CEO Lessons From a 2017 Malcolm Baldrige Award Winner
Listen to Episode 142:
Episode 142 Transcript:
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success. On the web at businessadvance.com.
And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris! I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. Sitting right across from me, as always, is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott!
Scott Harper: Hi, Pam. It’s always a pleasure to join you for another episode of Growth Igniters® Radio. And, as always, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves − and their companies − to their next level of game-changing innovation, growth, and success.
Now, Pam, as companies move to that next level and transform and grow, there’s a lot of moving parts that come in to play. The bigger that they are, the more things have to be coordinated. A process can be a real help sometimes.
Pam Harper: Yes. It really is a paradox; in fact, we call it the growth paradox.
Scott Harper: Right.
Pam Harper: That is, the organization that supports us also constrains us. Leadership teams that are mindfully navigating this paradox, we believe, are the ones are the best at igniting and sustaining the game-changing growth and success that is so important, especially, in uncharted territory.
Scott Harper: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: And our guest today has been navigating in uncharted territory her whole career. She is Celeste Ford, Founder and CEO of Stellar Solutions. Her company is a global provider of systems engineering expertise, and a recognized leader in government and commercial aerospace programs that are focused on high impact projects and satisfying customer critical needs, in alignment with employees’ dreams jobs.
Celeste is a proven leader of the Stellar Constellation of Companies, which includes Stellar Solutions Incorporated, which is engineering services; Stellar Solutions Aerospace Limited, their UK based affiliate; Stellar Solutions Aerospace France; Quake Finder, their humanitarian R & D division; and the Stellar Solutions Foundation.
Celeste a valued member of the board of multiple organizations in the private and public sectors. She is also a recognized and respected personality in her field, having served on Congressional commissions as well as on panels focusing on entrepreneurship and women in business, and is an active advocate of community and charity outreach.
She received her BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and MS in Aerospace Engineering from Stanford University. You can see much more of Celeste’s bio by going to growthignitersradio.com and selecting episode 142.
Celeste, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio!
Celeste Ford: Thanks! Happy to be here!
Pam Harper: Tell us a bit about what led you to become founder and CEO of Stellar Solutions. It’s really an interesting story.
Celeste Ford: Well, I had been in the aerospace industry from the beginning, when I graduated from college. I had worked for three different companies prior to starting Stellar. The first was commercial and international aerospace. The second was defense and intelligence and civil and all the government types of space engineering. The third was a small business that was more in the software area, and I brought the space focus to one of their projects.
After working for a while in the industry, and looking not just at my own experience, but the world out there − I felt that it was very much geared toward climbing a ladder that somebody else had invented or running after a carrot that somebody else was dangling by their criteria of what was important. I guess I just thought I was ready to start with a clean slate. So I thought, if I did, what would it look like? It would look like focusing on critical needs only − just working on the most important things – and managing the size and the projects around that concept. And, of course, aligning assignments with your dream job.
Pam Harper: So, from the start, you had a very clear vision of what you saw for Stellar Solutions.
Celeste Ford: Yeah. I think when you wake up in the morning, you need to really like what you’re doing. If you do, then it isn’t work; it’s what you want to be doing. It’s what you have a passion about. If what you’re working on has high impact, and is satisfying a critical need, and makes the world a better place − well, the alignment of that with your dream job, it just doesn’t get better than that. The financial challenges, if you will, resolve themselves.
Scott Harper: Now, it’s not that unusual for companies, especially technical companies, to focus on their particular clients’ needs. That’s best practice across all the industries. It is much less usual, however, for top leadership to be talking about dream jobs, especially in the vision itself. How did that come about for you?
Celeste Ford: I think all of us have things we like to do, and don’t like to do. As I was reflecting on my own experience, I didn’t want to be the kind of boss where people woke up and were unhappy to come look you in the eye every day because they can’t stand what they’re doing. It was my own situation also − at the time, I had a very young family − if you’re going to be at work, it had better be for something important. I felt at that point in time that creating something where that was the content was really important for me, and for people like me.
Pam Harper: So, what does it really mean to have a dream job?
Celeste Ford: We hold ourselves accountable for what we say our vision is, so we ask our customers if we are satisfying a critical need, we ask our employees if we are satisfying a critical need, and we ask our employees if they’re in their dream job or working towards it. So, the feedback is as diverse and varied as there are people in the world, right?
