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The Official Baldrige Blog

Focus on the 2019 Judges Panel: JoAnn Sternke

Baldrige Judges Panel JoAnn Sternke photo
2019 Judges Panel Blog Series

Each year we interview the newest members of the Judges’ Panel of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award to share their individual insights and perspectives on the award process, their experiences, and the Baldrige framework and approach to organizational improvement in general.

The primary role of the Judges’ Panel is to ensure the integrity of the Baldrige Award selection process. Based on a review of results of examiners’ scoring of written applications (the Independent and Consensus Review processes), judges vote on which applicants merit Site Visit Review (the third and final examination stage) to verify and clarify their performance in all seven Criteria categories of the Baldrige Excellence Framework. The judges also review reports from site visit to recommend to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce which organizations to name as U.S. role models—Baldrige Award recipients. No judge participates in any discussion of an organization for which he/she has a real or perceived conflict of interest. Judges serve for a period of three years.

Meet Baldrige Judge JoAnn Sternke

Sternke was appointed to the Judges’ Panel last year.

JoAnn Sternke Baldrige Judge photo

Dr. JoAnn A. Sternke
Senior Director and Coach
Studer Group



What experiences led you to the role of Baldrige judge?

Baldrige is personal to me. I truly became a better leader due to using the Baldrige Excellence Framework [which includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence]. My passion and belief in the Baldrige framework is deep and real. I live, breathe, and—some might say—bleed Baldrige (though I realize that sounds a bit graphic)!

I joined the Board of Examiners of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award as a new examiner in 2011. During the seven consecutive years I then served as an examiner before becoming a judge, I loved going on site visits and especially enjoyed leading a team as a senior examiner.

I credit the Wisconsin Center for Performance Excellence (and the many dedicated state-level Baldrige-based award programs throughout our country) for giving me experience as an examiner and as a judge prior to serving at the national level. The regional and state-level programs are the runway for success, and I urge people to get involved with and learn from the network of such programs that are members of the nonprofit Alliance for Performance Excellence. Those experiences gave me both the skills and confidence to serve at the national level (with the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program). 

I believe I also have a unique perspective because I led the Pewaukee School District [as superintendent] to become a Baldrige Award recipient in 2013 and now work for Studer Group, a 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recipient. To say I’m proud of these experiences is a total understatement. These experiences have grounded me in my pledge to make sure we are offering Baldrige Award applicants actionable, understandable feedback that will help them get to the next level in their performance as organizations.That’s very important to me as a Baldrige judge. 

I love reading Baldrige Award applications, so serving on the Judges Panel is right up my alley. I get excited as a I read the stories of organizations that are leveraging the Baldrige framework to improve. It’s terrific to see how they are mission-driven, deploying processes that are making a difference, and getting stellar results. 

Last April I was honored to receive the Harry Hertz Leadership Award from the Foundation for the Baldrige Award. Serving as an ambassador for the Baldrige Program, I have relished telling the stories of both Pewaukee School District and Studer Group. I want to inspire others to use the Baldrige Excellence Framework as their driver of continuous improvement. I know it works!

In every one of these roles, I have learned more that has deepened my respect for the Baldrige Program's mission and the Baldrige framework. 

How do you see the Baldrige Excellence Framework as valuable to organizations in your sector?

In my field of expertise—education—I see the Baldrige Excellence Framework as such a useful tool for focusing on what truly gets results. For those of us in education, those results can change the trajectory of students’ lives. Results matter, and we must be as diligent and dedicated to building systems that attain those results for the students and families we serve. 

I love that the Baldrige Excellence Framework isn’t prescriptive; it’s not a do list. It asks challenging yet insightful questions so leaders can better create and deploy approaches that get results. Personally, I learned how to think “like a system” using the Baldrige Excellence Framework. I learned how using a systems approach made us more innovative and sustainable—and these two qualities are so important in today’s world.

How do you apply Baldrige principles/concepts in your current work experience/employer?

Now that I am not leading a school district, I am working with educational leaders in many types of institutions from K-12 school districts to community colleges to large universities. All share a common bond: they want to get better at getting better.  It is so rewarding to help them on this journey.

When I was a school district superintendent using the Baldrige Excellence Framework, I distilled the “Baldrigian” language into four key priority areas (aligned with the following categories of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence): People (categories 1, 3, 5), Plan (category 2), Results (built in category 4, displayed in category 7), and Process (category 6). I now have the privilege of working with educational leaders to help them apply the Baldrige Excellence Framework. This framework is still the heart of my work. I give people tools to better serve people; develop and deploy a plan; identify key desired results and then monitor progress toward those goals; and improve their key processes. I love what I do and I know that it matters. 

As a judge, what are your hopes for the judging process? For instance, is there anything you’d like to help applicants and potential Baldrige Award applicants understand about the process?

It’s an honor to serve as a Baldrige judge—and a huge responsibility. I will never forget the call I received from the Secretary of Commerce letting me know that the Pewaukee School District was a Baldrige Award recipient. I am dedicated to a process that is fair and thorough, built on integrity. I want to make sure that we continue to work with the highest standards in mind as we identify national role-model organizations through the Baldrige Award process. I personally know how much I have learned from the many role-model organizations that have also earned Baldrige Awards. I know the impact they have, so I take this responsibility very seriously. Having led a Baldrige Award recipient organization, I also know that it’s vital that Baldrige feedback reports offer actionable information that enables organizations to learn and grow. This is important to me, as well. 

Last year was my first year on the Baldrige Judges Panel, and I came away with the utmost respect for the other 11 judges on the panel. They are smart, insightful, and SOOOOO dedicated. We all care about the program, the applicant organizations, and the important task we are charged with.

What encouragement/advice would you give Baldrige examiners for their work in evaluating organizations as part of the Baldrige Award process?

First of all, I respect their dedication—considering all the hours examiners put in. I recognize the commitment they make and value of the insight they bring to the process. I’m grateful to them and want them to know that they make a difference to the organization whose application they are reviewing. Leaders in this organization will set priorities using their feedback. Their work will help that organization focus on its improvement journey. I thank examiners for pursing the process with the applicant in mind, that is, what feedback will help the organization the most? What are its strengths? What are its key opportunities to improve?

Judges Panel Blog Series: Previous Blogs

Kristin Steuhouwer (Panel Chair)
Allison Carter
Glenn Crotty
Eric Fletcher
Kevin McManus
John Molenda, Jr.
Bruce Requa

Upcoming Blog Interviews

Amy Katschman
Christopher Laxton
Brigitta Mueller
Patricia Skriba

2019-2020 Baldrige Excellence Framework Business/Nonprofit cover artwork

Baldrige Excellence Framework

The Baldrige Excellence Framework has empowered organizations to accomplish their missions, improve results, and become more competitive. It includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence, core values and concepts, and guidelines for evaluating your processes and results.

Purchase your copy today!

Available versions: Business/Nonprofit, Education, and Health Care

About the author

Christine Schaefer

Christine Schaefer is a longtime staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (BPEP). Her work has focused on producing BPEP publications and communications. She also has been highly involved in the Baldrige Award process, Baldrige examiner training, and other offerings of the program.

She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar and a double major, receiving highest distinction for her thesis in the interdisciplinary Political & Social Thought Program. She also has a master's degree from Georgetown University, where her studies and thesis focused on social and public policy issues. 

When not working, she sits in traffic in one of the most congested regions of the country, receives consolation from her rescued beagles, writes poetry, practices hot yoga, and tries to cultivate a foundation for three kids to direct their own lifelong learning (and to PLEASE STOP YELLING at each other—after all, we'll never end wars if we can't even make peace at home!).

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