Legacy of Genius

C.J. Gauger and Cathann KressA few months ago we lost an Iowa icon, C.J. Gauger. As Iowa’s state 4-H leader from 1959-1979, C.J. was a visionary. He saw the need for change in 4-H and he knew how to make it happen. Even though it wasn’t always easy or popular, with his guidance, the boys’ and girls’ 4-H programs came together and emphasized life skills development for all youth, rural or urban. C.J. truly believed in listening to Iowa’s young people and involving them in shaping their 4-H program.

One of the first people I went to see when I returned to Iowa State was C.J. He was so very proud of Iowa 4-H and we shared ideas about how to enhance and grow the program. He also assured me that our desire to grow 4-H was shared by many all across the state. I have found that as usual, C.J. was right.

C.J.’s legacy lives on through one of every five Iowa youth, who participates in our 4-H programs today. His place in 4-H’s history paved the way for 4-H’s future. C.J.’s memorial service is July 17 and the Iowa 4-H Foundation has set up a “Genius of 4-H” endowment in his honor. That’s very fitting. Because as C.J. said, “the greatest contribution of 4-H is the leadership, both in youth and adults, it has developed and which has gone on to enhance the lives of themselves and others in unlimited, never ending ways. This is the genius of 4-H.”

C.J. simply enjoyed helping young people grow into their full potential. We carry on this legacy of genius. 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.

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

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

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

Searching for the Obvious

Recently, I stayed in Washington, D.C., for a week while attending events. By day two, I realized that the coffee provided in my hotel was not quite strong enough for me and decided to strike out in search of Starbucks. Knowing that in D.C. you can find one every few blocks, I got out my smart phone and searched. Sure enough, my Google map showed me one just six blocks north of my location, straight up 10th Street.

Studying the map to be sure I turned the right way as I left my hotel, I was soon on my way. Unfortunately, what my smart phone couldn’t tell me was that the area six blocks north was under construction and that Starbucks was closed. Undeterred, I searched again and found another location just five blocks east. I walked to that location, paying careful attention to my map only to find that it was no longer even there. One more try sent me seven blocks south and I triumphed by finding a small shop and got my coffee.

Cathann and StarbucksWalking back to my hotel, I put my phone away. As I approached the block where my hotel sat, I saw a brand new Starbucks – so new it had not yet registered on my map, but was clearly obvious, if I had just walked out my hotel door and looked across the street. (Yeah, that’s me standing in front of my hotel in the picture). Besides feeling rather sheepish – but justifying that the exercise was good for me – it made me ponder other times when I get so busy focusing on what I think is the way to get something done, that I don’t see an opportunity when it’s right in front of me.

I suspect I’m not alone in this tendency. If you’re like me, you were raised to be self-reliant and to tackle problems as they present themselves. When a problem arises, I kick into gear and I go into “problem-solving” mode – what do I need to do, what tools do I need, who should I talk to, what are the steps to solve this problem. Of course, what a problem-solving approach means is that we’ve already begun to narrow our field of vision, much like my focus on my smart phone map. Seeking opportunities, however, is kind of the opposite and requires broadening our scope and looking around. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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

Thank You

Thank you. It’s a simple expression of gratitude, yet it means so much. We don’t say it, or hear it, often enough. Our leadership summit began with a “thank you” — actually, with multiple thank-yous from our clients. Watch the video for a “feel good” message about the great work you do in ISU Extension and Outreach. I believe you will be touched by the sincerity of the sentiments these Iowans express.

Iowans value education and equality and demonstrate their concern for others. It’s no surprise that ISU Extension and Outreach resonates and is valued here in Iowa. Thank you for everything you do as part of ISU Extension and Outreach. Education, equality, concern for others — Iowans have set a pretty good example. How do we carry that forward?

The Executive Summary from the Advance: 2011 Leadership Summit now is available as a pdf online. This summary provides an overview of the issues we identified collectively during the summit and our agreed upon fundamental principles, action items, and priorities. I encourage you to thoughtfully review this document.

The Full Report with appendices will be available after the first of the year. The ISU Extension and Outreach Administrative Response, outlining actions and decisions for the coming year, will be distributed shortly afterward.

Collectively, the fundamental principles, action items, and priorities that we agreed upon now serve as the basis for shaping our future. No matter what any individual’s role is with ISU Extension and Outreach, we are asked to be one team with a common mission and common principles. We are all part of moving us forward. The decisions we make each day contribute to the success — or failure — of the organization. Together we can be a part of a meaningful endeavor—a relevant, vibrant organization, fully committed to anticipating issues, acting in catalytic ways, and supporting Iowans over the long haul. See you there.


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

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