Sally Blount: Kellogg biz school's comeback kid?

November 24, 2010: 10:32 AM ET

While the first 100 days of the newly minted dean augur well for Kellogg, there is still much work to be done at a school that has lost momentum, if not its edge, among the business school elite.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

During her first 100 days as dean of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Sally Blount's calendar looked like the schedule of a politician in the heat of a race.

She met with alums and supporters in Boston, Minneapolis, Montreal, and Washington, D.C. She worked alumni gatherings at Chicago's Lyric Opera House and at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Temple of Dandur was bathed in purple light (Kellogg's color). Blount held her own on a National Public Radio show on MBA education with fellow deans at Harvard and Berkeley.

And in this age of social media, the 48-year-old dean managed to knock out 18 posts on a blog that cataloged her first 100 days, complete with photos she took with her iPhone.

Blount shared such personal details as dropping her youngest son, Cameron, off to college for his freshman year and noting that her college-age daughter, Haley, had to be rushed to the operating room for an emergency appendectomy.

The goal: to introduce herself to Kellogg's key stakeholders and to build confidence and excitement about the school's future.

If reviews from the school's key stakeholders are any indication, Blount's 100-day debut, which ended earlier this month, has been successful. Students, alums, faculty and staff say Blount, drafted from New York University, where she was dean of the undergraduate business program, brings tremendous energy and passion to the job, along with a sharp intellect.

"She's off to a fine start and has been doing a lot of good work meeting with key people and being open about what is on her mind," says one long-time Kellogg observer.

But there is much work ahead.

There is a sense that while nothing is terribly wrong at Kellogg, the school has lost momentum, if not it's edge, among the business school elite.

In the 1990s, when Blount pushed a double-stroller across the Kellogg campus as a Ph.D. student, the school regularly won acclaim for its highly collaborative culture, its team-based approach to learning, an unrivaled marketing faculty, and MBA graduates with high levels of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.

Companies loved Kellogg MBAs because they hit the ground running, without arrogance, pretence, or blind ambition -- attributes that often made other MBAs flame out in their organizations.

But as other schools adopted similar game plans, Kellogg has become less distinctive.

The upshot: The school, which has ranked first more often than any other in the influential BusinessWeek ranking, has not been in first since 2004.

Earlier this month, Kellogg had its weakest showing ever, fourth, as its Chicago metro rival, the University of Chicago, topped the list for the third consecutive time.

No fan of MBA rankings

Blount, no fan of rankings, pooh-poohs such lists, saying that the differences among schools are often so slight that they are statistically meaningless.

"They come nowhere near capturing the depth and quality of research that schools are producing and they come nowhere near to capturing the discussion in the hallways and classrooms. There is a student culture and a research culture, and it's different at Tuck and Booth and Stern and Columbia. Yet, we don't get rewarded for that. And I worry about the motivation for the deans to do the right thing."

Nonetheless, she knows that dramatic change is needed at Kellogg.

"Many of our competitors have co-opted the term collaboration," she concedes. "They copied our teamwork models. But everyone will admit behind closed doors that we still are truly different. We have more than a 20-year head start on this dimension that truly shapes how we form leaders here."

It will not be an easy task.

Truth is, graduate business education has become an increasingly commoditized product. It's hard to find a dean who has a truly distinctive vision for a 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 of a challenge into MBA programs that, at some places, have become little more than a two-year search for a better job.

Blount says there will be an administrative reorganization in January and the start of a six-month-long strategic review, involving the faculty and others, this spring.

Kellogg's way forward

At a faculty mixer shortly after her arrival, finance professor Mitchell Petersen walked up to Blount and said: "I assume at some point you are going to irritate me in a major way."

Blount smiled, and replied: "Count on it,'" recalls Petersen, who has taught at Kellogg for 16 years. "That told me that she has a larger goal in building Kellogg. I know she is going to work for something I care about."

Though not yet ready to articulate a new vision for Kellogg ("You never want to be ahead of your faculty," she says), the new dean has dropped plenty of clues.