For some people, a dream job is defined by particular job content, a particular program they’re working on. For some people, it needs to be a better commute. People articulate what’s most important to them, and they actually work towards solving and planning our future, so you can always be working towards that goal.
Pam Harper: That is so important. I find that, over the years, as we’ve been working with companies, that ones where people really can say, “this is a dream job,” in whatever that means − those are the ones that are most successful.
Scott Harper: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: Now, I was looking at all the awards that you and Stellar Solutions have won. Your approach has definitely meant a lot to people. One of the awards I noticed, in addition to the Baldrige − which we will talk about in a moment − is “Ten Coolest Companies To Work For In The Bay Area.” You also have the Fortune Best Medium Workplace, the Top 500 Women-Owned Businesses in the US, and so many others.
The Malcolm Baldrige Award is now the most recent. Maybe you can tell us a little more for people who are not as familiar with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, what it represents?
Celeste Ford: Sure. It was, first of all, quite an honor to receive that at the national level. It is awarded by the Department of Commerce. It started in the Reagan era, and only 100 companies have been awarded it since then. I’m definitely in great company, and inspiring company. I have to say, for our own journey, it wasn’t about the award itself.
As a business founder that is trying to build a company that is built to last, I was thinking, “Okay, we’re engineers. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, here.” In looking at all of the various approaches that were out there at the time, we went with the Baldrige framework. Why? Because, it’s not prescriptive. You’re not just going down a checklist. “Okay, we got this. Check. We got that. Check.” No. You have to say what is important and hold yourself accountable for it, and prove it. So, it’s very results-oriented and it’s very clear on the communications, and it deals with all various categories from leadership, to workforce, to customers. Half the award is your results, and half are the processes that support that.
Working with the Baldrige framework was good for us, because we felt we were different, and we didn’t want a checklist and a prescriptive thing to get some sort of award, or whatever. I think once we started using it– and by the way, it was really hard; you wouldn’t think it would be that hard, but to get your leadership together and to figure out what is important, and to figure out how you know you’re doing what you said you’re doing − that took a while. Many years later, we started to look at our results and improve things internally, and evaluate ourselves. We were just using this internally, to get ourselves organized. It does help to have goals, but it never started out as let’s get an award.
Somewhere down the line, we decided, “You know what? Let’s have somebody from the outside come evaluate us.” We did it at the state level, and then when you win the state level, they do the national one. That’s how we got that award.
Pam Harper: The thing that I also find fascinating about Baldrige is, that although it’s called the quality award, it’s also very much future focused.
Celeste Ford: Oh, absolutely. Innovation is a big part of it. How do you foster that? How do you not get surprised? It asks all the questions you want to ask yourselves. We found it a good framework. When I say, “built to last” − for Stellar, we wanted a sustainable business. I live in Silicon Valley, and that’s unusual now. Now, most companies are built to flip. It’s how quickly you can start, and flip it.
Scott Harper: So, Celeste, what were you surprised by in this process?
Celeste Ford: What surprised me was the camaraderie and positive feedback from every single employee who participated. It’s pretty much most of your company. In our company, we’re deployed offsite at our customers, so people had to come in to our office and meet with people as a group, or jump on telecons. The extent to which our Baldrige framework was deployed to each and every person in the company, and how each and every one of them could articulate our vision, and what they personally did that, made that vision a reality. It was absolutely amazing.
That’s one of the things that they ask you at Baldrige. Not just what’s your approach, but is it deployed? I think for a company like ours, where people are scattered to the winds, you know, we don’t have the coffee cooler where people are gathered around. We need to be onsite at clients fighting the fires. The fact that each and every employee and each and every geography and project could talk about Stellar in an integrated coherent fashion with enthusiasm, that was really heart warming. I think it really was a great team building experience for all of us, as well.
Pam Harper: So, there were a lot of lessons learned. Not just for you, and not just for the leadership team, but for the entire organization. That’s where we’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll talk more with Celeste Ford, founder and CEO of Stellar Solutions, about the lessons she’s learned about putting the Baldrige framework into action. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We are brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, on the web at businessadvance.com. We enable successful companies to accelerate to their next level of innovation, growth, and success to change the game.
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Celeste Ford, founder and CEO of Stellar Solutions, about lessons that she, her leadership team, and her organization learned from participating in the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award process.
Celeste, how can people find out more about you and Stellar Solutions?
Celeste Ford: Well, the easiest way is the visit our website, stellarsolutions.com.
