VCE Car Magnets

All of us are aware of how, in many of our communities, VCE has become a less well known entity over time. For a long time we have recognized that we need to do a better job marketing and promoting our agency, its people, and our impacts within the communities that we work! Perhaps one small way to help market VCE in our communities is through the use of VCE car magnets like in the image below.

What do you think of this marketing tool? What are the benefits and the downsides of their use? Would you use them on your vehicle when you are out on VCE business? If not, why?

— Joe Hunnings

Cost Recovery and Revenue Enhancement

We recently had visitors from Ireland’s Teagasc agency (The Irish equivalent to Cooperative Extension). Back in the late 90’s they moved from a no-fee system like ours to a fee-based approach for services that directly benefited individuals and/or companies. We wouldn’t be the first state extension system to do this. Others such as Penn St., Ohio St. Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa St., and Kentucky, have already built new delivery models that include programs and services with that run the continuum of no charges, partial cost recovery, full cost recovery , and even revenue generation.

How do you feel about incorporating more cost recovery and revenue enhancement strategies into VCE’s playbook?

— Joe Hunnings

Why Are We So Stressed Out?

I recently ran across a USA Today article about Millennials and their expectations for the workplace. The article explained that many younger workers, born between 1980 and 1993, are looking for a “positive corporate culture.” The article cited examples of perks that create such a culture including generous personal leave policies, the option of working from home, after-hours social opportunities for employees, and even things like putting greens and ping-pong tables to help employees blow off steam during the work day. One company cited in the article touted a 95% employee retention rate.

I found this article particularly interesting because I recently completed VT’s Diversity Development Institute with a group of nine other VCE faculty and staff members as part of the new VCE Diversity Fellows program. We completed the Generations At Work training and talked at length about the generational groups currently represented in VCE’s workforce. We discussed the personality traits and work styles associated with each generation. Within my own office, we have two Baby Boomers, a Generation X’er, and two Millennials.

This article made me think about generational expectations of workplace climate, particularly as they relate to work/life balance. As a member of Generation X, I often find myself struggling to maintain some sense of balance. I am at the point in my life where my children are in school and are getting more heavily involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities. My parents are aging. And I am seemingly busier than ever at work. In talking to colleagues about work/life balance, it seems that many are dealing with similar issues. As spring and summer arrive, evening meetings and weekend programs are increasing for many of us. Many agents have confided that they are exhausted and a few have told me about struggles with health issues that are directly related to stress.

All of this information has led me to ponder the following questions:

  • Are there generational issues at work here? Do we really have different expectations of how we balance work and life outside of Virginia Cooperative Extension? If so, do these differing expectations contribute to conflict in the workplace and higher stress levels?
  • How do we perceive Extension’s culture? Do we, as people that stick with Extension careers, create the culture ourselves? Do we tend to be driven, often type-a personalities, high achievers who create our own culture of workaholics?
  • How does Virginia Cooperative Extension’s culture compare to other organizations?

The Diversity Fellows would love to hear your responses prepare to offer training for agents and staff members in each district. We are looking forward to candid discussion about generational issues and other diversity topics in coming weeks.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on generational issues and work/life balance?

Jennifer Bowen

Integrated programming – Aren’t we already doing this?

I’ve been reading the comments from the Professional Development Conference session evaluation on integrated programming. The results were mixed, with a fair number indicating some confusion on the purpose of the discussion, as well as the notion that “We are already doing this so what’s the big deal?”

Integrated programming was described as being framed by three characteristics (and there may be more):

  1. Focus on a critical issue important in the community.
  2. The program integrates the expertise of multiple organizations, program areas, and community systems in identifying and addressing the issue.
  3. It is more than an event.  It involves several educational strategies integrated into a plan over time.

We never meant to discount current integrated efforts across program areas, which are plentiful. Rather, the discussion was to provide a venue to explore how we can elevate this integration to a higher programmatic level, meeting the three characteristics above and ultimately to improve the quality of life for communities and citizens of the Commonwealth on the critical issues they face.

Let me know your thoughts on this and please share examples of your efforts that meet the three characteristics of integrated programming.

