Northwestern Kellogg's road to renewal

August 26, 2011: 10:55 AM ET

One year into her tenure as Kellogg's dean, Sally Blount has managed to make headway toward giving the B-school a new home and a new attitude toward change.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- "Think Bravely: We believe that business can be bravely led, passionately collaborative, and world changing."

Sally Blount at her first graduation ceremony as dean of the Kellogg School of Management, December 2010.

Those 15 words are at the heart of an ambitious effort to reposition Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. The phrase, part of a branding exercise that will lead to more substantive changes at Kellogg, has new Dean Sally Blount bubbling over with excitement.

"I think we came out with something really exciting there," says Blount, in a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants. "We spent a whole lot of time, working with our marketing department as well as with Kellogg graduates who lead the craft of marketing out in the world every day."

The brand messaging is more than just a clue to Kellogg's future. It just as aptly fits Blount's own leadership challenge.

When she arrived in July 2010 from New York University where she led the business school's undergraduate program, some faculty believed Kellogg needed little more than a tune-up. Blount, a self-described "organizational risk-taker," strongly felt the school had reached a point at which wholesale change was more in order.

"I have people who don't necessarily agree," concedes Blount. "They've asked, 'Why do we have to redefine who we are?' That has been the big challenge in the last six months. That took the most work. But we were able to make a compelling argument for that. They got it, and now we have to execute on it."

Asked to tick off her accomplishments in her first full year in the job, Blount cites the decision to build a new $200 million modern home for the business school on the waterfront of Lake Michigan, a reorganization of the school's top leadership team, the launch of Kellogg's new branding campaign, and a major strategic review that will put substance behind the school's new marketing slogan.

But perhaps Blount's greatest accomplishment fails to make her own list: convincing faculty that major change at Kellogg is a necessity. In the late 1980s and 1990s, under its visionary Dean Don Jacobs, the school regularly won acclaim for its highly collaborative culture, its team-based approach to learning, and an unrivaled marketing faculty. Kellogg MBAs were known for having emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills that set them apart from others. As more schools began to interview applicants before extending admissions offers and then loaded on teamwork and leadership exercises, Kellogg's distinctiveness began to fade.

"Kellogg has been a phenomenal school, but we were in need of a new strategy," insists Blount. "In many ways, Don [Jacobs] really defined the industry of business schools and executive education, and it's time to redefine it. We know what we don't want to do anymore and we have some great testing of things we do want to do."

At the outset, Blount faced some skepticism. "Golly," she says. "I spent a lot of time listening to people who disagreed with me, but one of the things I learned from my dad is that it's not about being right. It's about finding the right answer. You have to listen to people who you don't agree with because that may shift your understanding of the problem.

"The great thing about Kellogg that is different from any other school is that our faculty has known a bold leader who put a strategy in place," Blount adds. "Our faculty is ready to do it again. When you have a group that says, 'what can we do next?' And isn't sitting on its laurels. That is pretty incredible among tenured faculty."

Of course, the faculty still has to approve the more concrete changes that come out of its strategic review. How that process plays out will clearly be a test of Blount's powers of persuasion. "We're four and one-half months into a nine-month review," she says. "As we come out of that process, we will identify the three or four big ideas we want to be known for in 2020 and they will link to our curriculum and our research."

Those big ideas -- which will include a new way to teach and talk about collaboration and marketing -- will put substance behind the new brand messaging.

While this is the first attempt by Kellogg to formally brand itself, many other business schools have gone through similar exercises, including Harvard and Stanford. At Harvard, the "mission" or brand comes down to one simple sentence: "We educate leaders who make a difference in the world." At Stanford, it's "Change lives. Change Organizations. Change the World."

"While I would argue that Kellogg had some of the most interesting moves in the late 80s and early 90s in our industry, there are some other peers who used branding brilliantly in the 90s and 2000s," she says, declining to be more specific.

The approved messaging, which Kellogg has trademarked, is the result of a great deal of study and discussion, says Blount. The school produced several "brand essence" videos in the process. "It was feeling a little kumbaya for a while," says Blount, with a laugh. (See the video here).

"Kellogg got on the map because we were different. We cared deeply about how you build a strong organization and how you get people to work together more effectively."

Meantime, Blount says the school has raised $100 million toward the new building and will soon announce a major gift in the double digits. The new structure, which will be built next to the school's executive education center, won't be ready for five years. Blount says Kellogg will give up its current home, the Don Jacobs Center, when the new building comes on stream.

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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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