During her first 100 days as dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Sally Blount’s calendar looked like the schedule of a politician in the heat of a race. She met with alums and supporters in Boston, Minneapolis, Montreal, and Washington, D.C. She worked alumni gatherings at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House and at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where the Temple of Dandur was bathed in purple light (Kellogg’s color). Blount held her own on a National Public Radio show on MBA education with fellow deans at Harvard and Berkeley.
And in this age of social media, the 48-year-old dean managed to knock out 18 posts on a blog that cataloged her first 100 days and put up photos taken from her iPhone. Blount shared such personal details as dropping her youngest son, Cameron, off to college for his freshman year and noting that her college-age daughter, Haley, had to be rushed to the operating room for an emergency appendectomy.
The goal: to introduce herself to Kellogg’s key stakeholders and to build confidence and excitement about the school’s future.
If reviews from the school’s key stakeholders are any indication, Blount’s 100-day debut, which ended earlier this month, has been highly successful. Students, alums, faculty and staff say Blount, drafted from New York University where she was dean of the undergraduate business program, brings tremendous energy and passion to the job, along with a sharp intellect. “She’s off to a fine start and has been doing a lot of good work meeting with key people and being open about what is on her mind,” says one long-time Kellogg observer. Adds an admiring faculty member: “She is hungry, humble, and smart, and she’s willing to lead.”
But there is much work ahead. There is a sense that while nothing is terribly wrong at Kellogg, the school has lost momentum, if not it’s edge among the business school elite. In the 1990s, when Blount pushed a double-stroller across the Kellogg campus as a Ph.D. student, the school regularly won acclaim for its highly collaborative culture, its team-based approach to learning, an unrivaled marketing faculty, and MBA graduates with high levels of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.
Companies loved Kellogg MBAs because they hit the ground running, without arrogance, pretence, or blind ambition—attributes that often made other MBAs flame out in their organizations. But as other schools adopted similar game plans, Kellogg has become less distinctive. The upshot: The school which has ranked first more often than any other in the influential BusinessWeek ranking was last in first place in 2004. Earlier this month, Kellogg had its weakest showing ever, fourth, as its Chicago metro rival, the University of Chicago, topped the list for the third consecutive time.
BLOUNT IS NO FAN OF MBA RANKINGS.
Blount, no fan of rankings, pooh-poohs such lists, saying that the differences among schools are often so slight they are statistically meaningless. “They come nowhere near capturing the depth and quality of research that schools are producing and they come nowhere near to capturing the actual discussion in the hallways and classrooms,” she says of rankings. “There is a value to research that the world doesn’t get that shapes the conversation in the classroom. There is a student culture and a research culture for moving human knowledge forward, and it’s different at Tuck and Booth and Stern and Columbia. Yet, we don’t get rewarded for that. And I worry about the motivation for the deans to do the right thing.”
Nonetheless, she knows that dramatic change is again needed in the formula that put Kellogg on the map as one of the very top schools in the world. “Many of our competitors have co-opted the term collaboration,” she concedes. “They copied our teamwork models. But everyone will admit behind closed doors that we still are truly different. We have more than a 20-year head start on this dimension that truly shapes how we form leaders here. We have to redefine the discourse and the way that people categorize us. We want to be the go-to place for things that matter.”
As the first outsider to lead Kellogg in three decades, Blount knows that she will need to step on a few toes to make the school that go-to place again. Soon after her arrival, at a faculty mixer, Professor Mitchell A. Petersen walked up to Blount and said: “I assume at some point you are going to irritate me in a major way.” Blount smiled, and simply replied: “Count on it,’” recalls Petersen, who has taught finance at Kellogg for 16 years. “That told me that she has a larger goal in building Kellogg. She respects me. She thinks I am valuable, but I know she is going to work for something I care about.”
It will not be an easy task. Truth is, graduate business education has become an increasingly commoditized product. It’s hard to find a dean who has a truly distinctive vision for a school. Everyone wants to be more global, to infuse ethics and integrity into the curriculum, to teach students to be more entrepreneurial and innovative, and to put greater challenge into MBA programs that at some places had become little more than a two-year search for a better job.
Blount says Kellogg continues to attract “low ego, ambitious, collaborative-minded people with big ideas. We want to take that ambition and collaboration and do broader things with it, from getting our graduates more involved with the social agenda to teaching them how to build robust organizations.”
Blount says there will be an administrative reorganization in January and the start of a six-month-long strategic review in the spring. The outcome of that process, involving the faculty and other stakeholders, will help her organize around “three to five core themes” that will shape the business school for years to come. “We want to be known for these themes for 10 to 20 years.”