by Kristal Griffith | Jul 16, 2019
Barb Kreisman had no intention of being an academic. Pursuing a degree in journalism, she thought she’d following her father’s footsteps into the newspaper industry. Instead she went to work as a public relations writer for a pulp and paper mill in northern Wisconsin where a gentleman fell into a “batcher” and was killed her first day on the job. Call it an omen or just an unfortunate tragedy, Kreisman, who is retiring as professor of the practice at the Daniels College of Business, took a sharp turn down a totally different path.
Intrigued by big business and human behavior at work, she climbed the corporate ladder for years, working at Motorola and Emerson. She later joined Dell Corp. and became their chief human resource strategist. She helped to grow the company from 50 individuals to more than 40,000 employees.
Along the way, Kreisman discovered a passion for learning. While at Dell, she constantly took courses at the University of Texas, Austin. She had a love of studying organizational change, strategic planning and leadership. One day, the chair of the management department informed her she had enough credits for a doctorate; all she needed was to do a deep dive into a particular research topic and write a dissertation.
“I was shocked,” Kreisman said. “I didn’t know that at all.” She knew if she was going to pursue a dissertation, she wanted the research to benefit Dell. After some conversations with top leadership, she decided to explore the high and very costly turnover among technical professionals—especially during their first year of employment.
“I met with numerous former employees and noticed distinct themes developing from our conversations,” she said. “In particular, they complained that they had difficulty understanding the company’s mission, and roles and responsibilities were not clear in the very fast-growing organization.” Kreisman acknowledged that Dell was adding an average of 700 new employees per week and the infrastructure simply could not support this kind of growth. It was obvious they needed some kind of intervention.
Over a matter of months, Dell implemented many of the enhancements Kreisman’s research suggested, especially concerning leadership development, employee on-boarding and succession planning. Dell was later recognized, two years in a row, by Fortune Magazine as the nation’s “Most Admired Company.”
“I’d like to think my research fostered that to some extent.” With a PhD in hand, Kreisman was looking for a career change and a move. She and her husband, Scott McLagan, a corporate executive with Emerson, targeted Denver.
“At Dell, during the 1990s we experienced many people getting rich very fast, but their souls seemed so empty,” she said. “When I was considering a role in academia, I was really drawn to the values of Bill Daniels and the idea of giving to the community and making a difference in the world. That really resonated with me. It is a common focus of universities now, but 20 years ago, it was still novel.”
Kreisman was hired in 2002 to teach business communication in the marketing department. Not long after, she was asked to lead leadership and organizational performance across the graduate and undergraduate programs. Later, she would oversee the Executive MBA program, for which she is most known, along with Executive Education and certificate programs.
“Barbara brought extensive real-world experience when she joined the Daniels College of Business,” said Jim Griesemer, professor and dean emeritus of Daniels. “She used that experience to shape and build Daniels’ executive education program. She has been, and will continue to be, an asset to DCB and the University.”
Dr. Dianne McCallister (MBA 2005), chief medical officer at The Medical Center of Aurora and Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital, was in the Executive MBA cohort 42, the first group Kreisman co-led.
“Being a physician, I had been in leadership a long time. But, she provided a lot of insight for me and helped me take my leadership to the next level,” McCallister said. “She modeled how we should lead, having outstanding acumen, but also the soft skills that made a good leader a great leader.”
Also a physician, Dr. Kent Bradley (MBA 2011), who was in the Executive MBA cohort 54, describes Kreisman as the essence of a caring and thoughtful executive leader.
“She has influenced me in how I think about my legacy and how I want to be of service for the common good,” he said. “Her life has epitomized a person who has been successful in the corporate sector but who chose to apply her knowledge and skills to develop others through coaching and scaling impact through thoughtfully designed programs like the EMBA program.”
While Kreisman was associate dean of the EMBA program, she became increasingly involved in the nonprofit community in Denver.
She helped create leadership programs for the Latino Leadership Institute and Urban Leadership Foundation of Colorado. She serves on several boards, including Wish of a Lifetime, The Urban Farm at Stapleton, Denver Health Foundation and the International Executive MBA Council.
She isn’t shy about her love for golden retrievers, rescuing them from the streets of Turkey as part of the Golden Retriever Rescue of the Rockies (GRRR) and serving as a hospice volunteer, where she takes her dogs, Kili and Brushy, to help nurture those in failing health.
“She has an ethical compass not to be messed with,” said Tracie Sheppard (BSBA 2002, MBA 2017). “She embodies Bill Daniels’ core beliefs and really carries those forward.” Sheppard, strategic initiatives consultant at Wells Fargo, explained that Kreisman had such a passion for educating those in executive-level positions.
“She believed in order to keep raising the bar, you had to shift the culture at the top, which would shift everything else,” Sheppard said. “The EMBA program had her fingerprint. She was the heart and soul.”
Kreisman was elected by her peers to sit on the International Executive MBA Council.
“It was outstanding to be there with big named schools—such as Wharton, UCLA, University of Chicago, Northwestern and others,” Kreisman said. “I was really proud of that and the consistent student satisfaction with the EMBA curriculum. Our team was extremely high functioning and we (Jan Drobnick, Lisa Grassfield, Amanda Cahal and faculty) were all alignment with one another.”
During her tenure, the program was ranked by Financial Times five times. She relishes the memory of the Executive MBA reunion in 2016, where more than 350 former students gathered at the Colorado History Center. “To be there and feel the vibe of everyone’s lives who we have touched, it was one of the key moments of my life. To see that and experience it, was so rewarding.”
Don’t worry, while Kreisman is retiring, she isn’t going far. Awarded emeritus status, she intends to stay connected to DU and Daniels. She’s currently working to launch interdisciplinary curriculum content with the Human-Animal Connection Graduate School of Social Work program and is also involved with the DU Center for Healthy Aging. Additionally, she and her husband Scott McLagan, professor of practice in the Management Department, created and endowed the Bruce Hutton Family Fund which will support student projects for the U.S. National Park System. McLagan will teach a new course, “The Business of Nature” in the fall of 2019.
“Her tremendously successful corporate work experience was invaluable in communicating with and gaining respect from EMBA students,” said Bruce Hutton, dean emeritus of Daniels. “Her positive attitude was instrumental in setting a positive tone for students. Her innovative nature was instrumental in keeping the program relevant to the times. And, she cared about the students, the program, the College and the University. To the point, Barb was always all in.”
And, she still is.