January 24, 2008

By Catherine Manabat

Sara TuckerWith her knack for communicating across language and cultural barriers, Sara Tucker ('88) is impacting the way teamwork is viewed at UCLA Anderson. After holding various positions at Anderson, she is now the director of the new Coaching and Team Skills Program, designed to formally develop students' teamwork skills.

Tucker has honed her own communication skills in a variety of ways. As a Yale undergraduate, Tucker studied Chinese and Russian while dabbling in other languages. Later, while working for the Getty Conservation Institute in Africa, Asia and Latin America, she says she learned cross-cultural communication skills the hard way: by making mistakes and learning from them, many of them the same errors she would later see in the students she works with at Anderson -- except there was no one there to put her straight. Her experience dealing with various cultures, as well as observing the errors in the way people approached teamwork made her realize how crucial effective communication is, especially in a global business environment.

After her time spent in the private sector, Tucker returned to Anderson to run the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER), largely inspired by Professor Jose de la Torre, with whom she studied during business school. She later directed the Applied Management Research Program (AMR) from 2002 to 2007, overseeing 400 teams and served as interim executive director of the Entertainment and Media Management Institute. In everything she did, from AMR to EMMI, she saw the same issues.

According to Tucker, "One of the biggest mistakes people tend to make when working in a team is assuming that everyone thinks like they do -- rationally they know this is not true, but in real time, they often forget." She recognized a need for business students to refine their so-called "soft skills" in order to rise to the higher ranks in their companies. "By 'soft skills,' they actually mean the difficult skills, the ones that are hard to teach," she says, the skills that are all important to an individual's success yet are rarely emphasized in the classroom.

Seeing a need to institutionalize the teaching of these skills, Tucker ran a pilot program through teams in the AMR program. Its success led to the implementation of the new Coaching and Team Skills Program, where she is now the director. She aims to teach teams how to create a productive team dynamic, how to give and receive constructive feedback, motivate each other and resolve conflicts. "I want to draw a thread through the MBA program -- introducing skills in Leadership Foundations that students revisit in study groups in core courses and again in AMR."

Each team presents a puzzle, but Tucker can quickly identify the problems that are making them less efficient as a group. A large part of her job has to do with treating these existing teams, and student feedback has been positive. Many say that the coaching should be a requirement. She is also working to implement peer feedback in group projects and a 360 degree instrument during the first year -- all aimed at helping students improve the way they work with each other, but more importantly, what they learn about themselves that will help in their careers beyond Anderson.

As the Coaching and Team Skill Program develops and continues, Tucker hopes to introduce a more nuanced assessment to help each student determine what soft skills she wants to develop during business school. "When I’m coaching, I’m not only concerned with immediate problems -- I care more that students learn about themselves and develop skills that ensure success in the workplace, skills they can carry throughout their career."

Media Relations