MBA@Nebraska student Thu Pham emerged as an early contributor to the U.S. Space Force when it became the sixth branch of the military in December 2019. Pham, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, worked and trained others on missile warning Space-Based Infrared Systems while completing her online MBA.
“The military always pushes you to be a better leader,” said Pham, who minored in merchandising as a chemistry major but wanted to grow as a manager. “An organizational behavior class I took in the MBA@Nebraska program helped me process how to understand and communicate better with people I’m leading. It showed me how to fix an organizational culture from the bottom up. It starts with little things like understanding the strengths of your team and how each can be utilized.”
Pham received a military acquisition code to go into program management after being in ROTC at Oregon State University. They wanted her to first complete an operational experience in space, which sent her to Buckley Air Force Base in Denver.
“I operated the satellites for missile warning systems and then moved into training newcomers. I’ve been able to apply my organizational behavior classes on how to lead and manage people,” said Pham, who eventually transferred to Los Angeles Air Force Base, which houses and supports the headquarters of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.
Not only are Pham’s technical skills complex, but as she progresses in her job, the network of people she manages grows more complex too.
“I meet with people from other organizations managing a constellation of satellites while working with contractors to keep the systems healthy. Communicating needs and prioritizing what we’ll be doing in the next couple months to five years is a big part of my responsibilities. I make sure everyone’s voice is heard because we have so many people invested in our organization, and they have different priorities and philosophies. Trying to get all those inputs and communicate it to my leaders is where the MBA has set me up for success,” she said.
Dr. Elina Ibrayeva, associate professor of practice in management, teaches the Organizational Behavior (GRBA 814) course which targets leadership competencies. Students look at dynamics of becoming an integrator, embracing complexity and noticing polarities and paradoxes.
“It draws on multifunctional experiences to give a systems perspective,” said Ibrayeva. “The management frameworks assignment challenged Thu to think about her organization and job from multiple perspectives and learn about organizational frames. She was asked to apply competing values model to identify compete, create, collaborate and control values within her organization and other stakeholders.”
Pham credited the capstone course for bringing together many business concepts in one class.
“The class had a steep learning curve trying to understand how the simulator works. It ties in many business principles just like a real company, so you can’t just focus on marketing or development. You have to consider all factors. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me figuring out how to control results as we played the game out on the simulator,” she said.
The capstone Strategic Management and Business Policy (GRBA 853) course utilizes a simulation model for students to experience a real-world business problem in the classroom. Dr. Tawnya Means, assistant dean and assistant professor of practice in management, teaches the course.
“Thu was eager to share her background and experiences,” said Means. “In working through the simulation, she reported learning about how to integrate theoretical business ideals with practical implementation. She consistently recognized the strategic implications of the businesses analyzed throughout the strategy course.”
Pham, one of 100 current military students in the MBA@Nebraska program, chose it in part because of the veteran-friendly status. It currently ranks No. 16 among online MBA programs for students in the military according to U.S. News & World Report.
“It’s inspiring to see hardworking people with different backgrounds working together on assignments. I was thankful I could bring in a unique perspective from the military on our projects,” said Pham, who graduates in December. “My long-term goal is to work at Nike, headquartered in Oregon.”