The sun shines on a sign for Opus College of Business on Terrence Murphy Hall in Minneapolis on October 4, 2017.
Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Bringing the C-suite to the MBA Classroom

At the Opus College of Business, professors are balancing the need for theoretical and applied learning by pairing professors with industry-leading professionals. The Prof + Prof teaching method has been incorporated into several MBA courses, including Modern Business Mindset, a new course at St. Thomas that encourages students to embrace and lead digital transformation. 

As part of the Business in a Digital World (BDW) initiative, the Modern Business Mindset course was designed to prepare students for longevity in an economy of constant disruption. Dr. Lisa Abendroth is the academic director for the BDW initiative. For Abendroth, the Prof + Prof method answers a clear demand for hands-on learning.  

Environmental portrait of Opus College of Business faculty member Lisa Abendroth. Taken April 13, 2018 in McNeely Hall.
Lisa Abendroth

"We conducted interviews with undergrads, graduates, alumni, executives and subject matter experts, and we heard the need for resume-worthy experiences, things they could talk about in interviews, things they could share with their bosses," Abendroth said.  

The course is structured around a set of learning modules, each with a unique topic. All learning modules include a lecture or interview featuring the professional, a list of recommended research materials and a hands-on exercise related to the topic.  

"This program really addresses the marketplace of today, and that's the most critical thing,” Abendroth said. “It's not just about understanding the theories but also about learning how to apply them.  It's about where you as a student and a potential candidate for a job can fit in and differentiate yourself against other candidates." 

While the demand for highly qualified candidates remains high, firms recognize a disconnect between theoretical knowledge and practical experience. Sharon Harris, chief marketing officer of Jellyfish – a digital partner to some of the world’s leading brands, including Uber, eBay, Disney and Spotify – has experienced this divide firsthand.  

“There's a huge demand for great talent, and obviously MBA students are a No. 1 target, but often they come into the workplace, and they really just don't understand what the day-to-day is like," Harris said.  

Harris taught a module of the Modern Business Mindset course titled Finding Your Superpowers. The module focused on crafting effective teams through identification of complementary strengths. For many students, Harris was particularly compelling and memorable.  

"Students called her out not only for the content that she delivered but for her being and her presence that she had in the classroom and the way she made people feel," Abendroth said.  

Ellen Johnston '21 MBA, a senior research and development manager at Post Cereal, was one of the first students to experience the collaborative model in Modern Business Mindset.  

"I found the experience really engaging because the professorial component of the class really set the foundation. Having a professional who uses that technology or concept in their job come share how that's applied really helped to cement that new concept for me and take it in more effectively and more efficiently," Johnston said. 

Aaron Keller is a co-founder and managing principal at Capsule, a Minneapolis branding agency. Keller presented a course module on customer journey mapping. The module included a hands-on exercise exploring the omnichannel consistency of the customer experience when they buy online and pick up in-store (BOPUS). Students were asked to utilize BOPUS in their next grocery order and share their observations. Keller sees the Prof + Prof model as a fitting evolution.  

"Over the past 10 to 15 years, it's become an extreme challenge for the world of academia to keep up with the pace of change in the business world. This approach definitely moves academia farther ahead faster for students because, without it, you could graduate with a very strong academic experience but not a very professional experience and not a very applied experience," Keller said. "Students get to meet professionals that are out there in the world, and they get to start building a network, a real professional network, a potential mentor network."  

Abendroth had surprisingly little trouble recruiting an impressive list of executives from the C-suites of HealthPartners, 3M, Nokia, Accenture and many more. She was taken aback by the desire of those in leadership positions to pay it forward.  

"The thing that surprised me the most is how many executives want to give back,” she said. “People are looking for purpose and meaning. I think there's a sense of gratitude. They're grateful for what they have, and they want to help."  

The exposure to inspiring business leaders rubbed off on recent graduate Jackson Hornbeak '21 MBA. As an activation marketing manager at 3M, Hornbeak is responsible for 3M's entire U.S. disposable and reusable respirators market.  

"These professionals were talking about real challenges and real growth in their own careers, and that made it more relatable,” Hornbeak said. “The most important thing I learned was about who I am and who I want to be professionally. I learned what I do want to do and what I don't want to do. I want to inspire growth in people." 

Modern Business Mindset will continue to utilize the Prof + Prof model and will be offered to MBA and graduate certificate students for fall semester 2022.