Faculty Spotlight: Maribeth Kuenzi

Maribeth Kuenzi, a faculty member in the SMU Cox Online MBA program, believes COVID makes teaching leadership skills more important than ever.

A professional headshot of SMU Cox faculty member, Maribeth Kuenz

Imagine teaching the future leaders of some of the most powerful industries in the world—a job like that requires a great deal of empathy, intelligence, diligence, and compassion. This is just one of Maribeth Kuenzi’s significant responsibilities, serving as associate professor of Organizational Management Theory at the SMU Cox School of Business.

We sat down with professor Kuenzi to learn more about the exciting things happening with the Online MBA program, what drew her to SMU in the first place, and why she pushes her students to do their best.

Teaching the Online MBA

Kuenzi began teaching for the Online MBA at SMU Cox at its inception three years ago, her first online teaching experience. Her classes always followed an experiential learning structure with students breaking into groups, and the online course technology allowed this to be a seamless transition. “In many ways, I find that the students bond more online than they do in person,” she said. “You have to show up to play. In a large classroom, people can get lost if they want to. When students share stories during our class exercises, their faces show up with a name underneath. People get to know each other.”

Kuenzi and her colleagues are determined to connect students with real organizations to help solve real-world problems. Kuenzi serves as director of the Albert W. Niemi Center for Economic Growth and Leadership Development at SMU, which is just one of the many Online MBA students’ fellowship opportunities. The Niemi Center’s flagship program provides students a chance to be involved in impactful and world-changing research at here on the SMU campus and the George W. Bush Institute to drive positive change in the world. Kuenzi focuses on creating principled leaders that are giving back to the community. “Part of what I do at the Niemi Center is help students learn to take care of people and the environment, and do things that carry the values and principles of leadership,” she said.

Online MBA students are taught that a successful workplace begins with good leaders establishing an organizational culture that maximizes success. Kuenzi’s research and teaching center on creating environments where people can be successful. Her research, which focuses on workplace culture and leadership ethics, requires her to go out to the field and discover what it’s like to work at various organizations. On top of making valuable contributions to the research community, this experience gives Kuenzi the tools she needs to guide her students in the right direction.

“Leaders have a direct influence on people by what they say and do. But they also have this indirect effect by how they create the environment,” Kuenzi said. The work environment, she explained, is made from various elements, including policies and procedures, office layout, and nonverbal cues and direction. The organization’s leaders determine how to best utilize those elements to send consistent messaging to their followers to get the best out of their followers. Coworkers’ personalities and behaviors carry weight in workplace culture, even if they don’t hold an official management title. “Everyone is a leader,” she said. “Being a leader is having the ability to influence people and be a role model. You don’t have to have a manager title.” That’s why it’s essential for every student to learn strong leadership skills, even if they plan to be an individual contributor.

Road to SMU

Growing up in a small farming community in Illinois, Kuenzi struggled during her first year at Wesleyan University in Bloomington’s college town. “It was a different world, and I was overwhelmed,” Kuenzi said. “I almost quit my first year.” What got her through?—remembering why she was there in the first place. She had a strong passion for helping people. This drive to help people make the best of their lives remained a constant throughout her career.

After achieving a master’s degree in psychology, Kuenzi became a substance abuse and crisis counselor. This work brought her to the business sector, and, after about 15 years, Kuenzi left industry work to earn a Ph.D. in business administration at the University of Central Florida. In 2008, SMU was one of eight universities to offer her a job, and she’s been there ever since. What drew her to Dallas was its combination of midwestern values and sweet southern charm.

Kuenzi considers her role at the SMU Cox School of Business to be her “sweet spot.” She gets to teach and be around positive people who are “trying to make something of themselves.” The bonus is getting to satisfy her appetite for science and business as a university researcher within an organizational framework.

Looking Ahead

With the pandemic’s weight on the world and the ever-changing work dynamic, Kuenzi wants her students to see what kind of future is possible. It’s more important now than ever for leaders to be engaged and to prioritize building strong relationships in this time of remote work. “Leaders need to define the right problem and come up with creative and innovative solutions, while not being afraid to fail,” she said. “And if you do fail, then how do you have that resilience to pick yourself back up? You have to be willing to change and take some risks.”

What Kuenzi loves most about teaching is watching her students grow and gain confidence. She wants them to see what’s possible in their own lives, much like she experienced as a young undergraduate at Wesleyan. “If we put people in the right environment and give them support and encouragement, they can change. I get to help put students in the right direction and see them grow. It’s pretty amazing to be part of that.” Being entrusted with this task, she said, is an honor and a privilege.

If you are interested in pursuing your MBA, learn more about the SMU Cox Online MBA program today.