Leadership practices of Stellar Solutions

April 22, 2018 by ahmed

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Originally posted on Blogrige by Dawn Bailey

Five-Part Leadership Blog Series
In this five-part blog series on the 2017 Baldrige Award recipients’ leadership presentations at the 30th Anniversary Quest for Excellence® Conference (April 8–11, 2018), senior leaders of the five new national role models share best practices and stories of how they achieved excellence.

“Scientists Do Some Really Cool Stuff”
Stellar Solutions, a woman-owned, aerospace engineering services business, has a noble vision: to align its employees’ dream jobs with critical customer needs, and among those customers are NASA, U.S. troops, the FAA, and even those of us who watch cable TV.

According to Celeste Ford, founder and CEO, satellites in the sky send invisible signals to ground stations that turn them into meaningful data that allow us to receive cable signals and intelligence analysts and troops in the field to be informed. Stellar Solutions’ customers are those government and commercial entities that receive the needed data. “We pull [the data] together from end to end because there are different people building all of those things [from satellites to ground stations], and they have to work together. So, we’re systems engineers and systems integrators. . . . From SpaceX to the war in Syria, we work on the projects that give intelligence and information to our troops so that our government can do the right thing. Mission to Mars, we’re working on that, too,” she added.

Ford said one way that Stellar Solutions has differentiated itself is to cross boundaries. “In aerospace, there are companies that handle civil and commercial, but . . . we do it all and take the nuggets of information from one sector to another as needed. And that is really a differentiator to getting things done quickly and innovatively,” she said.

A Focus on Sustainability, Continuity
A few years after founding the company in 1995, Ford said, they were getting good results, but “I always had this paranoia that I didn’t want to be the single point of failure as a founder. Now we had employees who were having babies and depending on us for putting food on their tables, so sustainability and continuity really became important to me.”

In 2004, the company chose the Baldrige Excellence Framework. Why? Said Ford, “Because Baldrige is a framework that holds you accountable to what you think is important. It’s not a prescriptive checklist that makes you like everybody else, a fill-in-the-squares kind of thing.”

Ford said the leadership staff viewed the Baldrige “Steps Toward Mature Processes” graphic. “I thought we were perfect because we were already doing everything that I could think of. . . . Then we sat down and said, besides financial results, what are our [forward-looking] metrics? How do we hold ourselves accountable for the most important thing [our vision: to satisfy our customers’ critical needs while realizing our dream jobs]? Our whole company is about that alignment. But how do you put a metric around that besides your gut?”

When they started with the Baldrige framework, Ford said, we knew we had processes “because we got stuff done,” but there was no consensus. Today, the company has 16 defined processes supported by metrics. A monthly leadership meeting called Convergence, in addition to quarterly meetings, is used to focus and review the metrics and processes. In addition, templates are used to depict the processes; each template has a box for “what we care about the most” and the Baldrige evaluation factors.

“We built Baldrige into the DNA of our company,” said Ford. “There isn’t a separate Baldrige thing. It’s just who we are.”

100% Customer Satisfaction
Stellar Solutions’ focus on its employees can be seen in its Fortune magazine’s distinction as “A Great Place to Work.” This distinction is super important, said Ford, “because we’re a services business. Our people are our products. You need to keep them, and you need to attract really good ones to do this hard work.”

Of the nearly 200 Stellar employees, each employee can recite the vision. “It’s not something on a wall. It’s something that drives us every day,” she said.

Ford said the company compares itself with the top 50 best companies because “we don’t want to compare ourselves to the average.” Recent results show that 97% of employees say that the Stellar Solutions Leadership Team “shows sincere interest in me as a person, not just an employee”; 97% say the Leadership Team “genuinely seeks and responds to my suggestions and ideas”; 97% say the Leadership Team’s “actions match its words”; 98% say the Leadership Team “is honest and ethical in its business practices”; and 100% say “I feel good about the ways we contribute to the community.”

No Such Thing as a Plan on the Shelf
Every single employee is involved in the annual strategic planning process. The focus is on “identifying what our current customers need, what new programs are out there that we should be working on, and what is happening and what should we do about it. . . . There’s no such thing at Stellar as a corporate plan that sits on an ivory shelf that no one looks at,” said Ford. “Every goal came from somebody for a good reason, from our customers’ critical needs and employee alignment with their dream jobs. Everyone owns a piece of our strategic plan. That’s important.”

Stellar Solutions is organized by customer, with six goals or strategic perspectives:

Goal 1: Current Customers
(who are asked what’s the right size, right scope for Stellar Solutions’ involvement)

Goal 2: Future Customers
(focus is on innovation, new high-impact programs)

Goal 3: Situational Awareness
(to inform the way ahead, the question is asked, what customers and things should we be focusing on three years out?)

Goal 4: Stellar Workforce
(attracting and retaining key players)

Goal 5: Business Operations
(scaling smartly and working at “the speed of customers’ needs”)

Goal 6: Community Support
(Stellar Solutions includes Stellar Foundation to support community engagement and QuakeFinder, a project to build and qualify algorithms to detect earthquake precursor signals)

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