Kellogg’s New Dean On Preparing MBAs For A Disruptive Future

Francesca Cornelli at London Business School

‘IF THERE WAS EVER A TIME YOU NEEDED AN MBA, IT IS NOW’

“What I hear consistently is that if you email or call a Kellogg alum they always return the call,” says Cornelli. “It’s an incredibly strong network. Alumni still go on holiday with their classmates. They still have parties together. They are still very much connected as best friends. So many are telling me how the Kellogg network has been helpful to their careers. This is what I feel we have to offer. If you create people with empathy, when you reach out to them they will respond. When you hear alumni speak about their experiences, that is our best advertising.”

Indeed, she believes that many talented young people who may forgo an MBA today are undervaluing not only that network but also the value of the experience itself. “If there was ever a time you needed an MBA, it is now,” believes Cornelli. “Some people are thinking that they are learning on the job. But what you learn on the job works only if you have a linear progression. What is going to happen when that job requires completely different skills? What do you do? If we prepare people to be agile and help them learn how to learn, that is what they need. People underestimate this because everybody is focused on the next job. These very talented young people are staying in their jobs because they believe they are doing well. And I am thinking, you are the disrupter now but ten years from now you will be disrupted.”

How does Cornelli ensure that Kellogg’s students aren’t disrupted by robots or computer algorithms years after they graduate? Part of her answer turns to the school’s pioneering efforts in the field of teamwork and collaboration. While working in teams is a hallmark of most MBA programs, Kellogg led the way. “People talk in terms of collaboration and working in teams. The way I think about it is that we produce people with empathy and the ability to inspire others. When disruption comes and you have a great idea, you need to convince the people around you, your colleagues, your team or your investors that your idea is worth investment. You can’t do a good idea alone. You need money or talent or other things. How people influence others is so important to learn.”

The new dean also believes Kellogg can prepare students for a disruptive future by relying on the eclectic faculty at the school–a faculty composed of political scientists, physicists, economists, and more traditional B-school professors–to continually innovate with new thinking and courses. “Kellogg has always been incredibly innovative,” says Cornelli. “My predecessors have been pushing the agenda forward for many years, from the importance of teamwork to creating new courses. Negotiation is a course that was invented by faculty at Kellogg. It came out of the Center for Conflict Resolution. Crisis Management also was introduced by our faculty. And now we’ve introduced a course on Negotiating In a Virtual World. There’s a workshop on Creativity and Storytelling and a course on The Psychology of Influencing Others. We have courses on the impact of artificial intelligence and the future of work. That is why you need an eclectic approach. You need people doing new things.”

WORKING IN HER FATHER’S FACTORY MADE HER THINK ‘I DID WANT TO USE MY MIND’

Ultimately, it was her own need to do new things that attracted a young Cornelli to the academic world, though she concedes that becoming an academic was a “pure accident.” Brought up in Milan, Italy, her father owned a packaging company while her mother was a teacher.

During summers, she worked in her father’s factory, often occupying her mind with the textbooks from her high school classes. Fellow employees would see her studying and remark how boring it must be for her. The opposite was true. “It made me think that I did want to use my mind,” she remembers. “Otherwise I would have gone crazy. I was a good student. I liked it.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree from Universita’ Commerciale Bocconi in Milan in social and economic disciplines, Cornelli’s ambition led to a decision to come to the U.S. for advanced study in economics. “I could see that the best people were pursuing PhDs abroad so I decided to apply,” she says matter of factly. “When you apply for a Ph.D., you think you may want to be a teacher but I am not sure it was a conscious choice yet. I thought it was very interesting, and I would go and do it. And then I loved it.”

‘A PHENOMENAL MENTOR’ IN NOBEL PRIZE WINNER ERIC MASKIN

From 1988 until 1992, she studied for her Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University’s Economics Department where she met her advisor, Eric Maskin, who in 2015 was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on mechanism design. To this day, she refers to Maskin as “a phenomenal mentor.” After earning her Ph.D., Cornelli landed her first job at the London School of Economics teaching game theory and microeconomics.

But shortly after her arrival, she made a surprising decision: to enter finance. “A lot of the people around me were doing finance and I thought I would really like that,” she says. “A lot of people thought I was out of my mind because finance hadn’t taken off as much. I always say if I had realized how difficult it was to retrain for finance I probably wouldn’t have done it. But at the same time, it is the best thing that ever happened to me because it really fit for me. I started working with them and after two years I moved to London Business School.”

Cornelli joined LBS in 2000, became director of private equity in 2009, and in 2018 was named deputy dean of programs. She focused her research on a portfolio of topics that included corporate governance, private equity, privatization, bankruptcy, IPOs and innovation policy. She played a large role in the launch of a master’s in financial analysis degree at LBS in 2015 and racked up several prestige editorships at major scholarly journals from editor of the Review of Financial Studies to an associate editor for the Journal of Finance and a member of the Board of Editors for The Review of Economic Studies.