Northwestern Kellogg gets the McKinsey treatment

September 26, 2012: 1:07 PM ET

Since arriving little more than a year ago, former McKinsey & Co. partner Betsy Ziegler has swooped in like the master consultant she has been and turned over every rock and pebble in the place.

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- When Betsy Ziegler applied to Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in the mid-1990s, she was rejected outright. Ziegler, instead, got her MBA degree from Harvard Business School.

As Kellogg's associate dean of MBA programs and dean of students, Ziegler likes to joke that it took her 15 years to finally get inside the school. Since arriving little more than a year ago, however, the former McKinsey & Co. partner has swooped in like the master consultant she has been and turned over every rock and pebble in the place.

Ziegler, 41, isn't the only McKinsey partner to decamp at a business school. Only this year, former McKinsey partners took over the B-school deanships at Johns Hopkins University and Northeastern University. But Ziegler's role brings her much closer to the nitty-gritty operational details that can make or break a premier MBA program.

In all probability, it is the first time that a business school's core operations have been as meticulously examined and dissected. Ziegler has deployed early "engagement interviews," "touch point maps," "gap analysis," "product portfolio reviews," and even "exit interviews" with recent graduates to get under the hood of the MBA experience. Kellogg Dean Sally Blount calls her "an operations genius."

Ziegler is a frenetic dynamo and a self-described geek. Words tumble out of her like bullets from an automatic weapon. An inordinate whiteboard scribbler, she'll ferociously draw charts and diagrams to illustrate every point. "Give me a whiteboard and a pen and I go," she laughs. Facts and figures back up all assertions, opinions, and hypotheses. "I am a data monkey," she concedes. "I am used to using data to make decisions." That's why her team spent six months building a "business intelligence data architecture" that could spit out the answer to virtually any numbers-based question she posed.

Yet students, many of whom have dubbed her "Dean Z," have also forged close relationships with her. "One of the most defining things about Dean Ziegler is that she has an open door policy and students use it," says Jenna Giordano, a second-year MBA candidate who is president of the Kellogg Student Association. "So a lot of students have formed personal relationships with her."

All of this is in the service of ensuring that Kellogg, long known for having a student-driven culture with an emphasis on collaboration, can deliver the most distinctive MBA experience in the world. "When I say we want to deliver a distinctive student experience, my language is not relative to my six or nine peer schools," says Ziegler. "I want people to feel here how they feel when they fly Singapore Airlines, order room service at a Ritz Carlton, return shoes to Zappos, or walk into an Apple store. You feel embraced and supported and every single detail is thought about."

Ziegler says this in all seriousness and with a passion that confirms she is hell-bent on making it happen. "I know from my previous life that those companies all have a set of things that they all do. None of those things have anything to do with being a for-profit institution. They are things like hiring the right people, giving work meaning … and improving what you do every day…."

When she started at Kellogg in June 2011, she spent her first four weeks doing what every McKinsey consultant does at the start of an assignment: learning what people in the organization already know. She met one-on-one with 90 Kellogg staffers "to know how they spend their time and their view of what impact they have on the students."

"I gave everyone the opportunity to be king or queen for the day, and I asked each person what three things they would do if they had the power. Those ideas formed the basis of my first-year priorities."

Putting the MBAs to work

It was during a lunch with students the month after Ziegler joined the school that she hit upon the idea to use Kellogg students to create consulting teams to dive deep into the school's operations. Over salads and sandwiches, one of the second-year students who had been a consultant said to Ziegler: "I want to learn how to lead consultants. First-year students want to be consultants, and clearly you need help. Can you come up with a project where you are the partner and we learn from you but I get to lead a team of students?"

Ziegler embraced the idea, creating three projects with three "partners" from the dean's office, three student managers, and 15 students who served as "consultants" -- five per team. Ziegler's group worked on the student experience. "They had two deliverables," she explains. "One, they had to give me a touch point map of all the interactions our students have with us, and two, they had to tell me what matters most to them and how we are doing against what matters. That is the killer chart. It gives me the foundation from which to build upon."

What mattered most? Leadership opportunities afforded by Kellogg's 98 active student clubs, which also got the highest performance grades. The worst scores, not surprisingly, went to food and facilities. So Ziegler has been pressing for renovations to Kellogg's Jacobs Center as the school's new home, now under construction, won't open until 2016. Kellogg has since gutted and completely renovated two major study rooms for students and spiffed up the prominent staircase that leads to the dean's suite. The school also has brought back the coffee cart with food and Starbucks drinks, added a broader selection of healthy snacks outside its deli, and included a salad and soup station in the main atrium where most students eat.

For each issue, Ziegler saw an opportunity for improvement. Kellogg, for example, found that alumni interaction was fairly important to current students. The school is now building a social network to connect alums with students, faculty, and administrators. The network will go beta in late December or early January. The school has also hired a new head of alumni relations who is meeting with students to strengthen interaction between MBA candidates and graduates. When an MBA has a summer internship in Dallas, efforts will be made to make sure the Dallas alumni club knows the student is in town.

The idea to do exit interviews of graduates came out of a town hall meeting at which a Kellogg MBA, who formerly worked for General Electric (GE) and had already landed a product manager job with Apple (AAPL), made the suggestion.

Ziegler took the idea to heart, enlisting the MBA to design the questions. She invited all of Kellogg's nearly 1,000 graduates to participate and ensured that only direct reports to Dean Sally Blount would conduct the interviews.

"It was very important that the senior team did it," she insists, because it signaled that everyone at that level cares. "Not every one on the senior team gets to spend a lot of time with students so we wanted them to hear what they have to say."

The school created 200 interview slots and filled all of them within a day. Ziegler herself did 95 of the 225 exit conversations in the bold red leather chairs in her office.

The interviews largely reaffirmed the value of Kellogg's close-knit culture. But the conversations also offered valuable insights, including the idea to have a fully dedicated staffer in Kellogg's career management center devoted to international students and domestic students who are looking for jobs outside the U.S.

Standing apart from the competition

Why is this stuff important? Ziegler puts it this way: there are about seven B-schools schools that are most often considered the best in the world: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Chicago Booth, Columbia, and MIT Sloan.

"If you go to any of the top seven schools, you get three things consistently," she says. "You get a great academic experience, though the pedagogy may be different. You get an amazing alumni experience because you get access to an outstanding alumni networks. These schools have produced great leaders over decades and decades of time. And the third thing is that the likelihood of you getting a really good job is very high because the top recruiters are coming to each of these schools to find the best and brightest. The mix might be different at any one place, but recruiters really want the students who graduate from these schools. Those you get no matter what.

"What makes Kellogg differentiated is those four things plus this culture and community," Ziegler argues. "I characterize it as being one of partnership.... Our students deeply care about one another. A typical story I hear is about the students who say they were up for the same job at Orbitz yet they helped each other prepare for the job interviews. And then, when one got the offer, the other student who didn't sent a card and flowers congratulating the winner.

"That is something we really cherish and celebrate and need to continue to cultivate. Not every person wants that. That's okay. That's why there are lots of choices."

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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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