Perspectives Online

Leadership development program aims to prepare county extension agents for local leadership

These Extension agents are recent graduates of North Carolina Cooperative Extensionís New and Aspiring County Extension Director Leadership Development Program.

Photo by Becky Kirkland

In late April, 17 extension agents added their names to the growing roster of graduates of North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s New and Aspiring County Extension Director Leadership Development Program. The program is designed to help position employees for success as they become county directors or as they consider next steps in their careers.

The leadership program was the brainchild of Extension’s County Operations Team, and it was developed and carried out by Personal and Organizational Development, or POD. Now-retired District Extension Director Dr. Wanda Sykes had offered a training program for Southeast District county extension directors before the statewide program began about four years ago.

Interim POD Director Lanny Hass said the program fills a need for local extension leadership at a time when many county directors have retired.  Extension has recently had as many as 30 CED vacancies at the same time.

Clearly, a succession planning strategy was needed, said Acting State Extension Director Joe Zublena.

“We realized the Baby Boomers were getting closer to retirement and the organization hasn’t had a consistent training related to leadership development,” he said. “The County Operations Team began much of the conversation, then worked with POD to develop the program’s outline and the corresponding teaching modules.

“One of the key outcomes has been that most candidates for vacant CED positions have participated in the training, and thus have a better understanding of the role and responsibilities and have training in several of these,” he added.

 Since the program began about four years ago, about 60 agents have completed the training. Offered as a graduate-level Agricultural and Extension Education (AEE) course through N.C. State University, the program is organized into four training modules held over about five months.

The modules focus on understanding self and others, understanding the role of managing, moving from manager to leader and leading through others. Topics include policies and procedures, conflict management, performance appraisal, staffing, recruiting, hiring, customer service and more.

Participants not only take part in the one- to three-day sessions, they also complete reading and writing assignments and make presentations related to management or leadership topics during the final session.

POD Organizational Development Leader Eleanor Stell runs the program with the help of administrative assistant Jo Yarley. Instructors include the district extension directors; Sheri Schwab, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ interim assistant dean for personnel; Dr. Jim Flowers, AEE department head; and Joy Staton, Mary Lou Addor and Hass from POD.

The program has been successful not only in teaching participants new skills but also in building what Hass calls a learning community – a group of people who come “to count on each other, bounce ideas off each other and grow together,” he said. “We have seen the loss of the old guard, and now we are in a time of newness a change. This presents the challenge of rebuilding the community and a new culture in Extension.”

Participants seem to agree.

While Union County Extension Director Richard Melton said he’s already put to use many of the strategies he’s learned in the class – strategies ranging from financial management to listening to staff members, county government officials and advisory leadership volunteers – “the most important thing I’ve gained has been relationships. I’ve gotten to know people who are on the same path I’m on and to share ideas and experiences with them,” he said. “That’s definitely been a big help.”

Barbara Dunn Swanson, one of the April graduates, concurs. The program gave her a greater understanding of what’s involved in being a county director as well as skills she can use in her current position as Randolph County 4-H agent, she said. But the best thing about the program was getting to know others in the class.

“They brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the class,” she said. “It was great to get to see things through different eyes.”

 -- Dee Shore