. And Iowa State will become the university that best serves its state. See you there.

— Cathann

Building Relationships and Strengthening Communities

Monday was Memorial Day, recognized nationwide for great sales and bargains. At least that’s what all the advertising circulars would have us believe. Some people who had the day off, but who didn’t go shopping, may have thought of it only as the unofficial beginning of summer and grilling season.

My family still calls it Decoration Day, but Memorial Day was intended to remember those who died in service to our country. Many communities still have parades, celebrations, or service events to commemorate the day.  While I worked at the Pentagon, I attended national ceremonies at Arlington — a definite reminder of the service of so many.

I appreciate the time to reflect upon service. The community aspect resonates with me as well. Bringing people together for a common purpose builds relationships and strengthens communities.

When we carry out our land-grant mission, we build relationships and strengthen communities throughout Iowa. Iowa State’s new president, Steven Leath, wants the university to be fully engaged in moving our state forward. He calls himself “a land-grant guy” and he understands that through Extension and Outreach, Iowa State University is embedded in communities across Iowa to consistently engage with citizens. Let me share a few of his recent comments:

From Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, 3/2/12

“I started my career as an extension person in Illinois. I have great respect and understanding of extension.”

From the Des Moines Register, 4/12/12

“I think it’s going to be hard for Iowa as a state to really go forward economically and create the jobs Gov. Branstad wants if the university is not fully engaged.”

From the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 2/11/12

“I think land grants, more than any other university type in this country, get their mission right. They’re based on high-quality education, research to benefit society, and then translating that research to effective engagement.”

From ISU Alumni Association’s Visions Magazine, Spring 2012

“[Iowa State] has done a very, very good job of transferring its innovation and faculty scholarship outside the campus where it makes a difference in society.”

“And what it really translates to when you come right down to it, it’s about relationships. They have to trust me, they have to trust the university, they have to know we’re a good partner. They’re going to have to know we’re accountable, we’re transparent, and we’ll make good partners with them. And then you build those relationships over time, across the state with different constituencies, and that’s what will make us successful long term.”

See you there.

— Cathann

Look for the Sparkle

As we all await the report from our leadership summit, does anyone feel a little bit like those Sparkle cheerleaders we heard about — “a little excited, a little nervous … in a cheerleader way”? Capstone speaker Ginny Wilson-Peters shared the story of the Sparkle Effect and how some teens from Bettendorf, Iowa, started this student-run program that helps students across the country create cheerleading and dance teams that include students with disabilities. (See “Cheering for Acceptance.”) Sparkle Effect teams aren’t about perfection, but about connection — because “when everyone cheers, everyone wins.” 

That’s true for ISU Extension and Outreach, as well. Whether you participated in the summit or held down the fort at home and then heard about the summit from your colleagues, you have a role to play on the team. As Ginny said,

  • Start from where you are;
  • Follow your passion and the rest will come;
  • Create a vision, set goals, and push yourself to do things you don’t think are possible; and
  • Continually focus on building relationships.

It’s about taking responsibility. And as Ginny said, responsibility doesn’t mean pointing your finger at somebody else – it’s how we choose to respond. Each of us needs to look at the way things are. If I’m not happy with it, it’s my responsibility to change. If you’re not happy with it, it’s your responsibility to change. There is always a choice. What are you willing to do to create change? See you there.

— Cathann

Time for a Catalyst

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”
– George Bernard Shaw (British playwright, 1856-1950)

ISU Extension and Outreach is a catalyst — and this really is at the heart of what we should be doing. Because of our networks and unique connections, we often are aware of different opportunities. We also can connect people in ways that perhaps they never thought of being connected. Through this sharing, we may create unique relationships or new funding opportunities that possibly didn’t exist before. This ability to catalyze, to gain energy from people coming together in some unique ways, results in great benefits for the state of Iowa. With our networks and connections, we bring the right people together to move Iowa forward. We’re not just sharing apples; we’re sharing ideas. See you there.

— Cathann

Knowledge That Works

Well over a decade ago, the tagline for ISU Extension was Knowledge That Works. I was part of the committee that promoted it, and many of us felt that it identified the core of ISU Extension and what we brought to the citizens of Iowa. Then something called the Internet and the Food Network showed up.

The Internet and cable television were total game-changers for extension because they provided 24-hour immediate access to information to anyone who could figure out how to use them. Suddenly, all the questions that used to come to the local extension office started to be answered by “Ask Jeeves” and eventually, Google. Information about food became accessible around the clock and it was entertaining too. So, if everyone has access to similar kinds of information – what exactly is unique about what ISU Extension and Outreach has to offer? If we’re no longer operating within an “expert” model, what model do we use?

showing heifers at Story County Fair

Check out this photo for clues to what I think the answer is: That’s Jamie Flynn in the pink shirt, me, and Casey Allison at the Story County Fair. Jamie and Casey were kind enough to share their showmanship expertise with me in preparation for the State Fair. Clearly, I am not the expert in this situation. Marshall Ruble connected me with these young women, who were patient teachers.

ISU Extension and Outreach is people making connections with people and somehow changing for the better. Sometimes, extension educates citizens. Sometimes, citizens educate extension. The reason ISU Extension and Outreach can continue to be about knowledge long after that tagline is that we’re not just about information. We’re about people. That’s work that matters. See you there.

*Incidentally, the next day, Mary (the heifer I’m holding) was named Supreme Champion Breeding Heifer for the Story County Fair.  Congratulations to Jamie.


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