Kellogg Dean On Wild First Year: ‘It Was Definitely A Baptism Of Fire’

Francesca Cornelli took over as dean of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in August 2019. Courtesy photo

What a year to be new on the job.

Francesca Cornelli, dean of Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, was already filling big shoes when she replaced Sally Blount last August. Blount had presided over the opening of the school’s $250 million Global Hub on Lake Michigan in 2017 and guided Kellogg’s first-ever major capital campaign to a successful $365 million conclusion. At the time, Blount was the first and only woman to helm one of the so-called M7 business schools.

Now Cornelli is the only woman in that rarefied position. But after coronavirus closed business school campuses around the world, her first year on the job went in an entirely unexpected direction.

“It was definitely a baptism of fire, I can tell you that,” Francesca Cornelli told MBA students Hamza Faisal and Gabriel Meizner, co-hosts of the Kellogg podcast The Doppler Effect, in a recent interview. “I have to say this has been a huge learning curve for me.

“One of the things that people always tell you in leadership is, in the middle of a crisis, you have to go back to your values and your mission. And then the crisis arrives and everybody pulls you in a different direction and people ask you all sorts of things, and it is difficult because everybody’s scared. Everybody’s confused. I was confused. And that message of, ‘You have to go back to your values,’ is not the first thing that comes to your mind, I have to tell you. That is the learning curve.”


Kellogg Dean Francesca Cornelli

Kellogg Dean Francesca Cornelli

Kellogg’s average GMAT for its latest entering class was 730, two points lower than the record high the school achieved in each of the previous two years, but still well above the 713 average score at Kellogg six years ago in 2014. The 2019 incoming cohort’s GMAT range went from a low of 620 to a high of 780. The average undergraduate grade point average for the class is 3.6. All admirable benchmarks.

The real concern for Kellogg today has not been in class profile data but in dwindling applications. 2018-2019 was the second consecutive year of declining apps at Kellogg, during which it experienced a 17.8% drop from a record peak of 4,595 apps in 2016-2017. As the coronavirus crisis unfolded this spring, the long-term application slide informed a strategy that raised more than a few eyebrows: The school announced it would waive GRE and GMAT requirements for new applicants, and even more unusually, revisit rejected applications — something no M7 school had ever done before.

Francesca Cornelli did not address that decision in her podcast interview. But she did talk in broad terms about crisis management and leadership in difficult times, saying her first instinct was to try to make everyone happy — to address the unfairness as it impacted everyone in the Kellogg community.

“Everybody’s been hit by this incredibly unfair circumstances,” she said. “What can I do? I called one of the faculty who teaches crisis management, just because he was an old friend of mine, and I asked him for advice and he says, ‘I’m going to call your crisis management cabinet.’ So I met with all the faculty that teaches crisis management, and they said, ‘Take a breath. What’s your mission? What’s your values?’

“I was like, ‘Oh yes, yes. I forgot that. I have to think. What is something that you can defend two years from now?’ Think of yourself two years from now justifying a decision where people are not anymore stressed out. How can you justify that what you did was true to your values? To me it seems simple, but this is the learning curve. Before I would’ve said, ‘Of course I know that.’ The truth is, I was in a knee-jerk reaction of ‘I have to do something.’ They really helped me to come back and rethink.

“It’s just showed to me how when you think, ‘Yes, of course I would have thought about that’ — actually you wouldn’t. That’s where you need really people to bring you back.”


The Italian-born, 57-year-old Cornelli is no stranger to hurdles. She was the first woman to become a full professor at London Business School and remains one of the relatively few female scholars in the male-dominated discipline of finance. In fact, Francesca Cornelli spent much of the past quarter-century filling various roles at the UK’s premier business school, including director of private equity. She also trotted around the globe to teach in a variety of circumstances, teaching or holding faculty positions on three different continents: at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and the New Economic School in Moscow.

After earning her bachelor’s degree from Universita’ Commerciale Bocconi in Milano, Italy, Cornelli earned a MA and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. She played a large role in the launch of a master’s in financial analysis degree at LBS in 2015 and has served as an editor at the Review of Financial Studies and the Journal of Finance and sat on the Board of Editors for The Review of Economic Studies. Cornelli has also been a research fellow for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and served as a director of the American Finance Association.

With such a long and impressive career, it’s little wonder she is expert at thinking in the long term — and the short and medium terms, too.

“You still have to keep remembering what is your long term and where you want to go,” Cornelli told the podcast hosts. “And also new initiatives: Right now, we are already thinking of new things for the long term for Kellogg. Because if you get too long stuck in the immediate short-term needs, which are infinite — there’s always one on fire — you lose track of what is happening. So it’s been actually incredibly humbling for me to discover how things I thought I knew, I actually needed help to navigate it. The fact that the Kellogg community came together and helped me with this has been amazing. And I can see how our stronger identity has helped me because when I say, ‘What is our mission? What is our values?’ We did have values of creativity, innovation, empathy.

“I arrived to Kellogg thinking I had found the amazing thing of Kellogg that nobody else knew, which was these three values. Every time I talked to an alumni of 30 years ago or a present student, they were like, ‘Yes, yes, that’s true.’ I discovered that I hadn’t discovered anything! It also meant these are true values. This is our DNA. But that meant it was very simple — well, relatively simple — to sometimes have a choice because the values are so well defined, so innate. Every time I had to justify a decision, I felt I can say exactly the same thing to alumni, to staff, to faculty, to students. I can see that an organization that doesn’t have such strongly defined values and mission would struggle, because even as a leader, yes, you say you go back to your values, but if there’s not such a strong identity, then you would struggle. That reinforced to me that this is a special place.”


An interesting first year, to say the least. Cornelli says she has no regrets — and if a world-disruptive pandemic had to happen, better to have it happen in her first year on the job.

“A lot of people are telling me, ‘I am so sorry this had to happen to you in your first year as a dean.’ I say, ‘Well, I’d rather it didn’t happen ever — but if it had to happen, I’d rather have it in the first year because this is exactly when I’m defining my strategy, and it would have been much worse if I had spent all my time defining the strategy and then the Covid-19 crisis happened and everything would have changed. I’m right now in the middle of thinking where I want to lead Kellogg. And I think this is reinforces where to go. I think we are going to come out of this with much more sense of society in general. We see it in the media and also a sense of interconnectedness between public and private.

“We are seeing — and this is why I was so proud of the example of alumni and students — we see companies that take the lead in things for the public interest. I think we will not go back into silos again. And that’s what we teach at Kellogg. I think we will embrace interconnectedness, in which there is not a private organization just with a private objective and there’s someone else who takes care of what is not there. The fact is, there is a common interest in a holistic approach. I think Kellogg could really lead the way there.

“I actually think this is a time to really be bold and do things differently, because the marginal increment is not going to cut it. Not after this crisis. There’s all sorts of articles out there: it will be this way, and business school will be that way — everybody has their opinion. I feel we have to find our way as long as we are bold, true to our values, and we dare to find our own way, which is different. I think actually this will be the time for us.”

Listen to The Doppler Effect‘s complete interview with Kellogg Dean Francesca Cornelli here.


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