12 Inspiring Female B-School Deans Share Leadership Lessons

Dean Francesca Cornelli

Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

“Think less about perfection and be more confident in leaning into new opportunities. In retrospect, I could have accomplished even more at various stages in my career if I had been less preoccupied with the idea of perfection”

Where you’re from/place of origin:

Milan, Italy

Where you previously studied:

I graduated from Bocconi University in Milan with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Economics, and I received a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University.

Previous roles:

I have taught all over the world, including at London Business School, London School of Economics, Wharton School, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and the New Economic School in Moscow. I have also served as an independent board member of several global corporations – currently, I am on the board at GCM Grosvenor, a global alternative asset manager.

Before I came to Kellogg, I was professor of finance and deputy dean at London Business School. While I was at LBS, I directed the Private Equity Institute of London Business School, with the goal of building a  bridge between academia and practice by partnering with private equity leaders in London, alumni and top academics in the field. Building connections between academia and practice has been a through-line for my entire career. 

I’m particularly proud of helping create AFFECT in 2016, which is a committee of the American Finance Association designed to promote the advancement of women academics in the field of finance. There are so few women academics in finance and the numbers were not increasing so I, along with other women academics, decided to do something about it. 

In addition to being the dean of Kellogg, I also serve as a professor of finance, holding the Donald P. Jacobs Chair of Finance.

How has your business school adapted to the Covid-19 crisis, and what initiatives and innovations have you implemented?

The strength of our response lies in our innovation and partnerships throughout the Kellogg community. In particular, a few key examples come to mind:

  • Connecting In the Classroom: Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve completely reinvented our classrooms, with a range of modalities designed specifically to support the content being taught in the classroom, as well as student and faculty preferences. This includes 100% in-person teaching; hybrid teaching with groups of in-person and remote students; completely remote teaching (which is useful for classes like negotiation, where participants need to see each other’s faces); a modality we call “Remote Plus In-Person” where students have an opportunity for in-person, small group experiences with faculty; and a modality called “Students Together” where a group of students can attend a class together in the Global Hub and the professor teaches remotely. Our faculty have also broadened their office hours, opening up Zoom for a period of time before or after class for informal conversation and community building with students. Our teaching approach will continue to evolve as we’re constantly thinking about how to redesign and reimagine the classroom experience — not just to address a challenge presented by the pandemic, but to think creatively about how the content in the classroom can best be taught in the long run. 
  • Connecting with Peers: We’re also thinking beyond the classroom experience to the co-curricular. So much of our students’ MBA experience is defined by their networking opportunities and collaborations with each other. To better support students during this disruptive time, we’ve launched pods for first-years in our Full-Time MBA program, which allow small groups of seven or eight students to regularly connect. They’re intentionally designed to be inclusive of in-person and remote students, and structured to support self-reflection, leadership development, or just to casually connect. As we look to the Spring Quarter, we’re also partnering with student clubs to explore in-person components to some of Kellogg’s signature spring events, and we are hosting more casual events like trivia and movie nights with in-person elements. Just as importantly, we’ve launched many innovations for connecting virtually – including a popular Koffee and Kocktails program for global get-togethers. Students grab coffee, tea or a cocktail, depending on where they are in the world at that time, to network or connect more deeply with faculty and alumni. We’ve also hosted all-virtual events like Recruiting Refresh Week, which is focused on deeply preparing our students for Spring recruiting. It included virtual keynotes from popular faculty on topics like negotiations and career derailment, and a keynote from Mariana Atencio – a viral TED Talk speaker and award-winning author – on the topic of resiliency. 
  • Connecting with Alumni: While Kellogg has always had a strong and incredibly responsive alumni network, it’s important for students to receive intentional professional development support from alumni right now, during such a disruptive time. With this in mind, we’ve created a matching program for alumni to mentor current students – offering firsthand guidance as they navigate their goals at Kellogg. The response has been fantastic, with more than 400 students and 400 alumni opting into the mentoring program in just several weeks. We have also increased the amount of virtual alumni talks for our students, bringing in alumni from all over the world for candid conversations – including Yum China CEO Joey Wat, Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes, and Nissan Executive Vice President Asako Hoshino. 

Our core values of collaboration, creativity and empathy have guided these innovations and will continue to inspire our response, no matter what lies ahead.  

What do you feel are the most important skills needed for managing a business school through a crisis?

To confront any kind of uncertainty, you need to be flexible. That requires the ability to leverage multiple skillsets — sometimes simultaneously. You also need to seize opportunities when you have them and then think creatively about solutions.  

Most importantly, though, you need to be able to bring others along with your vision. This requires a great deal of empathy toward your collaborators, understanding their unique points of view and why they might approach a challenge differently. Empathy through collaboration is what allows you to pivot together.  

For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, we realized how crucial our students’ perspectives and alignment would be in designing and implementing the changes needed to operate safely in the midst the pandemic. With this in mind, we created the COVID Executive Committee, which includes Kellogg administrators, faculty, staff and students. This group allowed us to not only continue our close partnership with students — which is true to who we are at Kellogg — but to make key operational decisions with their perspectives at the forefront. 

