Five questions with the extension and outreach leader

John Lawrence

John Lawrence will retire as the vice president for extension and outreach on April 2. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Vice president for ISU Extension and Outreach John Lawrence will retire on April 2 after an Iowa State career spanning more than 30 years. Though Lawerence, who was honored last week by the ISU community and Iowa Senate for his service, is stepping down from his current position, the Iowa native and ISU alumnus will remain connected by assisting the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with a review of its research farms and the continued development of its Kent Feed Mill and Grain Science Complex.

Inside caught up with Lawrence for a quick five questions.

How did you decide that extension work was your path?

I was finishing up my graduate program and I had a faculty member at the University of Missouri tell me that I should really look into it. I was coming out at a time right after there had been budget cuts and layoffs, and out of the nine jobs I was looking at, seven of them were extension-related. Once I got into it, it just felt natural because I could communicate with the farmers and I enjoyed the work.

You have filled numerous leadership roles. What have you learned about leading?

I do a lot of listening. You have to learn what the questions, concerns and hot-button issues are and then speak to those. You have to speak to your audience and communicate often through multiple venues. People want to know that you are paying attention. I like going out and meeting with people to present, but also to listen to get some feedback on the message and methods.

You've also filled numerous interim positions. Have you ever said "no" to an opportunity?

Nothing immediately comes to mind. When I stepped into those roles it was because I had an interest in it. I thought it was important, and in many of those roles it was just to reassure the great staff that was already there.

I remember the phone calls when [senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert] asked me to lead the [COVID-19] fall planning executive committee in 2020 and the moving forward coordinating committee in 2021. I had not been in a classroom in a decade or more, I never lived in a dorm room and didn't have a lot of on-campus experience. No one had experience with this kind of thing so I could come in without any biases and just listen to the people who deal with each aspect every day. My role was to listen and work with the people who knew their jobs very well but were in a new and uncertain environment.

You became known for riding your motorcycle to all 99 Iowa counties to visit extension offices. How did that shape how you led extension?

It took about three years to visit them all and get a photo with the bike under every extension sign. My license plate is "JUST JOHN" and the tour was a chance to get out and visit the county offices. My management style throughout my career has been an open-door policy -- but not just here when extension employees come to campus. That tour got me out to see them and listen to them. It helped me learn about our system, and you can't do that sitting behind a desk.

You still have responsibilities at ISU, but what will you do away from campus?

(My wife) Kathy and I will do some more motorcycle riding and travel. We have a farm in southwest Iowa that we're building a cabin on near Tabor. We are converting a shed into a cabin and doing all the work ourselves. I'm looking forward to doing more things on the farm.