Dean Of The Year: Kellogg’s Sally Blount

Kellogg Dean Sally Blount


Blount was initially a reluctant recruit when meeting with committee members in December of 2009 in the Admirals Club at O’Hare International Airport. The session with the search committee, however, caused her to reconsider Kellogg’s impact on her own development and to, in some way, pay back the school for helping her launch an academic career.

It wouldn’t be easy. Some faculty believed Kellogg needed little more than a tune up. Blount felt differently, believing a bigger shakeup was necessary, including a commitment to build a new home for the school. So she had to convince the faculty that greater change was needed to move Kellogg and its programs to a different level.

“We had a hard time knowing what to do after Don,” she says. “Dipak was like Don’s son. It was really important to be a Kellogg alum. I understood what Kellogg meant and it was personal for me.”


One early challenge was brainpower. Under both Jacobs and Jain, the school had been led on a more entrepreneurial basis, with little formal planning or processes. Indeed, at one point, Blount recalls a rather stern admonition from Jacobs who remained on the faculty during her early years as dean. “Sally when I was dean, I knew what was going on in every single room of the building—and you don’t!”

Truth was, it was no longer possible to know what went on in every room. The school had become too large and complex to be managed by a single, strong-willed leader. “Kellogg had run extremely lean,” says Hubbard, who was named a senior associate dean of strategic initiatives from 2012 to 2015. “We had good administrators but we didn’t have enough brain power. She hired a number of senior administrators early on. That was all important. Had we tried to do the stuff Sally wanted without the administrative support it would not have happened.”

Blount herself thinks the most controversial thing she has done is hire key players from outside academia. At NYU, she had learned from President John Sexton the value of keeping one’s eyes open to talent to bring different perspectives into a senior leadership team. She took that advice to heart.  you have to keep your eyes open and think about talent in a different way and figure out how to bring different perspectives in your team to be as good as you could be.


One of her early hires, Ziegler, had spent nearly 13 years at McKinsey & Co. and three years at General Electric after earning her MBA at Harvard Business School. Though Ziegler had only been a student or a consultant at a university, Blount recruited her for a central role to be associate dean of degree programs and dean of students, a position that put her in charge of all degree revenue and a team of roughly 90 staffers.

“It was a brave choice,” recalls Ziegler, who was looking to transition out of consulting and into higher education. “When I joined, my biggest concern was that the body would reject the organ and of course that didn’t happen (see A Harvard MBA Gives Kellogg The McKinsey Treatment).”

Ziegler wasn’t the only McKinsey recruit. For associate dean of executive education, she brought aboard another McKinsey principal who had been at the consulting firm for 17 years and had also worked for GE. Blount’s choice for a new assistant dean of admissions was a marketing executive who had managed brands at General Mills, Quaker Oats, and PepsiCo. She hired a veteran marketer from GE Healthcare, United Airlines and Procter & Gamble to be chief marketing and engagement officer. Blount also brought in a former manager from private equity firm Cerberus Capital and IAC Interactive Corp. to be her associate dean for degree operations, though he made the transition to Kellogg from Wake Forest University where he had been an executive director.


But Blount’s most audacious recruiting move of all had to be raiding a rival for Linda Darragh who had been director of entrepreneurship programs at Chicago Booth. Darragh had worked at Kellogg before from 1999 to 2005 as a clinical professor before decamping to Booth. Blount lured her back in 2012 and put Darragh in charge of the school’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.

What Darragh has accomplished in that role has been nothing less than phenomenal, launching an entire curriculum with 20 elective offerings along with three 10-week courses in what is called Launch-Pad to guide entrepreneurial-minded students to do startups from scratch. She also began a successful and unique pilot quarter of study in San Francisco for MBA students (see Kellogg Does Its Own Bay Area Startup). The result: For the first time ever, more Kellogg MBAs landed jobs on the West Coast than in the midwest this year.

Blount’s first full year in the job was a whirlwind. She decided to build a new modern home for the business school on the waterfront of Lake Michigan, reorganized the school’s top leadership team, launched a new branding campaign along with a major strategic review. Much of her time, however, was devoted to listening to people who disagreed with her about the need for major change.


And when she unveiled the results of the strategy review, most surprisingly, it met with some degree of controversy. Among other things, Blount identified four “impact areas” that she believed no longer fell neatly into a single disciplinary bucket and required a cross-disciplinary approach. The four areas, imposed over the school’s traditional discipline-based organization, was a bold attempt to provide a framework for expanding and deepening the school’s thought leadership. They include such areas as markets, customers and growth, innovation and entrepreneurship, and private enterprise and public policy.

Traditionally, business schools deal with real world challenges that require more integrated thinking through academic centers. Blount believed that was a failed approach. “The danger of centers is that they get attached to a single donor or faculty member and absorb millions in research,” says Blount. “Taking big risks is not associated with centers. You would be hardpressed to find a center that works over decades.”

Borrowing from her consulting days at BCG, she put into Kellogg a matrix structure to encourage and support cross-disciplinary research and teaching. “It’s a really novel and creative undertaking,” says Jan Eberly, a finance professor at Kellogg. “The things that have come out of it would not have happened in a traditional academic department.”


That has especially occurred in an initiative to develop a menu of cross-disciplinary courses on growth and scaling, along with entrepreneurship and innovation. “To effectively scale and grow a business, you have to bring all the disciplines together,” says Ben Jones, a strategy professor who has been deeply involved in the growth and scaling initiative. “It would have been somewhat harder to see and a lot more harder to execute because there are people and resources needed to create these things and make them work effectively. Sally has been good at strengthening the connection between research and practice. The place is thriving and there is a sense of momentum here.”

But as with all major changes, it is also a work in progress. “It’s hard,” concedes Hubbard. “The place is still absorbing the organizational changes, including the integration. Some critics would say she moved too fast. Some people just want to stay in their own disciplines and that’s fine. But some faculty are interested in problems that require connections. The point was to provide a structure to increase the effectiveness and impact of people who want to do this and that is exactly what she did.”

Known to students as “DSB” for Dean Sally Blount, she has been a strong an advocate for Kellogg as anyone. Myah Smith, a second-year MBA who had taught eighth grade for Teach for America and also had roles at Target, vividly remembers being inspired by Blount at a preview weekend for diversity. “She spoke about things that resonated with me,” says Smith. “She spoke about clarity of purpose, Kellogg’s mission and not coming to business school just to get rich but to do something good. She spoke about the importance of finding your calling in life and how an MBA can you help you accomplish that. She has had a large influence on students’ decisions to come to the school.”


But it’s more than inspiration. “What Sally does better than anyone I have ever seen is she doesn’t ever see an obstacle,” says Ziegler. “What’s even more special is that if an obstacle were to appear she can see around that obstacle immediately. She will come up with five ways to get around an obstacle that would stop others in their tracks.”

One example was the school’s long-standing executive MBA programs with partner schools around the world created by Jacobs. They include Guanghua School of Management at Peking University in Beijing, the business school at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong, the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and the Otto Beishem School of Management in Dusseldorf, Germany.

“On the one hand, these relationships extended our global footprint and reach, but we weren’t getting the full advantage that comes from connecting the dots in a more strategic way,” says Ziegler. “She came to the conclusion that the bilateral relationships have to be a network. We have to be connected to them, and they have to be connected to us. She understood that we have a network of schools that can do things that no other EMBA network can do. We can do faculty immersions, bring hundreds of EMBA students together in global network weeks in Evanston, launch new executive education programs and different global certificates across the schools. She can always see the other side of an opportunity.”


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