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Inside Northwestern Kellogg B-school’s ambitious growth plan

September 15, 2014, 9:00 AM UTC


Under Dean Sally Blount, who was recruited from New York University's Stern School, where she led the undergraduate business program, Kellogg is pushing forward in remarkably positive ways. The school recently broke ground on a new ultra-modern home with dramatic vistas of Lake Michigan and Chicago's skyline. Kellogg expects to move into the 410,000 square foot global hub in late 2016. It's the latest in a series of changes at Kellogg under Blount, including a greater emphasis on its one-year MBA program for business undergraduates, dramatic improvements in the way the school is teaching entrepreneurship, and a new marketing campaign that challenges Kellogg's grads to "think bravely." To fund the improvements, Blount is half way toward reaching the finish line of a $350 million capital campaign. This year, for the first time ever, the school added a video component to its admissions process, requiring applicants to answer random questions on webcam.
Photo: Mike Willis/Flickr

(Poets&Quants) — It has been just over four years since Sally Blount assumed the deanship of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. During that time, the former dean of New York University’s undergraduate business program has led dramatic change at the school on nearly every front.

The latest piece—announced Monday—is a new strategy focused on “inspiring growth.” Close observers may wonder why the school is tinkering once again with the Kellogg brand. After all, it was only three years ago that the school launched an ambitious effort to rebrand itself under the tagline: “Think Bravely: We believe that business can be bravely led, passionately collaborative, and world changing.”

But Blount, a cerebral academic with a reputation for being a whirlwind, insists the new campaign is a smart refinement of all the work that has gone on to refresh and update the school over the past 30 months or so.

“It makes more concrete how we deliver on our promise,” says Blount, the first outsider to lead Kellogg in three decades. “We launched ‘Think Bravely’ as a placeholder for a deeper brand strategy. It tapped into the culture and spirit of Kellogg, but it didn’t prescribe a path. Growth is the most pressing challenge every organization faces.”

The upshot: After a year-long effort that gathered input from thousands of “stakeholders, including faculty, current and prospective students, alumni, employers, and administrators, Kellogg is now the school where brave leaders inspire growth in people, organizations and markets.”

The campaign is the handiwork of Tim Simonds, who had been recruited to Kellogg by Blount as the school’s chief marketing and engagement officer. A Kellogg alum, Simonds had been vice president and general manager of GE’s Healthcare IT unit. Prior to joining GE, he worked at United Airlines as managing director of marketing and merchandising, and began his career with a 13-year tenure at Procter & Gamble, where he was brand manager for the Olay and Cascade brands.

“What we are really focused on is what brave leaders do: they inspire growth,” says Simonds. “From a student perspective the whole idea of personal growth is extremely important. And our corporate partners … believe the path forward is all around growth. The research shows that 75% of total shareholder return for top S&P companies is driven by growth.”

The new brand strategy—evident in everything from the school’s new logo and tagline to its new advertising, website, and publications—is likely to get the most attention, but the more meaningful news at Kellogg is what has gone on under the hood in the past four years. At a time when graduate business education has become an increasingly commoditized product, Kellogg has aggressively moved to change or significantly update nearly everything it has been doing.

It’s hard to find a dean who has a truly distinctive vision for a business school. Everyone wants to be more global, to infuse ethics and integrity into the curriculum, to teach students to be more entrepreneurial and innovative, and to put more intellectual rigor into MBA programs that at many schools have become little more than a two-year search for a better job.

At the heart of Blount’s strategy is an effort to redefine the model of a business school from one based on the narrow business disciplines of accounting, finance, marketing, organizational behavior, and operations, to one centered on key business objectives, with the overriding goal being growth.

For decades, Kellogg stood out from other business schools through its strength in marketing and its student culture of collaboration. Blount is not abandoning those attributes. But she is trying to broaden the public’s perception of the school by changing its underlying approach to the market. “We have always been a general management school,” explains Blount. “There were people in the market who tried to portray us as just a this-or-that school. That was a defensive tactic by competitors. Yes, we had stronger marketing relative to our peers, but it was a market-created perspective to categorize Kellogg as a marketing school and not make us as fierce a competitor. We have to push back on that by showing that we have never been just that.”

Kellogg’s changes have come about from “walking the halls, having the meetings, talking to all the stakeholders,” says Blount. “We have had nearly 40 faculty task forces over the past four years. The faculty has set the direction. The change has been paced, and it’s from within.”

With buy-in from faculty, Blount has streamlined 25 research centers into either one of six core departments or into four cross-disciplinary initiatives: markets and customer; architectures of collaboration; innovation and entrepreneurship; and public-private interface.

