Tag Archives: John Donovan

Four Defining Traits of the New Model Extension Educator

Seeing, setting and articulating goals within networked, collaborative settings will be critical skills of 21st century Extension educators.

I’m not one to oversimplify, but I’m beginning to believe that the four most desired traits of Cooperative Extension professionals in the 21st century will be the ability to see, to set goals, to articulate, and to innovate.

To increasing degree, Extension educators in the 21st century  not only will be challenged to perceive emerging trends but also how they relate to current challenges — to see, in other words — then to set goals and to articulate them in ways that inspire others.  Finally, they will collaborate with others to develop and to achieve the most innovative solutions.

(Note: I’m highly reluctant to use “client” in this context because I’m more convinced than ever that there is no such thing in this networked world — only collaborators.)

One of this nation’s leading innovators and achievers, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, helped me see this.  Indeed, if anybody deserves credit for laying out a clear vision for 21st century Extension educators — new model Extension educators, as I prefer to call them —it’s Donovan.

Incidentally, to all you young Extension professionals who aspire to attain the front ranks of your fields: Donovan’s interview with New York Times features editor Adam Bryant should be considered required reading.

Donovan related in the interview how he taught himself over many years to draw on the talents of others while simultaneously inspiring them — a skill he first began honing when he was elected captain of his hockey team.

You must “look at a landscape, characterize it and set a framework for action, then be able to articulate it clearly” — simply put, to see, to set goals and to articulate.

As I see it, this will be the essence of Cooperative Extension work in the future: perceiving the emerging trends and challenges that likely will grow out of them, then inspiring and working with others within extended, mostly virtual, networks to develop creative solutions.

As Donovan observes, “You have to have the antennas for picking out what’s important.”

That’s where our specialized training and unique perspectives will benefit us.

Most of you have heard my old saw about Extension educators undergoing a transformation from normative to nodal professionals within the next few years.  They will no longer be the norm setters they have in the past but nodes operating with vast networks.

Even so, within this new networked environment, our backgrounds, coupled with the fact that we are temperamentally extroverted people working within a historically extroverted organization, uniquely equip us to function in this new nodal role.

We will be much better equipped than others to perceive trends and to work with others to flesh out workable solutions.

Yet, as Donovan stresses, there’s more to it than simply perceiving trends and setting goals.

At some point in their careers, successful innovators learn to develop team skills — as Donovan says, they learn that “giving credit away, deflecting credit, [is] an effective thing to do.”

It’s not about keeping score, it’s about playing for results, he says.

Donovan’s interview also underscored the enduring value of two other traits: working hard and drilling deep.

Needless to say, hard work has and always will be a distinguishing trait of outstanding professionals, but so is drilling deep — as he describes it, viewing every experience as an opportunity “to gain the broadest set of experiences I can.”

He’s absolutely right: Those who take the time to develop multiple perspectives — or borrowing from Dan Pink, those who cultivate right-brained in addition to left-brained cognitive skills — will be the best-positioned, best equipped professionals of the 21st century.

Better Living through Realism

The late Dr. M. Scott Peck observed that the healthiest people tended to be those most grounded in reality.

Over the course of his career, the late psychiatrist and bestselling author M. Scott Peck noticed a recurring pattern among his patients:  The ones most likely to recover tended to be those most grounded in reality — realists, in other words — while the patients least amenable to his help were those furthest removed from reality.

He also noted that the most unreachable clients tended to suffer from acute forms of narcissism, often in the most extreme form: malignant narcissism.

Peck’s insights have stuck with me for more than a quarter century after reading his first book, “The Road Less Travelled,” which I highly recommend to those of you who have not yet had the good fortune of reading it.  In fact, they’ve proven to be some of the most valuable insights into human nature I ever acquired in the course of my reading.  Getting real — striving to conform one’s daily life as closely as possible to reality — isn’t necessarily the key to happiness, but I’m fully convinced that it’s a hallmark of sound mental health.

Recently, I came across two items, one that highlighted the personal philosophy of one highly successful executive, the other that explored the traits of the most conspicuously unsuccessful executives.  Both, I believe, underscore the enduring value of Peck’s insights.

All of us Extension professionals would do well to read them and take their lessons to heart.

The first item, a New York Times interview with AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, demonstrated the strong correlation between realism and long, highly successful careers.    Successful executives, like mentally healthy people in general, don’t fear reality but embrace it. They invite criticism and surround themselves with talented subordinates who do not cringe from offering straight talk.

Donovan was fortunate enough to have acquired an appreciation for realism relatively early in his career.  He also developed an enduring appreciation for another trait closely associated with realism: Selflessness.

In terms of creativity and innovation, he ultimately learned that fretting over accolades proves entirely self-defeating.

“If you figure there’s a karma pool out there floating around for credits, you have to stop playing for credits,” he says. “I remember the day I realized that, and I probably never again need to involve scorekeeping in anything I did.”

Along the way, Donovan also developed an affinity for giving away roles.  He began assigning roles with which he had grown comfortable and proficient to other members of the team.   His gratification came from seeing the results that followed as more people stepped up to the plate to contribute their own unique insights and talents.

“I sort of see myself over time as needing to play the game less, but I’m becoming better at getting even better results by that combination of the right framework and the right people in the right positions.”

Okay, I’ll admit it: My throat tightened a bit when Donovan related the stages of his career.  Early in his career he set out to be smart, while later in life he has striven to be wise. It’s a critical distinction.

At roughly the same time I read Donovan’s interview I also surfed onto another piece that complemented it — actually, contrasted would be a better term within this context.

In “The Seven Traits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives,” Forbes contributor Eric Johnson discusses the eight traits cited by Dartmouth College Business Professors Sydney Finkelstein that typically consign CEOs and their companies to mediocrity, if not extinction.

I was struck by how all of these maladaptive traits all stem from an failure to grasp reality.

Finkelstein noted that the most unsuccessful executives typically overestimate the degree to which they control events.  Not surprisingly, they also tend to view others in their companies as agents responsible for implementing their personal company vision — little wonder why they often viewed their companies as extensions of themselves rather than as enterprises that should be carefully nurtured.

Delusional thinking and behavior are often expressed in other ways too, Finkelstein noted.  Poor executives tend to be enamored with those stereotypical superhuman CEOs who deal with multiple crises through independent snap decision-making on their own, seldom consulting knowledgeable associates.

Another troubling hallmark of these executives: Their ruthless elimination of anyone whose views didn’t conform to their own.

Fortunately for us, there has been a strong, longstanding institutional disliking within Cooperative Extension for these types of  traits. We have always valued selfless collaborators and team builders over lone narcissistic wolves.  Even so, it’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then that the values that Donovan and other visionaries have embodied over the course of their careers will likely be the defining traits of the new information order.

The better we understand these values, take them to heart and practice them in the course of our everyday work, the better equipped we will be to navigate our way through this new order.