A Harvard MBA Gives Kellogg The McKinsey Treatment

by John A. Byrne on

Dean Z, aka Betsy Ziegler, Kellogg's associate dean of MBA programs and dean of students

When Betsy Ziegler applied to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in the mid-1990s, she was rejected outright. Ziegler, instead, got her MBA degree from Harvard Business School.

As Kellogg’s Associate Dean of MBA programs and Dean of Students, Ziegler likes to joke that it took her 15 years to finally get inside the school. Since arriving little more than a year ago, however, the former McKinsey & Co. partner has swooped in like the master consultant she has been and turned over every rock and pebble in the place.

Ziegler, 41, isn’t the only McKinsey partner to decamp at a business school. Only this year, former McKinsey partners took over the B-school deanships at Johns Hopkins University and Northeastern University. But Ziegler’s role brings her much closer to the nitty-gritty operational details that can make or break a premier MBA program.

So she has taken out McKinsey’s problem solving toolkit and put many of those handy frameworks to good use at Kellogg. In all probability, it is the first time that a business school’s core operations have been as meticulously examined and dissected. Ziegler has deployed early “engagement interviews,” “touch point maps,” “gap analysis,” “product portfolio reviews,” and even “exit interviews” with recent graduates to get under the hood of the MBA experience.

‘GIVE ME A WHITEBOARD AND A PEN AND I GO!’

Ziegler is a frenetic dynamo, a self-described geek. Words tumble out of her like bullets from an automatic weapon. An inordinate whiteboard scribbler, she’ll ferociously draw charts and diagrams to illustrate every point. “Give me a whiteboard and a pen and I go,” she laughs. Facts and figures back up all assertions, opinions and hypotheses. “I am a data monkey,” she concedes. “I am a very fact-driven person.  I am used to using data to make decisions.” That’s why her team spent six months building a “business intelligence data architecture” that could spit out the answer to virtually any numbers-based question she posed.

Yet, students who have dubbed her “Dean Z” have forged close relationships with the former McKinseyite. “One of the most defining things about Dean Ziegler is that she has an open door policy and students use it,” says Jenna Giordano, a second-year MBA candidate who is president of Kellogg Student Association. “She is not just an administrator. You can talk to her about anything, from work to personal decisions. So a lot of students have formed personal relationships with her.”

MAKING KELLOGG THE APPLE, ZAPPOS AND RITZ CARLTON OF BUSINESS SCHOOLS

All of this is in the service of insuring that Kellogg can deliver the most distinctive and unparalleled MBA experience on the planet. “When I say we want to deliver a distinctive student experience, my language is not relative to my six or nine peer schools,” says Ziegler. “It is about how the best companies deliver service because I want people to feel here how they feel when they fly Singapore Airlines, order room service at a Ritz Carlton, return shoes to Zappos, or walk into an Apple store you feel embraced and supported and every single detail is thought about.”

Ziegler says this in all seriousness and with the passion that confirms she is hell bent on making it happen. “I know from my previous life that those companies all have a set of things that they all do. None of those things have anything to do with being a for-profit institution. They are things like hiring the right people, giving work meaning, doing the job and learning on the job and improving what you do every day, empowering your front line to actually solve problems. Why can’t we, Kellogg, do that? We are kind of doing it by chance now, but l want us to be deliberate. That’s the level I want Kellogg to be at.”

Kellogg, of course, is no stranger to excellent execution. For years, the school topped every rival in BusinessWeek’s biennial satisfaction survey of MBA graduates. In fact, only Kellogg’s career management center has been able to land in the top 20th percentile in satisfaction for each of BusinessWeek’s surveys over the past 24 years. But the last time the school finished first in the graduate satisfaction survey was a dozen years ago in 2002. In 2010, when the magazine last ranked MBA programs,  Kellogg had fallen to sixth in the graduate opinion survey and fourth overall.

Making sure that MBA students have unusual voice in the school’s affairs—and leave highly satisfied–has been deeply ingrained in Kellogg’s culture for years. The school has long done both mid-point and graduation satisfaction polls of students, but in recent years fell out of the habit of using those survey instruments to trigger program improvements. “We blew them up and built them over again this year,” says Ziegler. “We redesigned the surveys to make sure we are asking questions that lead us to a conclusion to take action on.”

