My Soapbox: Sandra E. Spataro, NKU

With an extensive background in business management, including a PhD in business administration, a master’s degree in sociology and a bachelor’s degree in economics, it’s no wonder Sandra E. Spataro, NKU’s associate professor of management, recently found herself the recipient of the MBA Pathfinder Award for Excellence in Teaching and Leadership.

At NKU since 2011, Ned Jackson, MBA director, says that Spataro—a graduate of Stanford, who has taught at Yale, Cornell and the University of Utah—was awarded with the inaugural honor because she exceeded expectations as the MBA program’s "semester captain" for fall 2012.

“As expected, Dr. Spataro rose to the challenge and created very innovative, interactive and experiential course content reflecting the holistic, synergistic approach to learning around which our new curriculum was designed,” Jackson says. “In the words of our NKU Haile/US Bank College of Business Dean Rick Kolbe, she ‘set the bar very high,’ both for student achievement and for subsequent faculty semester captains to aspire.”

The well-versed professor is exceptional in the eyes of her peers and superiors, not only for her experience in business management—including her work at Oracle Corporation in Silicon Valley—but also in the business of people.

“Sandra was faced with several heartrending situations in her students’ personal lives, any one of which could have derailed the aspirations of most students were it not for Sandra’s deep involvement, her caring and her mentoring style of teaching and friendship,” Jackson says.

Spartaro, 46, took time out of her schedule to chat with Soapbox’s Jessica Noll-Korczyk.

What brought you to NKU and are you happy with that decision?
I’d been teaching in places where research was a primary objective—above teaching and service. That’s great, but it wasn’t the right fit for me. I wanted to find a special school, where what I want to do—teach in new, personal, rigorous and challenging ways—was welcomed and valued.  

I searched nationally, and NKU emerged as the best place for me. I’m very happy to be at NKU because the values of the university are so closely aligned to my own. Educating our students to be better prepared to pursue their goals is incredibly important to me.  

NKU’s emphasis on up-close-and-personal teaching is right up my alley. I’ve loved being able to work closely with my students here and stay in contact with many of them after graduation, as I know is true for many of my colleagues. We form relationships with students here. I feel very lucky to be a part of that.

What lessons did you learn in Silicon Valley?
The time I spent in high tech was very fruitful for me. I learned how organizations work—my time there still informs my teaching and my research. As you know, Silicon Valley moves at a crazy pace, so I got to experience a lot of different things in seven years.

I learned a lot about database software and software licensing terms, about growing a company and living in constant change, and about committing to my own ethics and integrity, but the most fundamental lessons I took from my time there were about working with people.

I learned that most people are trying to do really good work most of the time. I learned that most people have the capacity to do great work far beyond what they recognize as their own limits. And I learned that, working together, people can accomplish amazing things.

Politics and ongoing organizational change sometimes obscure that view and make us view people more negatively. But the person motivated to do bad things is always a rare exception.

What are you bringing to NKU that you learned at Stanford and Berkeley?
I did my undergraduate and master’s degrees at Stanford. I learned some stuff about econometrics and sociology —my fields of study—but mostly, I learned how to think and how to learn.

I learned a lot about my own capacities and limits. And, during my term studying abroad in Vienna, I learned the value of experiencing new and different cultures.

For those things alone, I am incredibly grateful for my undergraduate experience. In graduate school at Berkeley, I learned how to really think and really learn. PhD school forces you to think and write critically, to analyze your own and others’ ideas and communication, to design and conduct research, and to use all of that to find your own voice in your chosen field.  

At Berkeley, I learned what I have to say about organizational behavior, and I learned all the open questions in the field where I want to be part of the conversation. I am bringing my skills around thinking well and my knowledge of the field to NKU, with the great hope that I can use these to benefit our students.

How will those lessons impact your work here?
My highest priority for my students at NKU—both undergraduate and graduate students—is to help them become better thinkers. I want them to be able to make decisions in their work and throughout their lives that are based on good diagnoses of the problem, solid exploration of alternatives, well-reasoned assumptions and reliable data.  

