Extension in the 21st Century: A conversation with Chuck Hibberd

Charles “Chuck” Hibberd is an emeritus professor of the University of Nebraska, where he held several academic positions, including Dean of Cooperative Extension. His email tagline reads “Chuck Hibberd, retired Extension Director (but not done yet).”

Dr. Chuck Hibberd. Image credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

He directed the University’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center for 13 years. Chuck also served as Extension director, associate dean of agriculture, and assistant vice president of engagement at Purdue University. He began his career at Oklahoma State University as a faculty member in the animal science department. A former chair of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP), Chuck was inducted into the NIFA Hall of Fame in 2019. Chuck currently serves on the board of the Nebraska Community Foundation.

A native of Lexington, Nebraska, Chuck received his BS in agriculture (animal science) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his MS and Ph.D. degrees (animal science and animal nutrition, respectively) from Oklahoma State University. 

Chuck recently finished his first year as an Extension Foundation Catalyst. Catalysts are Extension experts who support New Technologies for Ag Extension (NTAE) projects chosen to participate in Extension Foundation’s project accelerator program. This program is part of a cooperative agreement with USDA-NIFA. In Year One (2019), the Extension Foundation selected 4 projects for participation. In Year Two (2020), 8 projects were chosen from among 33 competitive nominations across the Cooperative Extension system. Year Three projects will begin in Fall 2021. You can learn about past NTAE projects here.

We recently sat down for a conversation about his work as a Catalyst and what he thinks might lie in Extension’s future.

 

Can you tell us a little about your work as an NTAE Catalyst?

This was my first year as a catalyst. I enjoy working and interacting with people and helping them achieve their dreams and goals. Early in my career, I was an advisor for undergraduate students at Oklahoma State University. I learned early that these kinds of conversations are never about me but rather always about the person I am interacting with. It takes sincere listening and seeking to understand and connect in some genuine way to know where people are and where they want to go. 

I used the same approach with my leadership team in Extension (twice in Nebraska and once in Indiana). I don’t believe in top-down leadership; I believe in consultative leadership, and I want decisions to be informed by the best thinking of the team of people I surround myself with. 

I learned a great deal about coaching and mentoring while serving in Nebraska Extension. About twenty years ago, the organization decided it wanted administrators to be better coaches and mentors. We went about the business of identifying three employees who became certified professional performance coaches. These individuals led workshops for those who desired to be a more effective coach/mentor. I was in the first cohort. That experience changed my view of the way we should interact with people genuinely. It’s not only being authentic but having a method and process. 

Performance coaching has three components. First is clearly identifying and articulating the problem, issue or opportunity. Then, listening, seeking to understand. Asking powerful questions to help individuals find their own solutions is critical. I don’t propose solutions but rather ask the kinds of questions that encourage people to dig deep to consider what they want to do and how they might accomplish their work. A third and essential part of coaching is accountability. As I draw near to the end of the first conversation, I might ask, “When can I check in to see your progress?” There is a scientific method to coaching and mentoring that I bought into early, which I’ve tried to use throughout my career. I’ve used this same approach in interviews with potential employees and when working with constituents. It’s an integral part of my interactions with NTAE fellows and teams: asking reflective questions that encourage them to consider their challenges, experiences, and opportunities. I have found these sorts of reflective practices one of the most potent ways to connect with people.

 

What results/impacts have you seen?

Every fellow and every team is different. They have different project aspirations and are starting in a different place. One team I worked with initially designed, developed, and delivered the project four years ago; another team worked together for two years before NTAE. Two of the teams [I worked with] are relatively new and, in one case, are really still in the formation phase of their development. 

It’s a fun thing for me to interact with these people, listen, coach and mentor them, and ask powerful questions that help them get from their point A to their point BCD. While every team is unique, each has progressed in this NTAE project year. They have progressed differently because they have other interests and aspirations. That’s what this experience is about.

Some have struggled. This is hard work. I’ve seen people be emotional and have experienced their deep questioning of themselves, their team, and their project. I’ve also seen them all move forward. One of the things Extension Foundation is doing is pushing these teams to achieve their potential, whatever that is for them. One of the most rewarding things for me is to watch a fellow/team take what was an idea, aspiration, or hope and turn it into something better than they ever could have imagined because of the input and resources that the Extension Foundation offers. I don’t think many people thought about market research as a real thing they could do. Instead, they’ve had a chance to use market research to better design how they engage learners, improve program delivery, or the circumstances under which they create learning examples. That’s just one example. There are many more services that our key informants (KIs) offer. They really inspire fellows and teams to think differently about their work. 

Every one of our KIs is an Extension professional. They are well-trained, well-educated, highly experienced with great insight. They have so much to offer fellows and teams. While each KI has a specific role, they may also have perspectives and experiences beyond that that add value. Extension Foundation is surrounding fellows and teams with people who care, are smart, and are experienced. These folks have a servant mentality: they do whatever they can to help fellows and teams achieve their dream, their aspirations. It’s an enjoyable environment to work in.

