UMKC's MBA coach finds success in the classroom, not on the court

Coaches Bill Self, Frank Martin and Mike Anderson are household names in the Kansas City area. But there’s another successful college coach who has nothing to do with dribbling, passing or shooting a basketball.

Sandra Kruse-Smith has been coaching students in UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Business and Public Administration’s executive MBA program since 2005.

“I work with students to help them apply what they learn in the classroom to specific problems they may be facing at work,” she said.

Or as Joan Gallos, academic director for the program, put it: “We want to have a program that is relevant to our students’ career success, so what they learn on Saturday they can apply on Monday.”

A coach is so valuable in part because the program’s mission is different from that of a typical MBA, she said.

“What distinguishes an executive MBA is the emphasis on application and integration of knowledge,” Gallos said. “Every degree program teaches students various models and frameworks, best practices and understanding across various business disciplines. But even if you learn something, you may not necessarily be able to integrate it into your workplace. Translating theory into practice can be difficult.”

Leaders at the Bloch school were wrestling with that challenge in 2005 when they ran across “Developing Business Leaders for 2010,” a report published by the Conference Board.

“This report listed … qualities that are necessary to be successful and keep your career from derailing,” Kruse-Smith said. “The majority of those skills are related to interpersonal relationships and communications.”

Discussion of that report led to the decision to hire a coach. A national search led to Kruse-Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a master’s degree from Temple University and is pursuing a doctorate in organization and management. She spends half of her time working with the Bloch School and the rest with other clients.

“Sandra’s oral and written communications skills are what distinguishes her from other coaches,” Gallos said. “She is especially strong in the problem-solving and communications components of her position.”

As far as Gallos can determine, the Bloch School may have been the first business school in the nation to hire a coach for its MBA students.

“It certainly is safe to say that we are a pioneer,” she said. “When we came up with this idea five years ago, it was not nearly as common as it is today. A number of other programs have heard about it and contacted us.”

Kruse-Smith begins working with students soon after they enter the two-year program.

“We do several assessments throughout the program, where we look inward, look outward and look forward,” she said.

Dave Ebbrecht went through that evaluation when he entered the executive MBA program in August 2006.

“The executive coach helps you take that information and set and realize your goals,” said Ebbrecht, senior vice president of operations for Kansas City Southern Industries.

Just as in sports, the coach encourages students to help them achieve their objectives.

“I tend to work with students on an as-needed basis,” Kruse-Smith said. “I have touch points with everyone, such as giving them feedback on their formal presentations in class. I also work with them in teams.”

Learning to work as part of a team is a top priority.

“Lack of interpersonal communication skills is the No. 1 reason for career derailment, and No. 2 is lack of adaptability and flexibility,” she said. “Research says cognitive ability gets you the job, but to be successful, you also must have interpersonal skills.”

Ebbrecht credits Kruse-Smith with helping him make the most of his time in the Bloch School and go on to continued success at Kansas City Southern.

“Sandra is very approachable,” he said. “She is not only a good listener but really puts herself in your shoes so she can understand the problems you are facing and what she can do to help you solve them.

“It’s a clear benefit to have a coach to serve as a sounding board to bounce ideas off of. The coach also can evaluate where they think you are and where you should place your focus to make your goals attainable.”

Coach’s advice

Sandra Kruse-Smith offers this tip for today’s workplace:

• “People in this economy need to create good networks. They need other people they can reach out to, both internally and externally.

• “Identify people across the organization whom it would be helpful to know, and also identify people who can help you get to know them. Find people who can help you achieve your department’s goals, and then stop by their desks and ask their viewpoints on problems and issues. Make yourself a resource to them as well.

• “Continually expand those networks. I hear people saying they don’t have enough time to build networks, but it will pay them back when they need them.”