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The Official Baldrige Blog

Lions, Tigers, and Baldrige: A Zoo's Use of Baldrige Helps Secure Better World for Animals


As a writer for the Baldrige Program, I have a lot of fun learning about how various people and organizations use the Baldrige Excellence Framework to guide, focus, and improve their operations.  

I recently had the pleasure of a virtual conversation with Shannon Block, president and CEO of the Denver Zoo, on how the zoo is using Baldrige principles to achieve its mission, and how she is using these principles to successfully run the organization. It was especially gratifying to learn how Baldrige can help zoos be agile and nimble enough to tackle the sometimes-overwhelming issue of animal conservation around the world.

How did you learn about Baldrige?

I learned about Baldrige for the first time when I was the chief business development officer at Denver Health. I attended an awards ceremony when it clicked for me. Since then, I have used the philosophy when I was the CEO of Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers and now as the CEO and president of the Denver Zoo. I'm not sure I'd be a CEO today if I hadn't understood those Baldrige principles I saw as an observer in that awards ceremony.

How has Baldrige helped you get where you are today as a CEO? What learning has been most valuable?

What is most valuable to me is understanding the strategic framework to run an organization; understanding that the order in which you do things is important. Mission, vision, and values come first. They are the soul of the organization. When we go down the road and make decisions that sometimes make us want to pull our hair out, the reason we get through it, the reason we understand it, is because they are decisions that help us move forward with our mission, vision and values. Then we have these big rocks in the road in the way of accomplishing our mission, vision, and values. Those are called strategic imperatives. From there, a strategic plan can be developed and people can be held accountable. The strategic framework helps people in the organization move together to accomplish goals. It doesn't matter if you are running cancer centers or a zoo, the same basic principles apply.

How do Baldrige principles help you with your work at the Denver Zoo? Can

you share a story of a decision made at the zoo, inspired by Baldrige, that made you proud or helped animals, etc.?

A strategic framework helps us move forward in a way that is constantly reinforcing our mission, vision and values. Denver Zoo's mission is to secure a better world for animals through human understanding. Our strategic imperatives are around the guest experience, education/conservation, and financial predictability and management. This has changed the way we think about animal enclosure space. For example, given our mission, our first big project is making a new home for our tigers. But, because of our strategic plan, when this exhibit is completed next year, we will also be activating it from an educational standpoint. And, that will help us deliver our conservation message, which will hopefully help raise philanthropic support for our conservation projects around the globe. Leveraging the strategic framework allowed these cross-functional conversations of envisioning exhibit design and activation at the zoo with a logic that everyone could get behind--whether he/she was from the animal department, education department, or conservation biology team.

How do you think other CEOs, other zoos, might benefit from the use of Baldrige?

I'm presenting to other zoo executives across North America this coming September on how to use these principles to successfully run an organization. As zoos move into the future, we need to be nimble in identifying new solutions to protect animals around the world. Many animals are going extinct at such as fast rate that it becomes overwhelming sometimes to think about where to start to help. The Baldrige principles can help zoos stay focused as we try to make a difference for animals all over the world.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I also am a firm believer that culture eats strategy for lunch. I always encourage new executives to apply the Baldrige strategic framework to understand change management. Change happens fast, but transition is slow. And, there are very normal emotions that come along with change. Creating an environment where your employees can talk through those emotions and realize that they are normal can help strategic frameworks advance in a lasting way that also respects most organizations' biggest asset--their people!

About the author

Dawn Bailey

Dawn Bailey is a writer/editor for the Baldrige Program and involved in all aspects of communications, from leading the Baldrige Executive Fellows program to managing the direction of case studies, social media efforts, and assessment teams. She has more than 25 years of experience, 18 years at the Baldrige Program. Her background is in English and journalism, with degrees from the University of Connecticut and an advanced degree from George Mason University.

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Dawn, thank you for sharing this fascinating story about the use of the Baldrige Excellence Framework by the CEO of the Denver Zoo. Stories like these need to be broadcasted and published in as many places as possible to get the "Baldrige" message out.
Dawn, a terrific story! Most people I meet think the Baldrige is just for profit organizations or healthcare, this is a wonderful example of how the principles apply to all types of organizations, no matter who they are or what they do. Thank you for sharing!

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