Pam Harper: Okay; and there’s a lot of information there about all of the things that we’ve been talking about with regard to awards and all the different areas of your company. And, you can find out more about this episode by going to growthignitersradio.com and selecting episode 142.
So, Celeste, you are a visionary leader, yet one of the things that we were talking about is how important it is to engage others, employees and other stakeholders so that they too are ready to break free from the pull of familiar habits and routines. How do you encourage people, so that they’re comfortable moving into this uncharted territory?
Celeste Ford: Well, I think our secret, if you want to call it that, is that we have an inclusive strategic planning process. It’s really the glue that holds everything together. Every year, each and every person in the company participates through the sector they’re in. I didn’t mention, but Stellar Solutions has five points of the star; we have customers in intelligence, defense, civil, commercial, and international space sectors. Each of those points of the star or sectors has a set of strategic planning meetings. It gets kicked off with an email that asks everybody questions to think about, both relative to current customers and future cool things that we should be working on, and aren’t. Also, challenges and obstacles and what we need to remove to achieve our goals.
There is a series of face-to-face meetings and telecons that are arranged by the leads for each sector. By the way, you’re more than invited to participate in other sectors’ plans, especially if you are doing a job that aligns with, “gee, I might want to do something else in this town.” Or, “gee, I might want to move and work in a different sector.” The end product is a very specific, tactical plan for the next year that talks about each and every, what we call our goal one. Our current customers − right size, right scope. We have a very detailed structure in the end. For instance, if we’re going to add people, in what month, doing what task?
Then, we have goal two, which are our innovation goals, which is future customers, future projects. Again, what are they by name? Who is the customer closer? What month? This is all laid out in a goals sheet that we review as a leadership team every month.
And of course, we need to make adjustments, because life does not stand still. There is many a re-plan. Then, this is communicated through our workforce, with one on one meetings every month, as well as two big meetings a year. One is a regional meeting, where we get everyone together in their geography, and go through how we’re doing and what’s changed, and solicit input. That’s kind of a mid-year course correction. Then, the kick off is, of course, our annual meeting, where we bring everyone together and talk about what we’re doing in each sector in the future, as well as celebrating our successes from the prior year. That’s at our annual meeting.
And, oh, the most important thing − there is not a goal in our company strategic plan that does not reside in an individual’s bonus plan. So, it is fully integrated from top to bottom, and that’s how we do it.
Pam Harper: So, there’s reinforcement that keeps it all relevant. Great.
Now, literally, you are in uncharted territory. Outer space, right? How do you encourage somebody to do something that they have never done before, even though they have the goal in their plan? I know in a lot of other situations we’ve seen, people will worry about making mistakes.
Scott Harper: Or not know what to do.
Pam Harper: How do you deal with that?
Celeste Ford: Yeah, well, we very much embrace the idea of “try stuff.” In new employee orientation, one of my favorite quotes that we show right off the get-go is, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So, we encourage people to do the right thing for their customers and for themselves. And, we provide the training that goes along with that. When people fill out their dream job worksheets, a big part of that is identifying the training they need. Is this something you can just do now because you know how to do it? Or, is this something that you really need to get more training on before it’s a viable solution? We’re lifelong learners at Stellar. Nobody is ever done with that.
Scott Harper: Celeste, you referred a little bit ago to encouraging people to get involved in other sectors. We’ve read on your website that you talk about “crossing the boundaries” to really ramp up your innovation, solutions for clients. What is the key to reinforcing that type of collaboration across boundaries, when everybody knows that everyone has goals that they have to accomplish? “These are the things that I have to get done; these are on my plan for the year; this is what I’m being evaluated on.” How does collaboration across the boundaries come into play?
Celeste Ford: Well, from day one, people hear “crossing the boundaries, crossing the boundaries.” We are system engineers. The value that differentiates us from system engineers who work solely in intelligence or solely in commercial sectors, is that we can bring that diverse information and experience from point A to point B, and the customer doesn’t have to change their contract and pay extra to get it. We call that our “buy two, get two hundred” approach.
The way we share that information and deploy it is, because we are so spread out, is to use a lot of intra-company communication. For example, someone may do a “Stellar All” email and say, “Hey, I’ve got to store my satellite for two years. My launch vehicle is not ready. Does anyone have experience with that? What should we be on the lookout for?” You’ll get answers from people who have had that specific experience elsewhere, and then after the person gets all the information, because people typically need to go point to point and do deeper dives, they’ll come back to Stellar All, and say, “okay, here is what I learned.”