 

You spent decades in Extension, in many places, working at many levels. What have been the most significant changes you’ve seen during your career? 

In my first twelve years as a faculty member at Oklahoma State, I did not have an Extension appointment. I had a research and teaching appointment. Yet, I did a lot of Extension work because the research, experiences, and relationships built in the classroom put me in a position to share in various settings – mostly Extension settings – our research and what we were learning from that work. 

My first job in Extension was as a director/administrator of an Extension and research center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. It was a natural and easy transition from my work in a teaching and research role. I will always be a teacher. It doesn’t matter whether I’m working with an NTAE fellow and team, a student, an employee, or interviewing someone for a job…I’m teaching and learning. That drives me forward. 

In retrospect, much of my early Extension work – in 1994 in the Panhandle region of western Nebraska –  was very transactional. It was important work, but it was transactional, characterized by “sage on the stage,” one-way delivery, here’s the answer/strategy/method, take it or leave it kind of work. It was low engagement with learners and constituents. 

A fascinating thing happened about five years into my tenure at Scottsbluff. We had a crackerjack research and Extension team working on sugar beets. They were globally known for their expertise and accomplishments.  A sugar company approached us with a request to run trials to demonstrate our technology side-by-side with twelve farmers growing sugar beets using the company’s guidelines. We applied our technology and equipment, using our research knowledge and experience. Not a perfect scientific method, but that’s what we had. At the end of the season, the farmers beat us in eight of the twelve trials. 

Humbling, right? What it really meant is if we were going to be effective in our roles, we couldn’t do to or for, but with. We needed to expand our relationships, build trust, and find ways to engage people. That kind of strategy has been a theme of mine throughout my career: it’s an engagement and transformational practice based on relationships, trust, and mutual benefit –  all those things that make the work more powerful. 

In my last eight years as dean and director of Extension in Nebraska, we hired about 80 people. In the old days, most of these folks would have come with some sort of Extension or 4-H experience, which gave them a good sense of the job they were interviewing for. By 2012, that was not the case. People were coming to Extension because they saw an opportunity to engage people; co-develop solutions and strategies; work together with clients and constituents, and develop more robust solutions than ever before. The people we hire now are very aspirational, are continuously learning, are very entrepreneurial in how they approach and resource their work, and create things that have never been created before. 

If you want to change the world, Extension is a good place for you to work. You will have that opportunity to do work that matters. I see incredible talent, inspiration, and drive in Extension today. I see that everywhere. Extension organizations are finding and hiring people that have this mindset. It’s exhilarating.

 

How can Extension best prepare for periods of disruption? Are there particular skill sets or mindsets that you think Extension professionals should develop?

The first and most crucial part is that we focus our efforts on things that matter. We need to bring diverse resources (people and expertise) from inside and outside of the organization to bear on those really critical questions, challenges, and opportunities facing our constituents. And we need to do it in partnership with them. That has been one of the most powerful innovations I’ve seen in Extension: creating co-learning environments. If we discount the knowledge and experience of those in the communities we work with, we’re going to get it wrong most of the time. So let’s work together and learn together. We’ve changed our field days in Nebraska. We’ll put together a panel of 4-5 people, and 3-4 of those will be non-Extension folks: farmers, industry representatives, or other partners. Everybody has knowledge, perspective, and experience.

I think we build resilience by working on important issues, by working together in partnership with our constituents to build trust and create mutual benefit. At the end of the day, we want to say that we couldn’t have done what we did without our partners and have them say the same about us. That creates true mutual benefit and value.

COVID has challenged us to do that better than ever before. We had to prove that we could pivot. In Nebraska – and I would guess it was the same in most places  – there was a cadre of Extension professionals who took what they always did and just moved it to Zoom. But there were a large number of Extension professionals who created something new. They figured out how to use technology in really engaging ways and how to do blended programs using technology and engagement strategies that protected people from the pandemic and created robust learning experiences. So many inventive solutions and techniques were developed, deployed, and learned from during the pandemic. This has been another way Extension demonstrated that we could pivot. I’m not sure we could have done this thirty years ago. It’s partly due to hiring, ingenuity,  and the bottom-up approach most Extension programs are using today. We can pivot, adapt, and keep going.

The Scott Reeds of the world have figured out that Extension can’t just be for the college of agriculture. It needs to be for the entire university and function as the land-grant universities’ lead engagement arm. Extension should strive to build partnerships and capacity across the whole campus. Doing that well means Extension is positioned as the go-to organization and not just focused on outreach. Extension work should be about genuine engagement that results in deep relationships and reciprocal benefit. We have to engage locally in trust-based opportunities.

The land-grant universities that are taking advantage of those ideas are the ones that are positioning Extension to be highly valued as a critical component of the larger university.

 

Where do you think opportunities lie for Extension now and in the future?

