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Kellogg Dean Sally Blount’s Brave New Strategy

Kellogg Dean Sally Blount

“Think Bravely: We believe that business can be bravely led, passionately collaborative, and world changing.”

Those 15 words are at the heart of an ambitious effort to reposition Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The phrase, part of a branding exercise that will lead to more substantive changes at Kellogg, has new Dean Sally Blount bubbling over with excitement.

“I think we came out with something really exciting there,” says Blount in a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants. “We spent a whole lot of time, working with our marketing department as well as with Kellogg graduates who lead the craft of marketing out in the world every day. And we are pretty excited about where that is going.”

The brand messaging is more than just a clue to Kellogg’s future. It just as aptly fits Blount’s own leadership challenge to more bravely chart bold changes at one of the world’s best business schools.

AN ‘ORGANIZATIONAL RISK TAKER’ FROM NYU

When she arrived in July of 2010 from New York University where she headed up the business school’s undergraduate program, some faculty believed Kellogg needed little more than a tune up. Blount, a self-described “organizational risk taker,” strongly felt the school had reached a point at which wholesale change was more in order.

“I have people who don’t necessarily agree,” concedes Blount. “They’ve asked, ‘Why do we have to redefine who we are?’ That has been the big challenge in the last six months. That took the most work. But we were able to make a compelling argument for that. They got it, and now we have to execute on it.”

Asked to tick off her accomplishments in her first full year in the job, Blount cites the decision to build a new $200 million modern home for the business school on the waterfront of Lake Michigan, a reorganization of the top leadership team, the launch of Kellogg’s new branding campaign, and a major strategic review that will put substantive content behind the marketing slogan.

But perhaps Blount’s greatest accomplishment fails to make her own list: convincing faculty that major change at Kellogg is a necessity. In the late 1980s and 1990s, under its visionary Dean Don Jacobs, the school regularly won acclaim for its highly collaborative culture, its team-based approach to learning, and an unrivaled marketing faculty. Kellogg MBAs were known as a group with the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills that set them apart from others. As more schools began interviewing applicants before extending invites and then loaded on teamwork and leadership exercises, Kellogg’s distinctiveness began to fade.

‘WE WERE IN NEED OF A NEW STRATEGY’

“Kellogg has been a phenomenal school but we were in need of a new strategy,” insists Blount. “We played out our strategies and we are in a reset opportunity mode. In many ways, Don (Jacobs) really defined the industry of business schools and executive education, and it’s time to redefine it. I think that is what everybody found. We know what we don’t want to do anymore and we have some great testing of things we do want to do.”

At the outset, there was skepticism. “Golly,” she says. “I spent a lot of time listening to people who disagreed with me, but one of the things I learned from my dad is that it’s not about being right. It’s about finding the right answer. You have to listen to people who you don’t agree with because that may shift your understanding of the problem.

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