A Brain for Business

M.B.A. training helped Duke neurosurgeon John Sampson build a premier department

Duke neurosurgeon John Sampson has long been recognized as a pioneer in neurosurgery. He’s a co-leader of the Duke Cancer Institute’s Neuro-Oncology Program and is a recognized leader in the surgical and experimental treatment of brain tumors, with a focus on immunotherapy and drug delivery.

But he credits his time at Fuqua with giving him even more skills to use. For about nineteen months, Sampson tirelessly worked his way through the Weekend Executive M.B.A. program, taking classes every other Friday morning through Saturday afternoon.

And it paid off. Sampson M.B.A.’11 shepherded the team that successfully worked to elevate the division of neurosurgery to a department within the Duke University School of Medicine this past July.

“This places us on equal footing with other departments at Duke and with our peer neurosurgical departments throughout the U.S. We now have a wonderful opportunity to set forth a vision for Duke Neurosurgery, as well as an important responsibility to execute on that vision,” says Sampson, who chairs the department of neurosurgery and is the Robert H. and Gloria Wilkins Distinguished Professor of neurosurgery for the medical center.

Sampson describes himself as a lifetime learner and wanted to be more effective as neurosurgery enters a new phase. The discipline has grown substantially over the past fifteen years. Clinical volume has tripled, the number of faculty members has increased, new educational initiatives have been implemented, the internationally recognized Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center has thrived, a global health program has been established, and the research program has prospered in a time when funding for research is tight.

His Fuqua experience, Sampson says, sharpened his team-building skills through intense team-based projects that are part of the curriculum. During the exercises, the only way to achieve goals was to divide the work among the team members. “That was very different, at least for me,” Sampson says. “In medicine, particularly as a surgeon, we have a singular task. Although we have a team around us often, we focus more on ourselves—our patients. Working as a team is very important and hard to do.”

Sampson says the team-based work also helped him personally. “It helps you reflect on yourself, what you know, how other people see you. Those lessons in leadership are important. It helps me run the department effectively.”

Others have observed the same thing. Tracey Koepke, director of communications for the department of neurosurgery, says Sampson has been putting his M.B.A. to work. “He’s really good at assessing where we have gaps. He’s great at identifying the right personalities who are needed to help round out the team.”

Indeed, the surgeon can’t seem to stop thinking more strategically these days, even as he buys a cup of coffee from the hospital Starbucks. “I’m thinking about team building, customer service, pricing, marketing—you name it,” Sampson says.

“I’m wondering, if they made people wait three hours for a cup of coffee like they do for a doctor’s appointment, would they sell any coffee?”

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