I want them to be able to move the conversation forward—whatever the topic—by being able to fully comprehend all that has transpired and then to add to that with their own original thoughts.

They can all do it, it just takes skill and practice. Those abilities I developed in school served me well in industry and in life. I want the same for my students.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching business management/leadership?
I love teaching leadership because of how much students learn about themselves in the process of becoming leaders. Effective leaders have to know who they are and what they envision. Self- knowledge gives them a platform from which to stand and guide others.  

I get to lead students through academic and personal exercises to come to know themselves, their skills, their areas for development, their philosophies, their values, their motivations. Guiding people through a process of self-discovery is incredibly fulfilling. I’m so lucky.

What makes a leader in business?
Wow, that’s a huge question. People write books and series of books in response to this question.  

Ultimately, I think a leader mixes reflective self-understanding with rich knowledge of human behavior to motivate and influence others. We have to understand our own tendencies, as well as what research tells us about how people generally behave, to know what we envision and how we can get there.  

This involves listening to ourselves, to our teachers (wherever they are in our lives) and to those who follow us. Leadership is dialogue, not monologue.

Then, from that platform, leaders can inspire others to share their view and be motivated to embrace it.

What's the most difficult part about business management?
I think working with people is difficult. We can command spreadsheets to do what we want them to—that’s not the case with people.  

The hardest part about my courses is that there is rarely one right answer to the questions we ask. People are not entirely predictable and formulas and algorithms rarely help fully explain their behavior.  

Effective management of people requires openness to learning about them, about all the factors that are influencing a situation and about what’s really driving a situation. Curiosity and critical thinking skills are a manager’s best tools.

Business is a lot about numbers...but what about dealing with "people" in the business world? How do you teach that?
Business leaders often tell us the most challenging parts of their jobs are around working with people. Getting good at it requires knowing yourself and your tendencies, understanding usual patterns of behavior from others, and being willing to really dig in to situations to explore what is happening and why. It’s tough work.

What is your goal here at NKU and the Cincinnati area?
My goal as a teacher is to influence others to become the best person they can be. I realize that may sound a little lofty, but it really is what drives me every day.  

The wonderful opportunity I have at NKU is to try to have that impact on a wide array of students—from different backgrounds, different socio-economic histories, different family histories, different academic proficiencies and different aspirations.  

In the more elite and selective private schools where I've worked in the past, many of the students came from similarly privileged backgrounds and strong histories of academic achievement. I’m very excited by the opportunity at NKU to work with, and potentially influence, a broader spectrum of students.

Tell me about your favorite "ah-ha" moment in teaching.
It’s hard to choose only one. Each is very precious.  

One occurred during an extended simulation exercise in one of my classes. I created a scenario where an organization was going through a tumultuous upheaval, and I put students in the various roles involved—leaders, employees, members of the press, stock brokers, etc.  

I put a rather quiet but very capable student in the role of playing the CEO of this organization, much to his surprise and chagrin. Over the course of the exercise, this student exceeded both his own and my greatest expectations of what he could do. He found great capacity within himself to lead and inspire others through change. I know he carries that with him going forward.  

Wouldn’t we all love to discover new greatness in ourselves that we can keep in our back pockets and pull out any time the situation demands? Wonderful.

For those thinking of business...why should they consider it a worthy career?
Careers in business range tremendously. My career advice to anyone is to find out what inspires them—based on their values and strengths—and then to pursue that.  

Whether they do that in a profit-driven corporation or a purpose-driven organization or any other form of business, I think the motivation has to come from within. Businesses change lives and affect the whole world. The role each of us plays in their ongoing impact is up to us.

Jessica Noll-Korczyk, a regular contributor for Soapbox, is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated freelance multi-media journalist, full-time PR guru, photographer and social media aficionado. Armed with her master’s degree from Columbia College Chicago, she has contributed to several news outlets nationwide, including Fox News, Nancy Grace, MSNBC, People and Story Magazine. She is currently the Community/Media Relations Director for 4 Paws for Ability.

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