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The Official Baldrige Blog

Two Inspirational Leaders Honored for Commitment to Excellence


For their leadership that has inspired performance excellence in their organizations and benefited their workforces, customers, and students, Mary Searcy Bixby and E. David Spong were recently honored at the 29th Annual Baldrige Quest for Excellence© Conference.

Mary Searcy Bixby

In recognizing Bixby as this year’s Harry S. Hertz Leadership Award winner, Baldrige Foundation Chair P. George Benson said, "While no one person in the organization can be credited with that organization’s performance excellence, this award recognizes all of the leader’s behaviors that inspire . . . are courageous, challenge, and empower others to achieve performance excellence.” Benson added that Bixby is a “transformational leader,” an “educational reformer,” an “innovator and pioneer in successfully addressing the needs of at-risk students,” and a “role model for educators everywhere.”


Accepting the honor, Bixby, the founder, president, and CEO of Baldrige Award recipient Charter School of San Diego, acknowledged her team and said, “Leadership is not a singular. It’s a plural.”

Bixby encouraged leaders and “organizations that wish to be futuristic” to invest in research that supports people and finds systems that can help them improve. She suggested that all leaders at every level deserve mentorship, support, and coaching.

“I do believe that our work is not just supporting our organizations and moving them into the future, but also inspiring others,” said Bixby. “There is change in the wind . . . for better or for worse. . . . Our clients, our patients, our students have discovered a voice, and I think that’s a good thing. Because guess what, they want the best. They want quality.”

Bixby said it’s important for all of us to look critically at how to improve. When we get data or information, "we need to be sure that it’s timely. It’s actionable. And it’s accurate. We can use it to make meritorious decisions. That’s what we did at our school. When we work with our workforce . . . our issue is to help prepare them in the best way we can so that they can touch the hearts of our students.”

The Charter School of San Diego, said Benson, has achieved phenomenal results, including continued overall student and parent satisfaction levels at close to 100 percent, reduced drop-out rates, and equalized or exceeded county-wide graduation rates. In addition, the school has maintained teacher and staff satisfaction levels and teacher and staff retention rates; “thereby creating the stability that ultimately brings benefits to students,” he said.

Bixby said her team has traveled across the country in this last year visiting school systems that “are eager to open that door to the Baldrige experience.”

“[Baldrige] was never work that was on top of our own work,” she said. “It was integrated from the beginning. This is our lives. Baldrige has opened doors to us, and we will be eternally grateful. We are willing to give back. . . . We are teachers. We transform lives. And we are Baldrige.”

David Spong

“To receive the E. David Spong Lifetime Achievement  Award, an individual must have a sustained, exceptional, and far-reaching contribution to the Baldrige enterprise,” said Benson of the new award. “Lifetime achievement award recipients change their worlds and inspire others to do the same. It is fitting then that the award should be named after and its first recipient should be David Spong.”


Benson added that through Spong’s 54-year career and well into his retirement, he has held multiple leadership roles including president of ASQ, chairman of the Baldrige Foundation Board of Directors, chairman of the Baldrige Board of Overseers, and chair of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Visiting Committee of Advanced Technology.

Spong, who said he was attending his nineteenth Baldrige Quest conference, said his life-long journey towards excellence started with a feeling of “maybe I’ll get there” but has come to believing fervently in the “Big Q.”

He grew up the youngest of five children in England, with a singular goal in mind. “There was no doubt where I was heading. I was going to be an engineer working on airplanes,” he said.

In 1956, Spong became an apprentice in the United Kingdom Ministry of Supplies Facility (also known at various times as the Balloon Factory and Royal Aircraft Establishment). He said he received his first lesson in the importance of quality working on a replica of a 1917 airplane. His assignment was to work on a steel plate that had to be hacksawed and filed, flat and square; no machines allowed. “At some point, I realized I made a mistake with the angle,” he said. “I continued to work on it hoping that no one would notice. At some point, the apprentice master . . . said there’s something funny about that. He measured it . . . and he said, ‘Start over, lad.’ I spent many hard-working hours . . . but it didn’t conform to the drawings.” This first very important lesson, Spong said, he calls “Little Q”--conformance to requirements or specifications.

Some 40 years later, after emigrating to America, Spong joined the aerospace industry to work on the “then beleaguered C-17 program.” About the same time, he said, his chairman and CEO, Sandy McDonnell, of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, put out a memo that the company would use the Baldrige Criteria in its business.

“It was a long-term, total quality management system and internal evaluation,” Spong said. “I remember thinking at the time, who has time for this soft stuff. We have airplanes to build. However, we dutifully wrote our internal [Baldrige] application and performed a self-assessment. . . . Over time, our scores got better, and wonder of wonder, I noticed our performance was getting better, too.”

Spong said that after Boeing Airlift and Tanker Programs (McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997) received the Baldrige Award in 1999, “I was a full fledged believer in what I call Big Q.”

At Boeing, Spong said the company kept applying for the Baldrige Award, receiving feedback, and learning. Boeing Aerospace Support, which Spong led to a Baldrige Award in 2003, made him the only leader to guide his organizations to Baldrige Awards in two different sectors: manufacturing and service.

At the close of his remarks, Spong thanked his family and told the story of his granddaughter being nicknamed “Baby Baldrige” because she attended her first Quest conference at just two months old.

He added, “It took me 40 years to come back to where I was in the beginning: inspect my work and make sure it conforms. . . . Go forth and live the Big Q!”

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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Wow, it is so very inspirational to read these stories. Thank you Dawn, for posting. It is so refreshing, to witness these successes! Congratulations to you both, Ms Bixby and Mr. Spong. You've influenced many. DF

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