April 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB2

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Management Skills of County Extension Administrators: Are They Sufficient to Do the Job?

Do county Extension administrators possess the management skills to be successful in their role? This study examined 127 county Extension administrators from 22 states who had participated in an Extension assessment center designed to assess 15 supervisory/management competencies deemed necessary for success as an Extension administrator. The study found that the participants possessed average to very good management skills as observed during the assessment center process and that they undertook professional development and implemented behavioral changes as a result of the insight and feedback they received from their experience in the assessment center.

Bill R. Haynes, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor and District Director
Ohio State University Extension
Vandalia, Ohio
Internet address: haynes.2@osu.edu


The Cooperative Extension System today is a unique achievement in education. It is an organization for change and for problem solving, a catalyst for both individual and group action with a history of more than eighty years of public service. The system itself includes professionals in America's 1862 Land Grant institutions in each of the fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia, Tuskegee University, 16 1890 Land Grant institutions, and 29 Tribal institutions.

Keeping an organization as large and complex as the Cooperative Extension System operating smoothly requires effective and efficient management. The structure of a typical Extension organization contributes significantly to the need for effective management. Fragmented both geographically and programmatically, the organization must rely on managers at several levels to effectively utilize human, economic, and material resources to address specific as well as general issues. These managers must perform these management functions while remaining within the parameters of the organization's mission, vision, and values.

The largest group of managers in Extension and among the most critical are the first line managers who give leadership to the more than 3,100 county Extension offices throughout the country. There is ample literature about the functions of management, much of it in the field of business. A smaller body of literature pertaining to Extension exists, as well. However, there has been little effort to determine the competence levels of Extension county chairs nationally with regard to specific abilities and behavioral skills identified as necessary for probable success as an Extension administrator. Nor has there been research to determine levels of professional development or changes in behaviors by county chairs to correct or improve administrative skills when deficiencies are identified.


The population for this study was the Extension professionals who completed the Assessing Supervisory and Management Skills Assessment Center at the Minnesota Extension Summer School and the Ohio State University Extension County Chair Assessment Center for the years 1989-1995 (N = 150). The population included participants from 22 states. The Ohio State assessment centers and the Minnesota assessment centers were conducted by the Ohio State University assessment center management team, and both were similar experiences. Of the 150 participants who participated in the assessment centers, 127 were still employed with the Cooperative Extension System. All 127 were included in the study.

During the assessment centers, participants were observed by a team of three trained assessors who observed their behaviors in 15 supervisory/management competencies, including oral communication, planning/organizing, leadership, decision-making/judgment, initiative, objectivity, development of coworkers, perception, sensitivity, management control, collaborativeness, written communication, behavioral flexibility, organizational sensitivity, and assertiveness.

Immediately following the assessment center observations, the assessment team engaged in collaborative consensus to reach inter-rater agreement, and participants were scored 1 (poor), 2 (fair), 3 (average), 4 (very good), or 5 (excellent) on each of the observed behaviors during their assessment center experience. Scores were collected from records at The Ohio State University.

A two-part questionnaire was developed by the researcher to collect data through the mail from Extension professionals who had completed an Extension assessment center. Internal validity concerns were addressed by submitting the instrument to a panel of six experts to verify content validity. The expert panel consisted of Ohio State University faculty who have a long association with the development and conducting of Extension assessment centers. The instrument was also piloted with 30 individuals who had participated in Extension assessment centers to establish reliability. External validity was not a concern because the study results were not generalized beyond the target population.

Part 1 of the survey asked participants to report steps or actions taken to improve behaviors identified as needing improvement during the assessment center process. Response choices included workshop or seminar, formal class work, self-directed learning, shadowing or mentoring, other, or none. A second question in Part 1 was open ended and asked participants to report changes they had made in the way they applied their skills related to each of the 15 behaviors observed in the assessment center. An example of the open-ended questions was: What changes have you made in the way you apply you skills in oral communication?

Part 2 of the questionnaire was used to collect data on selected demographic characteristics of each participant, including gender, age, tenure in Extension, tenure in a supervisory/management position, and primary program area at the time of participation in the assessment center. Program area choices included Agriculture/Natural Resources, 4-H/Youth Development, Family and Consumer Sciences, Community Development, Economic Development, Administration, and Other.

Data were analyzed using the Statistical Program for Social Sciences. Descriptive statistics were used to summarize and organize the data. Discriminant analysis was used to examine the impact of the demographic variables on each of supervisory/management behaviors.

Discriminant analysis was used because of the categorical nature of the variables and tested for differences between the groups who demonstrated above average strengths in the supervisory/management competencies and the groups who demonstrated average or below average strengths. Responses to the open-ended questions were summarized and categorized as they related to each of the supervisory/management behaviors. The data were organized into categorical and conceptual groupings for each behavior to determine patterns and themes reported by participants.


Fifty-two percent of the participants in Extension assessment centers were male, 48 percent were female. The population ranged in age from 28 to 60, with a mean age of 45. The average tenure in Extension was 16 years. The average tenure in a supervisory/management position was 7 years. Of the participants, 22.2% were from agriculture/natural resources, 16.7% from 4-H/Youth Development, 20.4% from Family and Consumer Sciences, 3.7% from Community/Economic Development, 13% from Administration, 15.7% from multi-programs, and 8.3% from other.

The participants had modal rates of average to very good in all 15 supervisory/management competencies observed in the assessment center process (Table 1). However, the group that possessed above-average strength in leadership had more tenure in Extension and contained fewer members from 4-H, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Community Development than the group rated as average or below. Further, the group demonstrating above-average strength in development of coworkers had more tenure in Extension and more tenure in a supervisory position, and contained fewer members from Agriculture, fewer members from 4-H, and fewer members from Community Development than the group rated as average or below. Finally, the group demonstrating above-average strength in behavioral flexibility contained more females and fewer members from Community Development than the group rated as average or below. The groups did not differ significantly with respect to the demographic characteristics in the remaining 12 behavioral competencies observed.

Table 1
Assessor Scores in Assessment Center

Competency Mode Frequency
Oral Communication 4 66
Planning/Organizing 4 41
Leadership 3 50
Decision-Making/Judgment 4 48
Initiative 4 47
Objectivity 4 54
Development of Coworkers 3 47
Perception 4 51
Sensitivity 4 53
Management Control 3 48
Collaborativeness 4 62
Written Communication 4 60
Behavioral Flexibility 3 50
Organizational Sensitivity 4 52
Assertiveness 3 50
Note: 1=Poor; 2=Fair; 3=Average; 4=Very Good; 5=Excellent

Since completing the assessment center experience, all 127 participants have taken steps to improve their skills in one or more or the 15 competencies observed in the assessment center. Leadership was the most frequently addressed competency, while perception was the least frequently addressed. The most common method of skill improvement was self-directed learning, with 597 occurrences reported by participants. Workshops or seminars were the next most common methods, with 483 occurrences reported. Formal class work was the least used method of professional development, with 71 occurrences reported.

Participants also reported positive changes in supervisory or management behaviors as a result of the feedback and insight they received from their participation in the assessment center. Several themes and patterns emerged in each of the 15 competencies observed.


Extension county chairs who had completed an Extension assessment center demonstrated average to very good strength in 15 supervisory/management competencies identified as necessary for success as an Extension administrator.

Participants in Extension assessment centers took positive steps to improve their skills in areas identified as needing development during the assessment center process.

Participants in Extension assessment centers have made positive behavior changes in response to feedback and insight they received as a result of their participation.

Demographic characteristics had a significant impact on the competencies of leadership, development of coworkers, and behavioral flexibility among participants in Extension assessment centers.


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