When Sally Blount became dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in July of 2010, she walked into a daunting if not impossible situation.
The school was drifting, stuck in a drab concrete building that looked more like a dated high school facility. Kellogg’s MBA program, for a long time differentiated with a nearly extreme emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, was no longer unique or unusual. The school had long trailed rivals in fundraising, never having the need for a major capital campaign. The school’s nearby competitor, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, was in the midst of a major resurgence, supported by the largest gift ever received by a business schoolAnd yet, Blount found herself entering into the long and dark shadow of a legendary leader, Don Jacobs, the most influential business school dean in his generation. Though he had left the deanship nine years earlier after an unprecedented 26-year run, his fingerprints were on every aspect of the business school. Jacobs’ immediate successor, the affable and popular Dipak Jain, represented more of a continuation of the Jacobs era than a break from it.
‘CONVINCED KELLOGG WAS SHOOTING FOR THE GOOD AND NOT FOR THE GREAT’
The search committee knew it needed someone who more boldly lead the school, with great confidence and vision. “There was a sense that more could be done,” recalls David Schonthal, an entrepreneurship and innovation professor. Agrees Tom Hubbard, a strategy professor and a member of the search panel: “I was convinced that Kellogg was shooting for the good and not for the great. It was lacking energy and ambition. I had a preference for someone who would be bold, and it was clear that if Sally became dean, things were going to happen. She would not be timid.”
Seven and one-half years later, there is no question that the 56-year-old Blount has been everything and more than ever expected. The first and only woman to lead an M7 business school, Blount has been courageous and brave in making dramatic changes that have completely reenergized the Kellogg School. The only leadership shadow that will now exist at Kellogg will occur when she steps down from the deanship at the end of this academic year.
Just as Jacobs established Kellogg as one of the world’s premier business schools, Blount has put her own indelible mark on the institution. The school’s newly opened $250 million ultra-modern Global Hub on the shores of Lake Michigan is Sally’s place. She raised every dollar required to support the building and then some, got past every administrative hurdle, and was deeply engaged in every major decision involved in its construction.
SALLY BLOUNT: 2017 DEAN OF THE YEAR
No less important, however, is what you can’t see when you enter what is now one of the most impressive business school facilities in the world. She has championed an unusual degree of cross-disciplinary work among Kellogg’s seven academic departments, breaking down the traditional silos of the disciplines to get at real world business problems in growth and innovation, healthcare and digital marketing. By raising more than $365 million without a single mega gift, she has deepened the school’s engagement with its vast alumni network.
She has served as an inspirational role model for a generation of young professional women who feel a strong connection with her and will leave her deanship with the highest percentage (42%) of women ever enrolled in Kellogg’s MBA program. She has taken a series of bilateral agreements with foreign partners in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America and turned them into a truly global network of farflung Executive MBA programs. And she has accomplished these things by bringing into the fold a novel team of administrators and faculty, many recruited from outside academia.
For all these reasons and more, Poets&Quants is proud to name Sally Blount the Dean of the Year. She is the first woman to earn the honor after five consecutive men ranging from Harvard Business School’s Nitin Nohria to Yale School of Management’s Ted Snyder (see award winners below). In the seven years that Blount has been dean, she has completely reinvented Kellogg and the school has just enrolled the most talented and diverse group of MBA students in its history.
‘THERE IS THIS RELENTLESS FOCUS ON GETTING BETTER’
“The school feels like a different place,” marvels Betsy Ziegler, a former McKinsey & Co. principal who is the school’s chief innovation officer. “The co-created, supportive, and innovative culture that Don Jacobs had created is still very much in tact, but it feels different. It feels like a place that doesn’t sit still. There is this relentless focus on getting better.”
When the university recruited Blount more than seven years ago, of course, there were no assurances that she would become the successful change agent they hoped her to be. But she had already established a track record of accomplishment as dean of the undergraduate college and vice dean of the Stern School of Business at New York University,
At NYU, Blount set fundraising records, secured the school’s first-ever $15 million gift and led Stern to become a recognized innovator in undergraduate business education. The average SAT score of the entering freshman class increased by nearly 50 points, and student participation in global semester study abroad jumped to 75% from just 25%. And she also initiated several curricular innovations, including a required four-course social impact core and two global degree options.
‘DON CREATED A PLACE THAT BELIEVED IN ME’
Leaving NYU and taking on the Kellogg deanship was, in a substantial way, a return home. It was Dean Jacobs who took a bet on the intellectual introvert, admitting Blount in 1988 as a Phd student in management and organizations. The daughter of a Bell Labs physicist, Blount grew up in New Jersey and later majored in engineering systems and economic policy at Princeton. She spent two years as an analyst at Boston Consulting Group before becoming director of finance and planning for an interior architecture firm Eva Maddox Associates Inc.
Blount arrived on campus with one young child in tow, Haley, and pregnant with her second, Cameron. “No other school at the time was open to women,” remembers Blount. “I wouldn’t be here today if Don (Jacobs) hadn’t created something before his time. Don created a place that believed in me, and I now believe in it to the tips of my toes. We had more women on the faculty than any other business school. We got there faster than anyone because Don only cared about a person’s ability to contribute, not their gender.”
Her connection to Jacobs, who died in October at the age of 90, ran deep. He was her mentor and her friend. On a dreary fall day, with a low fog hanging over Lake Michigan, she had just been paid a visit by Jacobs’ family who wanted her to have a memento from Jacobs’ desk. Whenever she recalls his contributions to both the school and to her career, Blount’s more typical rapid-fire speech patterns slow and her eyes become moist with tears. She saw him just before his death and notes with affection that he had felt grateful for what she had achieved as dean. No other accolade could have made Blount more proud.
After graduating from Kellogg in 1992, Blount joined the faculty at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for a nine-year stint before packing her bags for a job at NYU’s Stern School as a professor of management. When the search committee at Kellogg first came calling, she had racked up six years as an undergraduate dean at NYU, only recently deciding not to apply for Stern’s top dean position.
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