Spring 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Stepping Up - Training Extension County Directors


>p>Jerry E. Whiteside
Extension Personnel and Staff Development Specialist,
Resource Development,
University of Georgia
Athens, GA

Douglas C. Bachtel
Extension Rural Sociology,
Resource Development,
University of Georgia
Athens, GA


Accepted for publication: October 1986. County Extension director, chairman, leader, or coordinator-how are they selected? In most cases, they're appointed because they've been a good county agent. But, is being a good agent the only prerequisite to being a good leader? Certainly not! Do county directors have to continue being good agents in addition to shouldering all of their leadership responsibilities? In most cases, yes. Are county directors given adequate training for their new leadership role? That's a question Extension decision makers should be asking themselves, and that's what this article's all about.

Why We Need County Extension Leaders

Extension is an organization loaded with tradition.1 Since its early beginnings, the resource requirements to meet the educational needs of clients have grown astronomically. Program emphasis has progressed from agricultural and food preservation demonstrations to highly complex programming in farm and home management, consumer economics, nutrition, public policy education, community improvement, and recreation.2. County staffs have grown significantly and the resources required to support a county program have expanded to meet the technological innovations, diversity, and new expectations of a changing society. Managing limited resources to achieve optimum efficiency and effectiveness is perhaps the greatest challenge affecting the future vitality of Extension.3 A movement toward the decentralization of administrative and supervisory functions, however, has been necessary to meet the new challenges facing Extension. This decentralization process has proceeded at a varying rate in different states. In Georgia, typical of many states, the county Extension director is now fully responsible for managing all county Extension operations. This includes coordinating and developing local educational programs, budgeting, and managing physical facilities and personnel. This article reports the findings of a study undertaken to determine the key managerial skills required of a county director, discusses how the findings of the study are being used to improve training programs, and presents implications of the study results.

Georgia Study

In response to the challenge of effectively managing 159 county Extension programs, the Georgia Extension Service conducted a study to identify the skills essential to performing the managerial role of county director. Previous research revealed that four administrative functions and 34 managerial skills were important to the role of county director.4 A questionnaire was developed asking county directors to rate and rank the importance of and training needed for each of the previously identified skills, and to add any additional skills. All Georgia county Extension directors completed the questionnaire.


Here are some of the findings from the study:

  • The essential administrative functions in order of training needs were:
    • Personnel management
    • Program administration
    • Financial management
    • Office management
  • Thirty-four managerial skills were identified as essential. The 10 skills ranked as most important were:
    • Communicating
    • Public relations
    • Leading
    • Planning
    • Establishing and maintaining a good office image
    • Budget accountability
    • Decision making
    • Evaluating
    • Staff support
    • Motivating
  • The gender of the county director was the most consistent predictor for response differences. 5
  • Management training, management experience, age, and educational level of the county director were also significant predictors of response differences.
  • Whether a county was rural or urban wasn't a significant predictor.
  • The skills required to be an effective county director hadn't changed significantly since 1977, but the relative importance of the skills changed considerably. Only three of the top 10 skills identified in 1977 remain in the top 10 today. These three were communicating, evaluating, and decision making.

The finding that personnel management was identified as the most essential administrative function underscores the need for providing management training for county directors. In an era of financial accountability, an efficiently organized staff is critical to delivering cost-effective programs. The results showing that female county directors had different attitudes toward the skills needed may be due to the fact that, historically, it has been more difficult for a woman to become a county director, and women achieving these positions have tended to exhibit strong leadership characteristics. The findings also suggest that county directors who have had some form of management training, were younger, and had higher levels of formal educational attainment were more favorably inclined to participate in future management training. The fact that no differences existed between rural and urban county directors shows that separate management training programs aren't necessary. The order of importance of the skills needed to be an effective county director has changed, pointing out the need for periodic study of these skills to keep management training current.

Applying the Results

The most challenging part of any study is applying the results in a useful manner. Here are some of the ways that the Georgia Extension Service is trying to use the results.

Management Development Institute

In 1982, the Georgia Extension Service developed an institute for all newly appointed county directors. The curriculum includes workshops and seminars for acquiring practical skills through realistic case studies and other situation-based training. Self-tests help participants to assess their own strengths and weaknesses. Featured speakers are selected based on their expertise in identified skill areas. Experienced county directors who have been successful in specific areas such as public relations or budget accountability are placed in instructor roles. The study results have been used to focus on those management skills most needed by county directors. In addition, using the results as part of the curriculum demonstrated to county staffs that their input into management training is needed and sought by the administration.6

Career Enhancement Training

The findings have made administrators aware of the need for training agents in a much broader curriculum than has been done in the past. The core training curriculum has been changed to provide early training in the management-related skills identified by this study. Subsequent in-service training will provide for progressive development of these skills. This approach promotes team effectiveness.7 In addition, management-skills training helps individuals develop career aspirations and allows administrators to identify potential county directors.

Identifying Selection Criteria

The study showed that being a successful county agent isn't the only prerequisite for becoming an effective county director. A number of skills critical to the role of director aren't routinely practiced by most county agents. Being more aware of these skills helps plan personnel selection criteria, counsel agents, re-structure jobs to improve upward mobility training, and develop other training programs.

Leadership Potential Assessment

Information about management skills could be used to develop a tool for assessing an agent's capability for leadership positions. It could also be valuable in planning an exercise for assessing training needs, as well as an aid in selecting new directors.

Position Descriptions Development

A better understanding of essential skills and their relative importance allows state and staff development personnel to refine position descriptions to more accurately portray job requirements.

Future Needs

Management skills studies should be replicated periodically to reflect changing environments. In this manner, Extension can continue to improve its capability to meet the needs of a diverse clientele. This study found that the actual administrative skills needed by a county director haven't changed during the past seven years, but the relative importance of these skills changed significantly. Extension management studies need to be conducted in other states to reflect the unique organizational and managerial environments of program delivery in those states. The results could be used to compare, contrast, and learn from the nationwide mosaic of Extension's managerial styles.


1. Austin C. Vines and Marvin A. Anderson, Heritage Horizons: Extension's Commitment to People (Madison, Wisconsin: Journal of Extension, 1976).

2. Tom McCormick, "Becoming What We Are, " Journal of Extension, XV (July/August 1977), 6-11.

3. Jerry E. Whiteside, "Validation of Professional Competencies Essential to Performing the Administrative Role of County Extension Director in the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service " (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens, 1985).

4. T. F. Rodgers, "Competencies Critical to the Administrative Role of the County Extension Chairman " (Ph.D. dissertation, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, 1977).

5. In six of the nine models analyzed by stepwise discriminant analysis, whether the county director respondent was male or female explained the largest percentage of the response variance. A separate "t " test confirmed that there was a significant difference in the mean responses of male and female county directors.

6. M. F. Smith and John T. Woeste, "In-Service Training: Does It Make a Difference? " Journal of Extension, XXI (January/February 1983), 22-26.

7. Keith L. Smith, Jr., David McCracken, and Turiman Suandi, "Agents' Organizational Commitment, " Journal of Extension, XXI (May/June 1983), 21-26.

8. Linda Nunes Manton and J. C. Van Es, "Why Do Extension Agents Resign? " Journal of Extension, XXIII (Fall 1985), 27-30.