We all learn from each other − from the people who have been there and done that, even if it’s something we knew nothing about. That’s the primary way we support Crossing the Boundaries. The secondary way is to do what we call “shout outs.” So, we have a system at Stellar where we like to celebrate the individual, and we can learn from that as well, when we’re crossing the boundaries. A lot of it is, you may not know what people are doing. Some customers take the time to write letters, and you get exalted in front of others in your respective work project areas. But, sometimes they don’t.
So when you just see somebody doing something really special that made a big difference, you can call attention to it. Any employee can give a shout out to any other employee at any time, and they automatically get a bonus, and all of us get to hear about the great thing that person did. And we’re also learning more about each other and the kind of things that are available to our other customers from that. That’s a crossing the boundaries activity as well. We also call attention to crossing the boundaries accomplishments in our newsletters and the meetings we have as a group.
Scott Harper: How is that reinforced? Is crossing the boundaries in peoples’ individual performance plans? Is it reinforced in some other way?
Celeste Ford: We give bonuses for the “shout outs,” but we don’t give bonuses for crossing the boundaries, because we want people to think that is your job every day, for your customer and for each other, to really leverage the power of 200 people into the power of one. The main way we reinforce crossing the boundaries is to over-communicate it. We do have particular initiatives this year that we have identified that actually are specifically to cross the boundaries.
For example, our intelligence sector has made a great name for themselves to do with continuity of operations and resiliency. We said, you know, this is really important to more than just the intelligence community. How do we take what we’re doing there, and apply it to other government agencies and other commercial entities? So, there is a group of people who are off doing exactly that.
Scott Harper: That’s great.
Pam Harper: It sounds like learning is such a fundamental part of your culture. One of the things, of course, when you’re learning, is you’re coming up with all kinds of unexpected decisions that you might not have anticipated, you know? You discover something new, or life happens, and a challenge pops up. What is the key that you found to staying focused, yet nimble enough to respond to all of the unexpected things?
Celeste Ford: Well, I think it starts with a good strategic planning process, and also accountability tracking at a monthly level. As a leadership team, we have a convergence meeting, and we look at our results in each and every area − all our goals and how they’re going, time base, what makes sense, what doesn’t? What are the deltas this month? We talk about each and every employee − what’s going on in their life? Do they need extra support? We cover it all on a monthly basis, and we adjust to what we’re hearing. Honestly, we re-plan around what we’re learning.
We also have what we call “goal three,” our situational awareness. Those aren’t our goals for this year, but they’re in the next three to five years. What’s coming down the pipe? What conferences do we go to? What people do we talk to? How do we stay ahead of what is coming down the pipe? We have very specific things identified in our goal three, situational awareness, around that.
Of course, this is all possible because we think it is very important to have monthly face to face contact with each and every employee, and each and every customer. From there, we really learn what are the critical needs? What do we need to do differently?
Pam Harper: Okay, so, the whole idea of being very clear on your strategy, where you’re going, and also having that situational awareness makes a big difference, and incorporating it all together has clearly made a difference for Stellar Solutions.
Scott Harper: Yeah; that’s what leadership is about.
Pam Harper: We’re going to take another quick break, and when we come back, we’ll talk more with Celeste Ford, founder and CEO of Stellar Solutions, about immediately useful ideas for determining what it would take to apply this framework for your company. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Brought you by Business Advancement Incorporated. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com.
Scott Harper: Pam, we’ve been talking about increasing excellence and innovation for growth. All too often though, the transformative process this takes can bring us face to face with confronting challenging issues that everyone knows are there, but nobody wants to face. You know, the “elephants in the room.”
Now, leaving these issues unaddressed can create a huge cost of time, energy, and resources. That’s why we’ve written a Harper report called, “Taking Control Of The Elephants In The Room.”
Pam Harper: This is one of our more popular reports because it’s practical and addresses an issue that every leader and team faces at one point or another, especially when we’re moving fast. One executive team was able to shave six months off of their product launch and save millions of dollars by taking control of the elephants that were in their room.
Scott Harper: So, go to growthignitersradio.com, select episode 142 and request your complimentary copy of the report, “How To Take Control Of Elephants In The Room.”
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been talking with Celeste Ford, founder and CEO of Stellar Solutions, about lessons that she and her leadership team learned from participating in the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality process.
