Juggling challenges with ease

Barbara Sapienza could teach a graduate-level course in customer service with her eyes closed. The executive assistant to Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., is humble, friendly, cheerful, unfailingly pleasant and dedicated to helping not just her boss, but also the incredibly diverse array of people who come to the Dean’s office for assistance.

“When someone comes in and wants to talk to the dean about a concern, we do our best to help them,” she explains. “Sometimes I and the other members of the staff are able to help them without taking the matter up with the dean.”

Barbara Sapienza and Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine, look over a model of the rapidly growing School of Medicine campus.

Sapienza compares managing the schedule of Shapiro, executive vice chancellor of medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, to being an air traffic controller.

“There are so many goals and priorities that are worthwhile,” she says. “One responsibility of the dean’s office is to help everyone see all the pieces and come to compromises that recognize not only their own interests at the personal or departmental levels but also those of the school.”

The dean’s day can involve meetings with many different people, including department heads, hospital administrators, Human Resources, the University’s general counsel, Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the Danforth Campus, the Chancellor’s Office and the Board of Trustees.

“Barb tries to inject some sanity into my sometimes chaotic schedule,” Shapiro notes.

Because she’s worked with him for four years, Sapienza finds that she is often able to anticipate Shapiro’s questions about a project. She makes sure she has answers to those questions ready before she takes the issue to him.

Sapienza says she rarely closes the door to her office, but notes with delight the sole person in the dean’s office suite who knocks when she does: Shapiro.

“That means a lot to me, that he respects me that much,” she says. “I tell him of all people, he doesn’t have to knock, but he still does.”

Energy and enthusiasm

So, how did Sapienza get hired for such a key position? Was she old friends with someone in the dean’s office, or did the previous dean give her a great recommendation?

No, she just saw a classified ad.

“I thought, ‘What a cool job! I’ll never get it, but what the heck, why don’t I send my resume in?'” Sapienza remembers. “I was so surprised when they called me.”

Shapiro remembers being impressed with Sapienza’s energy, enthusiasm and organizational skills.

Dianna, Barbara and Matthew Sapienza

“What I have come to appreciate since then are her great people skills, her exceptional work ethic (she is often in the office on weekends and until well into the evening) and her loyalty to me and to the institution,” he says. “Somehow she balances all of the demands of professional and family life and makes it look effortless.”

Born in Imperial, Mo., Sapienza began her professional life as a medical transcriptionist for the St. Louis Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

“I was interested in health care and helping people, but I didn’t have the stomach to be a doctor,” she explains. “I could never give someone a shot or put in an IV, so I work in administration instead. And even though what I do is such a small, tangential piece of the overall picture, patient care is still what we’re all about.”

Mentoring her peers

After the VA, Sapienza went to work at St. Anthony’s Medical Center in south St. Louis County where her mother had managed the print shop. While Sapienza worked as a receptionist there, the executive assistant to the hospital president began to mentor her and encouraged her to apply for positions higher up the career ladder.

Now that she’s climbed quite far up that ladder, Sapienza wants to return the favor for others and has started mentoring receptionists and secretaries in the dean’s office.

“I want to put back in what I’ve received, and help others grow and learn more and move ahead,” she says.

Carrie O’Guin, a former receptionist in the Dean’s office, now works as secretary for the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

“Barb kind of took me under her wing, and it really seemed like I wasn’t the only one she did that with,” O’Guin says. “She’s very caring and very helpful in general. She’s good at getting people to feel safe and to open up.”

Shapiro agrees, noting, “Barb really cares about others with whom she works and has been a great mentor to a number of staff in the office.”

In a similar spirit of sharing insights, Sapienza is an active participant in the Deans’ Assistants Group of the American Association of Medical Colleges. She was recently elected secretary and a board member of the group of about 100 assistants.

“We have discussions and presentations on a variety of topics, like diversity and preparing for accreditation visits,” she says. “When the School of Medicine began preparing to become a tobacco-free campus, for example, I sent out a message on the group’s listserve and instantly received quite a bit of feedback on the challenges and problems we might be facing.”

Sapienza proudly reports that she recently convinced the group to hold its annual meeting in St. Louis in 2008.

Speaking not just of her own effort to bring the assistants group to St. Louis but also of occasional difficulties encountered in faculty recruitment, Sapienza says, “I just can’t believe it when we have a hard time getting people to come to St. Louis. We need to do a better job of selling this city. It has culture, sports teams, public transportation, the river and so much history.”

Barbara Sapienza

Born: Imperial, Mo.

Family: Daughter Dianna, 20; and son Matthew, 17

Hobbies: Reading, writing and activities with children

Favorite author: Mitch Albom

Likes to get away to: The ocean or other large bodies of water

Currently reading: “On A Night Like This” by Ellen Sussman

Favorite family restaurant: The Olive Garden

Sapienza recently began riding that same public transportation system to work, and happily reports that she hasn’t had to fill her car’s gas tank for 10 days. She lives in Affton with daughter Dianna, 20, an education student at Webster University, and son Matthew, 17, who will be a senior at Affton High School. Dianna recently took on a part-time job at St. Anthony’s, becoming the third generation in the Sapienza family to work there. Matthew is thinking about college options and is leaning toward computer science.

Interest in writing

She says her children are her primary hobby, but also admits a personal interest in writing.

“Fortunately for me, my job requires me to do a great deal of writing for Dean Shapiro,” she says. “I draft introductory speeches and most of his correspondence, but he of course will add a lot of his own special touches and personality to these pieces.”

Writer Mitch Albom is high on Sapienza’s list of favorite authors. She met him last year when he came to the St. Louis County Library to sign his new book, “For One More Day.” Her favorite Albom book is “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

On her own, Sapienza published a poem and wrote a guest column for the Suburban Journals when her children were young. Last year, she took a creative writing course at the Danforth Campus.

“One thing I learned from that course was that everyone has their own voice as a writer, even if they’re not writing about themselves,” she says. “We were a class of 14 people from various parts of the country with differing interests, and we all had distinct voices.”

As a conversation about her job and her life seems to be winding down, Sapienza mentions that she has one more personal interest inspired by an extraordinary experience.

“In 1998, my son needed a kidney transplant, and I gave him one of my kidneys,” she says. “That’s not something I want to brag about at all, because what mother wouldn’t do that for her son?

“But if it can help promote awareness of the need for donor organs, Matthew and I both agreed that it was worth mentioning.”