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  • SS

    Correction: Seven schools considered the best in the US *not* the world.

  • Miami Phil

    I think this collaborative environment thing is being a bit over-sold to be honest. It’s all about jobs…everything else is secondary.

  • Miami Phil

    My experience would be shaped by….did I land a nice job after 2 years at XYZ school. If I did not get that job..then I would say…hmm..well all that team work and collaboration was well and good and might help me in the future..but I did not really get what I came to b-school for…a good job. Of course not everyone comes to b-school for a good job..and some come for the experience or want to start a company..but I am speaking for the majority of students.

  • http://twitter.com/ThinkWay Larry McManis

    Pretty much agree with Miami Phil. This article focuses too much on the
    application of consulting techniques to an academic institution and not
    enough on the key question: are they getting results. My experience with
    McKinsey consultants is that they are very smart but many
    recommendations lie dormant because of lack of buy-in unless commanded
    by the CEO. Unfortunately, most Deans have little to no authority to
    change tenured professors which are the core of the educational value
    equation. Ziegler may do well at arranging the deck chairs in an
    attractive way but can she navigate the icebergs and the core business
    model issues besetting higher education?

  • twicker

    She doesn’t have to address, “the core business model issues besetting higher education;” she has to address the issues besetting Kellogg, which is very much unlike most of higher ed in that it’s a B-School. B-Schools get the vast majority of their funding from their students; if the students aren’t happy, it doesn’t matter what the tenured professor thinks.

    When they’re teaching, B-School professors, tenured or not, obsess over what the students think – so, yeah, finding out what the students think absolutely can drive what the school does. And I say this as someone who, as a Ph.D. student at a top business school, has helped many, many professors with their teaching responsibilities (all of our classes are taught by professors, with the Ph.D. students as TAs).

    Confusing Kellogg with, “the core business model issues besetting higher education,” is like confusing Apple with, “the core business model issues besetting manufacturing.” Yes, they’re higher education — but no, they’re not at all like the core model.

  • twicker

    You are absolutely correct – at least, according to the Financial Times.

    The FT list: http://rankings.ft.com/exportranking/global-mba-rankings-2012/pdf

    The top seven from FT (non-US schools listed with + at front/back of their names; US schools ranking above Northwestern listed with * at front/back of their names):
    Stanford
    Harvard
    UPenn: Wharton,
    +London Business School+
    Columbia
    +INSEAD+
    MIT: Sloan
    +IE Business School+
    +IESE+
    +Hong Kong UST+
    +Indian Institute of Management+
    Chicago: Booth
    +IMD+
    *Berkeley: Haas*
    *Duke: Fuqua*
    #16: Northwestern: Kellogg

  • twicker

    Re: collaborative culture – Kellogg is selling a product (an MBA). They have a great one, but so do plenty of others. Thus, to get customers (students), they have to have a differentiator.

    Of course the students want jobs – *and* they want to have a good two years at wherever they are. That’s why some choose Kellogg, others choose Fuqua, still others Harvard, some others Wharton, etc.: they go where they think that they can get *the job they want* and *not have life suck for two years.* Students will look for both parts.

    Also, note that the “collaborative environment” may have led to the idea of the senior-consultant (2nd years)/junior-consultant (1st years) examination of the environment – which very well might help those students land the jobs they want (or decide that, in fact, they don’t really want those jobs). And that the results were both focused on collaboration (e.g., more alumni involvement) and getting more & better jobs (e.g., more alumni involvement). IMHO, it’s all-of-the-above, not one-or-the-other.

  • Larry M

    OOOPS… I thought it said the Kinsey treatment,,, but there is nothing sexy ’bout the McKinsey treatment

  • Maverick

    Okay so all she has added are some exit interviews and made all “data” ready for decisions . What about major changes to the curriculum ? What about admissions ? Has she taken any step that would sacrifice short term rankings etc in view of the long term ?

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