Celeste, can you tell us again how people can find out more about you and Stellar Solutions?
Celeste Ford: Yes, the best way to find out about Stellar Solutions is to go to our website, stellarsolutions.com.
Pam Harper: Okay; and remember that you can find out more about this episode’s show notes and all the rest, by going to growthignitersradio.com and selecting episode 142.
This is the part of our podcast where we like to talk about immediately useful ideas, so that as soon as everyone is done listening, they can go and take action. One of the things you mentioned, in one of the previous segments, was the importance of the conversations that take place with your leadership team about whether this really is right for us? What kinds of conversations are important around that?
Celeste Ford: I think that, as you answer the questions that the Baldrige process poses, you think, “I like that.” Again, it’s not a checklist. In adapting it to your company, you find that you’re not the same as everybody else. Everybody has something unique to bring to the table. Together, when you collaborate with your people to get to that information, you can create something good.
For us, it was that vision of laser sharp focus on customer critical needs, and the alignment with dream jobs. From there, we cascaded into a really good strategic planning process that was inclusive. Tying that to individual bonus plans and crossing the boundaries, and things that we wanted to make sure we are measuring as we grow all became very clear. We haven’t compromised on any of that, so that we can still have that small company feel even as we spread out geographically and grow.
I think what people don’t know about Baldrige − and it’s important − is that when you get evaluated, 50% is on your results. It’s not just a theory of life exercise and planning. No. You have to have processes, but you better be getting results from those processes, and it better be sustainable, and there had better be good trends, as well as levels.
Scott Harper: Okay. You have mentioned something very important. It’s one thing to have things written down, and have processes planned out and constructed, but it’s a whole different thing to put them into actual use. Creating the reality of, “yeah, we’re actually doing it and it’s creating good stuff for us” is so critical. What are some practical ideas that a leadership team can take to move from creating a framework to actually bringing it into life?
Celeste Ford: One thing that I learned is, you know, I think everybody has metrics in their business, and you look at them. The first question is, “are they the right ones? Are you looking at too many?” Sometimes, the question is, “what should we stop doing?” As much as, “what should we add?”
When it comes to results, the level of good, bad, and indifferent of whatever you’re looking at in your metric, is only one thing. Baldridge, I think, does this very well; they have this framework that you look at, not just your levels, but at your trends, comparisons, and integration. It’s one thing if we all sit around a table at our monthly leadership meetings and say, “wow, this level is really good,” but if it was higher the year before, and the year before, maybe it’s not so good. It just feels good because we’re working really hard to get those results.
Even more telling is the comparisons. If you don’t do that, even at the most basic level, you can say “look, oh, I’ve got good trends. I’ve got good levels.” Well, let’s say I am in aerospace and defense, and I grew two percent, or five percent, or seven percent. That was my trend. I’m like, “wow, I’m really doing great.” But if you’re about innovation in the future, you know, if things are growing at 10 percent and you’re not, that benchmarking and comparison is important for saying you could be doing better. I think that’s the other way to look at it.
Also, the integration of metrics is important. It can’t just be financial results, which is what everyone hones in on. That’s your rear view mirror. There’s also “what got you there? How is it integrated with employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, safety, and security?” It needs to be integrated to give you the results that you want.
Pam Harper: So, it’s not just about the metrics, it’s about what those metrics mean; taking that into the context is what is so important.
Scott Harper: Yeah. As the old saying goes, “you get what you measure,” but you better measure the right stuff that is actually relevant to what you want to get out.
Celeste Ford: Absolutely.
Pam Harper: So, Celeste, time has really gone by here. Do you have any final thoughts to leave us with on what it takes to lead your company into the future, while staying excellent today?
Celeste Ford: Well, I think you’ve heard it over and over from me, and I’ll say it again because it is the most important thing. It’s not rocket science. In any business, if you focus on satisfying your customer critical need, and aligning that with your workforce’s dream jobs, it is a good thing, and you will be successful.
My second take away is, “reach for the stars.”
Pam Harper: We’ll remember that. Celeste, thanks. It’s been a real pleasure.
Celeste Ford: Thank you very much.
Scott Harper: Thanks, Celeste. And, thanks to you out there to listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, read Celeste’s bio, or open a conversation with us, go to growthignitersradio.com and select episode 142.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success and leaving you with this question to discuss with your team.
Scott Harper: What can we learn from the Baldrige Award framework that could help us take our company to our next level of innovation, game changing growth and success?