In the following interview, she shares key insights and results of her learning through the Fellows Program to use the Baldrige framework to boost leadership practices and her organization’s drive toward excellence.
What are some of the drivers for your participation in the Baldrige Executive Fellows program? How did you learn of this program, and how do you think your participation has benefitted AARP?
I have always believed that the Baldrige Executive Fellows program is an opportunity for transformational growth—from both an organizational and a personal perspective. A colleague of mine was a former Baldrige Fellow, and my boss—the CEO of AARP (A. Barry Rand)—previously led an organization (Xerox) to become a two-time winner of the Baldrige Award. After I joined the AARP Foundation as president in 2010, they both encouraged me to participate in the program—and I’m glad that I pursued the opportunity.
As a Fellow, I was able to establish invaluable connections and garner insights into how other leading organizations—both private and public—are developing and implementing innovative, effective strategies in support of operational excellence and leadership development. In my current role as chief operating officer of AARP, I’ve been able to tap many of the other leaders in my cohort and draw on the diversity of perspectives and experiences they offer.
What are some of your key learnings about the Baldrige Excellence Framework (which includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence) and organizations that have used this framework? How did your perceptions change (if applicable) as you learned more about Baldrige as a Fellow?
My experience as a Baldrige Executive Fellow exceeded my expectations of the program. It is much more than a program about organizational performance; it also delves into the discipline and leadership skills required to create and sustain a world-class organization.
A significant insight that is often undervalued is that the leadership and senior management must model their organization’s mission consistently, with passion and enthusiasm. They must truly “walk the talk”—particularly during times of change. Change is more than just sending directives via e-mail and mandating that people do things differently. Effective change really does happen from the top down and swells from the ground up. Leaders must be willing to communicate and model the change in an ongoing, transparent, and consistent manner.
Tell us about the latest improvement efforts at AARP; how has your organization been using the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence?
The Baldrige framework challenges us to think and act strategically and make an unvarnished assessment of our staff, structure, and resources to ensure that we operate from a position of strength, which allows us to achieve our mission. The Baldrige Criteria have guided how we approach our planning processes and build capacity with a focus on developing skilled practitioners.
The Baldrige Criteria were instrumental in driving our organization to seek and listen to the voices of those we serve. It’s not enough to just provide programs and services to struggling seniors and older adults—we need to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our clients in ways that are appropriate and satisfying to them. With the Baldrige Criteria as our guide, we have implemented a customer feedback loop for all of our programs and for the volunteers that serve in our programs. It is providing us with actionable feedback that allows us to excel at living up to our mission. What do you see as the key challenges for large nonprofits today, and how do you think these might be overcome?
Nonprofit organizations—no matter their size—are faced with delivering services in a cost-effective manner, while ensuring quality and meaningful impact. Too often, nonprofits have limited staffs or have historical approaches, which hinder innovative approaches and optimization to better meet their mission. With the ongoing changes in technology, tighter funding sources, and increased competition to reach donors, nonprofits have to be resourceful and think and act strategically. This includes tapping into new funding sources and creating new (and sometimes nontraditional) partnerships to serve clients while being accountable, transparent, efficient, and effective.
I believe that the Baldrige Criteria provide a great roadmap to help generate a world-class, results-oriented organization. For any nonprofit to be successful, it must work with its leadership and its board of directors to maintain organizational integrity and consistently apply the principles to its work.
What do you see as key benefits of Baldrige?
The goal of any nonprofit is to create processes that allow us to spend more time on our mission and less time on administration. Applying the principles of the Baldrige Criteria can help an organization perform and become more efficient, thus engaging more donors to help achieve the organization’s mission.
Readers: If you are an aspiring or current C-level executive of an organization, consider the benefits of participating in the Baldrige Executive Fellows program. For more information and the annual deadline for applications, see the Baldrige website at www.nist.gov/baldrige/fellows.
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