The pace of change is so fast that we really need to design ways to stay even with – or get in front of (when possible) – the kinds of advances that are occurring. We have to be open to the reality that advances that will benefit Extension and our constituents are not all coming from the university system. How do we build deep partnerships and collaborations with others? We may not be the leaders; we may be key participants or play another role.  

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) enlisted Extension Foundation to work on vaccine hesitancy as one of its partners. These kinds of things happen because of relationships. The CDC has deep expertise but doesn’t have the 3,000+ county network to deliver the education and engagement pieces necessary to address this question of vaccine hesitancy. Extension does.

I serve on the Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF) board. NCF – unfettered by any of the rules or regulations of working for a university – is doing fantastic development work on the ground in communities across Nebraska. Nebraska Extension has developed a powerful collaboration with the NCF, sometimes in partnership with and sometimes in service to that organization. 

I think we’ll find going forward, if we want to continue to be a key player and to be viewed as resourceful, we’ll ask this: “What does it mean to be an Extension professional with a  true entrepreneurial mindset?” That’s what we’re talking about here: we’re not sitting back waiting for things to happen. We’re pushing the edge and taking risks. Our most progressive constituents want us to take risks and try things on their behalf. How do we do that in a way that takes advantage of opportunities, technologies, tools, and different ways of thinking out there right now? 

One way is to continue to remain current (and get ahead of the curve) and keep hiring people with that entrepreneurial mindset, who don’t mind failing forward, going for it, and asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Those are our opportunities. One of the things about those kinds of ideas is that it’s going to ask us as leaders to also change how we think about the work we do and how we lead our organization. The Extension organization of the future will be much more driven by our employees, the people on the ground doing the work. Our job is to create a culture and hire people who can do this kind of work. We need to try to catalyze where we can and where we can’t, get out of the way because they’re going to figure it out.

 

What are you particularly excited about right now?

I’ve been doing this work for almost a year. The catalyst’s role for me was deer in the headlights from August through November or December. Now I feel as if I have my arms around it. But that doesn’t mean I’m entirely comfortable in the role because I always push myself to be better in my work. But it’s incredibly fun.

I’m very curious about the next group of NTAE fellows and teams. I think there may be some very different kinds of topics and themes. Just like this year, I think we will find some fellows who push us as much as we push them and who really challenge us to think differently about how we do this work and how we support high-impact teams. This is awesome.  

Scott Reed and I have been working on framing what a new catalyst onboarding might look like. That’s been a blast. Scott, Fred [Schlutt], and Jimmy Henning created the catalyst role two years ago from scratch. Thank goodness they did that for Rick Klemme and me. We have new catalysts coming in, and I’m excited to work with them. We don’t ‘train’ new catalysts, but we try to inform and inspire (two “I” words I really like). The goal is to help them achieve what they would like to accomplish in their role as catalysts. We will continue to diversify our team and expertise.

On a different note, we were involved this week in an ECOP meeting and some APLU meetings with the APLU Board on Agriculture Assembly, composed of the deans and vice-chancellor leads for agricultural and natural resources across the country. We’ve also been in conversation with the new director  – Carrie Castille – of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The discussions in this space and especially in the context of the Extension Foundation’s work are more exciting than ever before. There is a genuine openness to collaborating and working together without concern about who gets the credit. There seems to be a strong interest in invention and innovation and addressing the challenges we face trying to figure out how to do that in this complex environment in Washington DC, our land-grants, ECOP, and the Extension Foundation.

I’m really energized and very hopeful. I did that role: I was ECOP chair four years ago. One of the things we talked about a lot is that we have these big ideas. How do we make them happen? 

This year NIFA provided funding through the Extension Foundation to ECOP program priorities that will be led by people who have thought a lot about the area they are going to work in. This is new ground, a new opportunity, and a way to provide national leadership to an Extension system that needs strong, informed, and opportunistic national leadership. I’m optimistic about that as well.

 

What books, podcasts, etc., are currently informing your thinking?

I’m currently reading four books, including How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. We just drove to and from Colorado and listened to Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I’m also reading Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World, written by Howard Buffet. If you want to learn to think differently about how we work with impoverished people and countries to help them improve subsistence farming and food production, you’ll find this a fascinating book.

I just finished Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home by Jake Wood. Jake is a combat veteran and the founder of Team Rubicon. This non-profit organization has created a way to mobilize veterans to respond to disasters to communities in a deliberate and organized manner. Veterans are highly skilled, and the Team Rubicon model enables them to deliver very high-level service and engagement with people suffering from disasters. It’s a fascinating book.

I also have a circle of friends and co-workers who challenge me regularly. We ask each other hard questions. I’m a continuous learner…that’s what I do! I’ve learned so much from the fellows and teams, too. Their ideas and inventiveness are part of why this work is so rewarding.

 

Related Reading:

A Conversation with Dr. Scott Reed, Extension Foundation Catalyst

Accelerating Success: Q&A with Dr. Fred Schlutt