How can a leader obtain legitimacy?

Recently I received this question . . . How can a leader obtain legitimacy?

Before I replied, I pulled several resources and begin to write.  Of course, nothing is simple . . . I accidently terminated the email before I submitted my answer!  But, I did not give up!  Here’s how I responded . . .

You have asked a very complex question using just a few words. In most cases, legitimate leaders are recognized though their consistent behavior that generates respect, trust, and accountability from those in the group. Two books I suggest for your reading include “The Truth about Leadership” by Kouzes & Posner and “Real Leadership” by Dean Williams.  Both books will give you insight into the characteristics and practices of a person with influence.

From my personal experience, I have found that legitimacy is defined by time and consistent behavior.  Does the person have a vision/focus for creating a better environment/community?  Is the person willing to ask the right questions and move planning into action?  Will the person encourage others to work and build their own legitimate leadership style?  Will the leader support and celebrate others as they achieve success without having to receive the recognition?

Every day you will work to do your tasks with the best thinking, skills, and talents you have to offer.  Every day you will build your reputation as a leader.  It really is up to you what that reputation will be.

What would you have said?

Martha Walker

Employee Retention in VCE

Kristi Hedges was our Winter Conference keynote speaker a few years back. I subscribe to a monthly post (free) that she writes about Leadership. A month or so ago she wrote about employee retention.  She shared that a study by Harris Interactive showed that 74% of people would consider leaving their jobs today. I guess I am a dinosaur, having stayed with VCE for 29 years!  Obviously there are huge costs, work impacts, and headaches when we lose employees. And studies have continuously shown that money isn’t the top factor in employee happiness.

Kristi suggests 4 strategies that should impact keeping folks around.

  • Set realistic expectations from the start – It’s better to be clear from the beginning, and explain the expectations for the job and how to fit within the larger culture. VCE is not the right fit for everyone. Do we do a good job of this when recruiting new employees?
  • Show employees that there is room for them to grow – Employee mobility—and making sure our people are aware that it exists— is key to retaining employees. Do we have enough ways for agents and others to move up within the organization?
  • Demonstrate the advantages of where they work – What are the perks of working in VCE? Do we do a good job of selling those?
  • Let your employees know you trust themAllowing employees to get the job done the way they see best shows respect for autonomy and decision-making skills. Is this our culture in VCE?

Give us your ideas about how VCE can improve employee retention.

Joe Hunnings

Is there value in being engaged in your community?

When I was hired as an Extension Agent in the early 1990’s, my co-workers and administrators impressed the value and importance of being actively involved in the community where I worked. It was also expected (at that time) that I live in the county where I worked. There were multiple ways, of course, to be involved in the community. These included things like serving on local committees, church membership, attending school functions, fairs and festivals, and being a member of civic clubs. Because of the relational nature of Extension work, it was seen as important to get connected to people and to show them that you were committed to the county and that you were not going anywhere else anytime soon.

Through building connections and networking in their community, Extension Agents begin to build trust and a reputation for caring about the community and the well-being of the citizens there. Being the “County Agent” becomes more than a job or profession. It becomes an identity and expresses who you are and what you represent. Many people have identified this as having the “Extension Gene.”

Over the years, I continued to hear about the value of community involvement. In counties and cities where there has been frequent Agent turnover, questions arose from stakeholders and volunteers such as “should I invest my time and resources to helping this person and program, if they are not committed to me and this community?” A 2012 article in stated that “ninety-one percent of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years.” It also stated that “job-hopping can speed career advancement…and also lead to greater job fulfillment.”

So, what does this mean for someone who has chosen being an Extension Agent for a career? What does it mean for the credibility and sustainability of Extension programs in a community? Does it matter that an Extension Agent is involved in the community that they work in? Is program success connected to community involvement?

What do you think?

Mike Martin

Extension’s role in controversial issues

Recently I came across this abstract in the Journal of Extension:

The CES can make a major contribution to the resolution of environmental disputes in this country if we choose to do so. Quite a few faculty already have the education, skills, and vision to be effective in this arena. Many others, with additional training, would probably be more willing to take calculated risks and devote sustained effort in this direction. We have the potential. Are we ready to take the risk and make the commitment?