They include:

  • A greater focus on organizational renewal and growth. "If we knew how to do that, the Fortune 100 wouldn't turn over as much as it does," she says. "We need to understand how to build truly robust organizations."
  • A renewed effort on global business. "Higher education," she says, "is the last industry to globalize. Our heart and our soul still resides in our home campus, but if we are truly going to prepare people for a global world, we have to develop a much more global mindset."
  • An increased emphasis on social enterprise. "The conversation is beginning to suggest that we shouldn't only organize around consumer wants and maximizing profits," she says. "Maybe we should organize around consumer needs and the ability to generate enough revenue to meet those needs."

Blount thinks that business schools have focused too much on markets and not enough on people and organizations.

"I personally believe that business schools have overemphasized the study of markets," she says. "We are also about the study of management, which is building effective organizations. It's effective organizations that create jobs and participate in markets in productive ways."

Daughter of a Bell Laboratories physicist

When Blount addressed Kellogg's incoming MBA students this fall, she could tell them that she had been in their shoes 22 years earlier. That is when she arrived on campus to study for her Ph.D. in management and organizations.

Her father, a Bell Laboratories physicist, may have influenced her early academic choices. At Princeton University, Blount earned a joint bachelor's degree in engineering and public and international affairs.

After graduating from Princeton in 1983, she went to work for a design and architecture firm. She also did a stint as a consultant for Boston Consulting Group.

Then, in 1988, she came to Kellogg's Evanston, Ill., campus for her Ph.D.

"I had a kid after my first year of graduate school and another in my third year and graduated in my fourth," she says.

After earning her Kellogg doctorate in 1992, she joined the faculty of rival Chicago Booth School of Business. For the next ten years, she buried herself in research to earn tenure.

Ultimately, New York University hired her away from Chicago in 2001 as a full professor with tenure. Three years later, Blount was named dean of NYU's massive undergraduate college, with 2,300 students, and vice dean of the school.

During her time there, Blount set fundraising records at the college, securing its first-ever $15 million gift, and led the college to become a recognized innovator in undergraduate business education.

Under her leadership, the average SAT scores of the entering freshman class increased by nearly 50 points, and participation in global semester study abroad rose from 25 percent to 75 percent.

The road back to Kellogg

Originally, says Blount, she had no interest in the Kellogg job. She felt happy at NYU and fortunate to work for university president John Sexton.

"Not many John Sextons come along in a lifetime," she says. "He gave me a model for how to dream big and make change happen."

So when the social scientist was first called about the job by a search consultant, Blount resisted every entreaty to meet.

"They called me for five months and I kept telling them I'm not interested," she insisted.

Finally, after innumerable calls, Blount agreed to a meeting at an airport club room at Chicago's O'Hare on a Saturday afternoon.

She thought she would help the search by tossing the consultant a few names of other candidates and simply offer her thoughts about the school.

Instead, over the course of an hour and a half interview, she says, "I remembered how much I loved Kellogg as a student. If you can help shape what it will be in its second generation, imagine doing that at a school that has meant so much to you personally."

Blount flew back to New York thinking that perhaps this was a job made for her. On March 30, she was named dean.

Negotiating the pressure of the MBA job market

Blount concedes that today's crop of MBAs seem more focused on getting a job than going to class.

"One thing that is true at business schools is increasing pressure from vocationalism," Blount says. "You see a lot of people using education functionally as a job service. I dare say that the average MBA in the U.S. would go to a recruiter presentation rather than to office hours for a Nobel Laureate."

When her first 100 days came to an end earlier this month, Blount dashed off her last blog post on Nov. 2.

"These 100 days have flown by," she wrote," and I have to be honest -- I am still not fully settled in. The last of my boxes and furniture only arrived in Evanston last week, and my suitcase has been packed and on planes with me every week. But despite the frequent travel and hectic pace of the transition, I find myself deeply energized and excited by the challenges and victories that lay ahead."

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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