ATD Blog

E.X.C.E.L.—Building a Program that "Encourages eXcellence through Coaching Empowerment"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I am part of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award board of examiners. In that role, I have to conduct site visits in organizations around the United States. It is amazing how these site visits help me to grow as a professional. After five years of site visits, it is almost impossible to walk anywhere without seeing things through a “Baldrige” lens. Hallways almost become matrixes, and my awareness of performance excellence is through the roof.

Performance excellence or excellent performance

During on particular visit, I could not help but notice a discussion between two “team members” about the difference between “performance excellence” and “excellent performance.” According to the Baldrige Criteria, “performance excellence” is achieved when an organization is generating the maximum level of profitability possible, given the human, financial, capital, and other resources it possesses.  On the other hand, “excellent performance” is an individual or collective performance greater than most.

Key practices in business excellence applied across functional areas in an enterprise include continuous and breakthrough improvement, preventative management, and management by facts.  An organization’s senior leaders should set a vision for the organization, create a customer focus, demonstrate clear and visible organizational values and ethics, and set high expectations for the workforce.

The Baldrige criteria, in fact, clearly states that the vision, values, and expectations should balance the needs of all stakeholders.  Leaders should also ensure the creation of strategies, systems, and methods for achieving performance excellence, stimulating innovation, building knowledge and capabilities, and ensuring organizational sustainability.

In other words, the key ingredient in the recipe for “performance excellence” is a visionary and empowering leadership. Leaders should serve as role models through their ethical behavior and their personal involvement in planning, providing a supportive environment for taking intelligent risks, communicating with, coaching and motivating the workforce, developing future leaders, reviewing organizational performance, and recognizing workforce members.

Enter E.X.C.E.L.

In my Learning and Development Leadership classes, I teach a model called E.X.C.E.L. (Encouraging eXcellence through Coaching Empowerment Leadership). This program aims to engage all leaders in the involvement of a short-learning-session or full-training delivery of any relevant field of studies that is available in our in-house training package per their availability to present it.

Basically, the objective of the program is to have more leaders involved in mentoring and coaching the employees. The program also aims to improve communication and relationships between senior leaders, managers, and the employees. In this model, leaders become teachers, coaches, and mentors.


Build your own E.X.C.E.L. program

Your organization would likely benefit from a program like E.X.C.E.L., which embeds learning into leadership initiatives, strategic planning, learning strategies, and most important, performance excellence.

Here are some issues your L&D team should be sure to include when developing a similar type of program.

Teach leaders to encourage excellence by embracing failure. The first step of the program is designed to help our leaders encourage excellence among team members. The program suggests that the two main ways to encourage performance excellence is by allowing team members to take intelligent risks and creating opportunities for innovation.

The E.X.C.E.L. Program engages the “thought leaders” to create a “failure free zone” in their work environment. Indeed, taking intelligent risks requires a tolerance for failure and an expectation that innovation is not achieved by initiating only successful endeavors. At the outset, organizations must invest in potential successes while realizing that some will lead to failure. The degree of risk that is intelligent to take will vary by the pace and level of threat and opportunity in the industry.

 Innovation benefits from a supportive environment, a process for identifying strategic opportunities, and a willingness to pursue intelligent risks. Successful organizational innovation is a multistep process of development and knowledge sharing, a decision to implementation, evaluation, and learning.


Teach leaders to communicate with team members and develop strong relationships. In my 2010 T+D article, “Heroes and Sidekicks: Ensuring Proper Followership,” I emphasized the importance of a strong relationship between leaders and team members by creating a “followership” program. In the article, I mentioned that the critical factor with workforce and leadership development is to invest in both the employees' and leaders' skills in partnership with one another. Programs should be developed with a counter-partnership point of view. There cannot be a leadership without a followership.

A great way to enhance communication between leaders and followers (team members) is by using social media. The E.X.C.E.L. program presents a creative solution for large organizations, where  relationships between leaders and team members can be difficult because of distance or time zones. The solution is called “chatting with the leader.”

The plan is to have leaders connect with team members at least once a month. Leaders would be on the department online forum for one hour to communicate and answer all questions from employees, including questions related to learning and development opportunities in the department.  During the session, the leaders would share their expectations and important company initiatives to bring the organization forward.

Teach leaders to empower teams through coaching. Another piece of the E.X.C.E.L. program is dedicated to teach leaders how to empower their team members through coaching. Coaching is a powerful, professional alliance focused on personal and professional development. 

Typically, a relationship begins with an exploratory session through which they determine whether the relationship is a good fit. It is very difficult to see ourselves as others see us. The irony is that our self-image is at least in part a reflection of how others see us. However, we tend to judge ourselves by our good intentions while others judge us by what they observe or what they think they observe. Some people are much more sensitive to criticism than others. The most sensitive areas for feedback relate to job performance and integrity. Leaders should be engaged in coaching sessions that are not only related to job performance, but also empowerment to excellence. 

Key concepts you need to include when developing your own E.X.C.E.L. program.

  • Leaders need to make sure they continuously check on their team members.
  • Leaders should first start asking “How are you?” Really!  Leaders need to assure that all the information discussed is completely confidential. Trust must be built.
  • There are likely to be unanswered questions and the reflection process will continue over the next few days.
  • Leaders need to make sure that they set aside some time for reflection and discussions with key individuals to help the clarification process. Active listening will help immensely when leaders talk to team members. 
  • Try not to micromanage teams.  Once trust is built, leaders need to support their team members’ decision-making even when it may not be the decision leaders would have made.
  • Let team members actively participate in team goals.  Leaders should be open to their ideas and allow them to suggest better ways to take their performance to the next level.
  • Leaders need to always be clear in communications.
  • Good leaders will help their team members with performance goals and professional needs. However great leaders will be interested in the team members’ career development, and work-life balance.
  • Allow the team to help with success. Most of the time team members can be a wild card and help in different ways to achieve the team’s goals. 
About the Author


Bruno Neal is a scholar and a learning and development authority. He has written dozens of articles on learning and development, two Infoline issues on Informal Learning and Quality in Learning and Development, and one TD at Work™ on Learning and Development in Healthcare. He is a Certified Professional of Learning and Performance (CPLP), and currently works as an L&D leader for Indiana University Health. He has been appointed to the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Board of Examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a judge of the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 Association for Talent Development (ATD) BEST Award, and Chair of the award committee since 2014. 

Neal was awarded with the highly esteemed American Society of Training & Development BEST Award in 2009, and part of the team awarded with the same achievement in 2011. He also was awarded with the Champion of Learning Award Certification for his contribution to learning and professional development in 2011. In 2015, Neal received the Global Training & Development Leadership Award at the World Training & Development Congress in Mumbai (India) for his contributions to the international learning and development community.

Neal also serves as contributor for ATD’s T+D Magazine. In addition, he has spoken at ATD International Conference & Exposition, local chapters of ATD across the United States, Cancer Treatment of America, Training Magazine conference, the Training and Education chapter of the National Association of Electric Distributors (NAED), Medical Users Software Exchange (MUSE), and ATD’s Learn from the BEST conferences.

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