So what do think?  What are your perspectives and experiences in dealing with controversial issues?

Oh, and by the way, the author was Emmett Fiske from Cooperative Extension at Washington State University-Pullman. It was published in 1991. Here is the link to the full article:

Mike Lambur

Scholarship: What is that?

For the last five to six years, VCE Extension Agents have been encouraged to improve/increase their scholarship. We have been told by the District Directors recently that there will be more specific emphasis on scholarship in the next round of evaluations. I remember the first time I tried to “answer the scholarship call;” I thought I had become one of the “trend setters” by being a presenter at Winter Conference. Little did I know that first opportunity and simple challenge would peak my interest to further develop my “scholarship skills.”

From that first workshop, I have challenged myself to develop skills I did not even know I had. I have presented or co-presented at national conferences, and the conferences were not just my professional association.   I have learned to partner with a state specialist where we balance and enhance each other’s scholarship skills. We are intentional in our focus to continue to produce quality products and materials (devoting about a day every other month to this work) but in staying focused, we have developed results.

What do you need to do to develop your scholarship skills? First you need quality programming which includes meaningful evaluations that can show impactful outcomes. (How do I develop such evaluations? That is another blog post). If you have not yet developed your programming to that point, then again, partner with a specialist for support. ANR Agents seem to get this concept the most when they partner with an AREC Specialist for research test plots. This model allows field agents to contribute in a meaningful way to research, and often the data is compiled by the specialist. The specialist then submits posters, workshop proposals, and fact sheets based on the research from several contributors. This model allows agents to practice and develop their scholarship skills without being overwhelmed by the process. HOWEVER, I am not an ANR Agent and I do not have that particular partnership luxury.

Consequently, I began partnering with a state 4-H specialist five years ago in a forum that was beneficial to both my professional growth as well as for the specialist. We have presented at one national conference, three state conferences, and next month will present again at our national profession association. We have participated in three poster sessions (state and national levels); and it all was based on the same research. We have continued to enhance/improve the gathering of more data, which in turn has made the research richer.

Additionally, after partnering on the research project scholarship opportunities, we decided to branch out to further scholarship work strengthening the agent/specialist combination. Last year we had two peer reviewed fact sheets published and we have four others in various stages of the peer review publication process focusing on teen programming.

Why do I share this process? I share these thoughts and experiences because if I can overcome my perceived writing inabilities and produce scholarly published peer reviewed materials, present workshops at state and national conferences, create posters depicting the data in a visual manner and foster a strong relationship with a state specialist in developing these products, then I can be sure the opportunities are available for many others. As in many other endeavors, the hardest part is starting!

What are your thoughts and experiences in developing your scholarship skills?

Billie Jean Elmer
Senior Extension Agent, 4-H Youth Development
Surry County

How Reflective Are You?

We live in turbulent times and according to several authors, they suggest that organizations need to be: 1) aligned, 2) alert, 3) agile, and 4) adaptable to the changes and shifts in their programs and clientele. One of the challenges in Extension business is that we often lack the time (or have run out of time) to readjust programs so they keep pace or fit changing needs. Reflective practice is something more than thoughtful practice. It is a form of practice that seeks to review and question many situations of professional engagement so that the situation can become potential learning situations. During the process the practitioner continues to learn, grow, and develop in and through practice.

What are some tools that might be helpful? Use a reflective dairy or journal to keep notes and thoughts. Discuss with agents within the PD, DD’s, AD’s, national associations, and other trusted advisers. Examine other similar programs within the state and adjoining states.

What are some questions to energize the process? What was I aiming for when I held the program? What exactly did I do? How would I describe it precisely? Why did I choose that particular action/people? Who am I attracting to the program? Do I learn differently from my clientele? What was I trying to achieve? What did I do next? What were the reasons for doing that? How successful was it? What criteria am I using to judge success? What alternatives were there? Could I have dealt with the situation any better? How would I do it differently next time? How can I have more fun?

What are some helpful tools/thoughts that you have used to reflect to shape and readjust your VCE programs and to better address client needs?

Bobby Grisso