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.”