In the last two-and-a-half years, the school has launched 55 new courses that now account for 25% of Kellogg’s total offerings. There are six new courses on growth and scaling, a dozen new courses on innovation and entrepreneurship, and three new courses in data analytics that now fold into an 11-course sequence on the subject.“That kind of innovation is pretty unparalleled in academia,” says Blount. “It was a huge structural and political undertaking, but we have seen great progress from it.”

Every month, the dean says, 10 to 15 Kellogg faculty members are being taken out to meet with the senior leadership of major corporations to connect their research with the real world and its challenges. These “faculty immersion” trips have put Kellogg professors on treks all over the world. Some 30 members of the faculty have been to at least one of the BRIC countries for multiple tours in Brazil, Russia, India, and China. This year, the school may add Indonesia to the list.

Kellogg’s dive into data analytics partly stems from a Silicon Valley trip to Facebook headquarters last fall. Florian Zettelmeyer, who leads the school’s program on data analytics, sat with high-placed Kellogg alumni in the valley. “We said, ‘Here is our current curriculum. What holes do we have and where should we plug them?’” recalls Simonds, who was in attendance. Out of the exercise came the idea to create a course called “Visualization for Persuasion.” All told, Zettelmeyer has led the data analytics faculty on five immersion trips in the past year, including to IBM’s data center, Nielsen Neuroscience, Cleversafe, and Civis Analytics. The professor also delivered the keynote address at General Electric’s Mind & Machines event last October, speaking immediately after CEO Jeff Immelt.

Dialogues with corporations have led to a group of new courses on growth and scaling, including “Strategies for Growth,” “Scaling Operations: Linking Strategy & Execution,” “Scaling Operations Lab,” Managing Organizations for Growth,” and “Human Capital and Enterprise Scaling.” Given the school’s historic prominence in marketing, Kellogg also has such new courses as “Marketing Driven Growth” and “Marketing Project Laboratory Course—Generating Profitable Growth.”

The new courses have been introduced as Blount works to change the school’s degree offerings. Recognizing that a growing number of professionals are interested in getting their MBA in a single year, Kellogg has put more resources into its accelerated program. This summer, the school enrolled 120 students, a 50% increase from the 80 MBA candidates that enrolled in the fast-track program when Blount arrived at Kellogg in 2010. “We’re beginning to slightly shrink the two-year program in a way that makes sense,” says Blount. “It is about rebalancing the portfolio to meet the demands of the market.

She also introduced an M.S. in management studies for liberal arts undergraduates who want to learn about management and business. The program, which enrolls students in mid-July and graduates them the following year in mid-May, will expand next year. For two pilot cohorts, the program was limited to Northwestern students. Blount says Kellogg will introduce the program to students outside the university next year. Though limited to just 30 students now, the dean says that the size of the program is dependent on the quality of applicants it receives. But Kellogg will move the program to downtown Chicago, where it could accommodate as many as 200 students, because “we think the energy down there is great and we can bring in executives every day, so that will enrich that program.”

Earlier this year, the school also launched a fifth international Executive MBA program with a foreign partner, the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University. More importantly, however, Blount has moved these EMBA partnerships from loose affiliations to an integrated network where schools can work closely with each other. Students in each EMBA program now take two to four courses at other network schools. “When I got to Kellogg, those partnerships were entirely separate programs,” says Blount. “The deans of those programs had never met. We created an infrastructure where the network has its own team based at Kellogg and the deans meet annually to set an agenda for each year.”

The school expects to continue to build on that network, with 37 exchange programs across 20 countries and a new course for full-time MBA students to be launched this spring called “International Growth Lab.” “Most business schools programs take a cohort of students, ship them to a foreign country where they work on a problem, and then bring them back home,” says Simonds. “This program will use the EMBA network so that our students will work together with the full-time students of our partner schools. We’ll have about 20 Kellogg students in the pilot….”

Already, says Blount, 125 to 150 of Kellogg’s MBA candidates are doing a quarter abroad at a partner or exchange school, while another 200 do a two-week experiential learning course abroad. “About 50% of all our MBA students are choosing to participate in these options,” says Blount.

All of this change takes money, of course. Blount, who broke ground on a new business school building last fall, says the school has just completed a record-breaking year in fundraising. During the 2013-2014 academic year, Kellogg raised $47 million, bringing the $350 million goal of a capital campaign to $215 million.

More money. A new building. A reconfigured brand. An entirely new senior leadership team. A radical reorganization of the faculty. New and refreshed courses. New degree offerings and a new emphasis on the growth of the one-year MBA. An expansion of the global EMBA program.

That’s enough change in four years to make one dizzy. Or, to borrow Kellogg’s new tagline, it’s the work of a leader who has inspired a great deal of growth.

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