Extension administrators: Listen to your introverts. They may save you in the future.
In fact, Cooperative Extension’s unwillingness to listen to the introverts in its ranks may come at a very heavy cost in the future. It may even prove to be a factor that drives Extension to extinction.
To be sure, Extension is and ever shall be an extroverted organization. Extroversion is its lifeblood. Up to now, our primary support has come from sources that require a helluva lot of, well, schmoozing. We owe a significant debt to generations of super-changed, highly extroverted directors, county directors and rank-and-file agents who have forged lasting, highly lucrative relationships with legislators, commodity group leaders, county commissioners and sundry other supporters — stakeholders in Cooperative Extension parlance.
And, yes, the efforts of these extroverted schmoozers are the reason why Extension is distinguished throughout our nation and even the world as a high touch organization.
The Price of Extroversion
But this this almost obsessive organizational focus on extroversion has come at a price.
Too many times throughout our history, this emphasis on extroversion has come at the expense of the introverts in our ranks — the thoughtful people who not only stay abreast of current trends, but also think about them, discuss them with other Extension professionals, typically like-minded introverts, and, in the course of which, gain a deeper, more refined understanding of the long-term trends that will shape Extension’s future.
Years ago, an Extension colleague of mine who had recently announced her retirement asked me a point-blank question: “Why do I feel that I’m being pushed out the door?”
I knew her well enough to know that she expected a straight answer. So, with as much tactfulness as I could muster, I replied, “Because you are an introvert within an extroverted organization.”
She had poured her life into Extension work. And she was an asset to the organization, albeit a woefully under-appreciated one. If she had managed to win over a sufficient number of decision-makers in the course of her career, Cooperative Extension would be far better prepared to meet the challenges of the digital age.
A Luxury We No Longer Can Afford
And that brings me back to my original point. A couple of decades ago, Extension administrators could afford the luxury of ignoring the introverts in their midst. There were ways that big strategic problems could be glossed over by schmoozing the right funding sources. But this was before the advent of digital technology and federal, state and local revenue shortfalls.
Extroversion will only take Extension so far in the 21st century. In fact, I think that our extroversion works against us in several notable ways.
Extroverts, for example, do workshops, field days and other other traditional face-to-face outreach well, exceedingly well — and, so easily. Sometimes it also seems that Extension professionals cover up their anxieties about the future with more frenetic activity — more workshops and field days. Reporting tools, still deeply immersed in the plan-and-push methods of the last century, only reinforce these behaviors. These traditional outreach methods are like the Sirens in Greek mythology. They are distracting us from cultivating a new mindset, one that takes full account of the digital imperatives of the flat world.
Yes, we always will be a high-touch organization. And, yes, extroverts will always occupy the highest and most visible rungs in our ranks. But the kind of high-touch outreach organization that we must become in the 21st century will require the sort of deep, refined thinking that the introverts within our ranks are the best equipped to provide.
The Debt We Owe Introverts
As counterintuitive as it seems to many extroverts, the introverts of the world conceived and developed the technology that made the highly networked and interconnected world of the 21st century possible, and the only way Extension will survive in the future is by bringing more of these introverts into its ranks, even as it cultivates the ones it already has.
These under-appreciated introverts are not only the best equipped to build these technologies but also to show how these disparate digital trends will intersect within an outreach context in the years to come.
Without more of these analytical minds in our ranks, I don’t think that Cooperative Extension will be fully prepared to compete in this new digital environment — I really mean that.