In the midst of a crisis like the pandemic, which is often fraught with so much urgency and ambiguity, organizations tend to make decisions in isolation and behind closed doors for the sake of expediency. However, at Kellogg, we know that you cannot lead people and operate in new ways without engaging in deep collaboration from the beginning to the end.

How has your career helped to shape your leadership capabilities, and your priorities for your role as Dean? Can you share an anecdote about a previous instance/moment in your career that you feel has left a lasting impact on you?

Having taught all around the world has shown me how critical it is to be an empathetic leader. When I was teaching in Moscow, I realized my students had a completely different foundation of knowledge than what I assumed, since they were mathematicians, not economists. What was obvious for me wasn’t obvious for them, and I needed to adapt to meet them at their baseline and particular background. 

For me, this reinforced that we all bring different but valuable perspectives to the table, and the most effective leaders will notice and leverage those perspectives. This is a central theme to my leadership approach as Dean. Kellogg is an incredibly diverse place – a mix of cultures, experiences and skill sets – and we must collaborate together in order to grow as an organization. Solving problems using one’s own experiences as a guide is easy. Solving complex problems in consideration of multiple points of view and lived experiences is significantly more difficult, but creates better, more inclusive results. 

That is one of the reasons I find Kellogg so inspiring. Our faculty, for instance, span areas of expertise including physics, psychology, economics and the science of science, among many others. And our students comprise investment bankers, brand managers, social impact consultants, entrepreneurs, former members of the military and Olympic athletes, to name a few. Together, our faculty and students tackle business challenges creatively by leveraging these countless unique experiences. 

I celebrate Kellogg’s many diverse, multicultural perspectives and want to continue to invest in them – that is another key tenet of my leadership approach. Diversity is an investment that is not only central to our culture, but central to our growth as a school. Currently, in partnership with our Associate Dean for Leadership Development and Inclusion, Professor Bernie Banks, we are focused on expanding our programs, partnerships, initiatives and events that challenge conventional thinking, broaden perspectives and highlight the transformative power of diversity and inclusion in the Kellogg community.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for business education in the coming years and what is your business school strategy to tackle this? 

The world is evolving so quickly, and we need to evolve with it. It’s important for MBA graduates to be adaptable, see change and embrace opportunity. Ultimately, as graduates of an elite business school, our students get incredible jobs and thrive when they graduate. In fact, 95% received a job offer within three months of graduation in 2020, a remarkably disruptive year. But we are also thinking about what their next job looks like, or the job that they take 20 years from now. We live in an era of change and disruption, and in the future, a particular job may not exist or may look completely different. Leaders cannot rely on a static skillset to carry them through their careers. At Kellogg, we focus on a strong foundation in leadership development, change management, crisis management and leading diverse groups and teams. Our knowledge of what matters in business is constantly evolving, and this foundation teaches our students to be agile and evolve with it. 

Additionally, we launched our MBAi joint degree program with Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering last year, focused on preparing students for tech-focused leadership roles — including some roles that don’t even exist yet. While AI and analytics hold significant promise, most organizations continue to struggle with delivering and scaling it to produce business outcomes. There is an urgent need for leaders who can blend business experience with deeper expertise in technical areas. Our MBAi Program, which welcomes its first cohort this fall, will prepare students for this type of collaboration. When students graduate, they will take leadership roles that bridge science, technology and business, including tech product management, product or digital marketing, entrepreneurship and consulting. 

Ultimately, change is a constant. And Kellogg prepares a unique kind of leader that thrives in this environment — a leader who has been shaped by and embodies the essential qualities of creativity and collaboration. 

What would you say is your biggest achievement in your career so far?

Looking back, I would have to say my biggest achievement is becoming the first woman to be tenured and to become full professor at London Busines School. While I’m incredibly proud of this accomplishment — I also wish that there were many other women before me. 

I also want to mention that becoming Dean of Kellogg is a close second! 

If you could give one life lesson/piece of advice to your younger self/young female leaders, what would it be?

The first piece of advice is to think less about perfection and be more confident in leaning into new opportunities. In retrospect, I could have accomplished even more at various stages in my career if I had been less preoccupied with the idea of perfection. 

The second piece is to make sure your network includes diverse backgrounds and expertise — these perspectives will help you think about a subject or challenge from different angles and further your growth. Specifically, I encourage young female leaders to make sure their networks include a close group of women. Research from Brian Uzzi, a Kellogg professor and a renowned social network scientist, has shown the most successful female job-seekers establish not just a wide network of contacts, but they rely on a close inner circle of women who provide support and gender-specific job advice. At Kellogg we believe in seizing the value of women-focused networks, which is why we recently established the Drake Scholar Network. Stemming from a transformative gift from Ann Drake — a Kellogg alumna and a leader in the supply chain industry — the network will allow Kellogg to more deeply nurture and facilitate intergenerational connections between women students, faculty and alumnae.

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