Sall Blount

Dean Sally Blount Reflects on 7 Years Leading Kellogg School of Management

Posted October 11, 2017 by Lee Davidson - Coordinator, Editor-Digital Content - AACSB International

Sally Blount, dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, recently announced that she’ll be stepping down in August 2018. During the last seven years under her leadership, Kellogg has undergone an impressive transformation. I recently caught up with Blount and asked if she would reflect on her journey as dean as well as the challenges facing business education today.

Q: With everything going on in the world today—environmental and economic crises, political upheavals, rapid technological innovations, and constant disruption to industry—does business education still matter?

A: Business remains the dominant social institution of our day. It creates more jobs, lifts more people out of poverty, and delivers more lifesaving and life-enhancing innovations than any other sector. But, it’s not enough to just explain what markets are and how to build organizations to compete within them. As educators of future leaders, we need to ensure that our current and future business executives truly understand the strengths and weaknesses of markets and of the businesses that enact them.

Markets are efficient, but they are not intrinsically fair, kind, or wise. Only the people operating within them can bring those important values to life. And that is our role—to teach people how to build strong organizations and wisely leverage the power of markets.

Q: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in the past seven years about business education?

A: There have been many lessons, perhaps the most potent to share is that business education for 2020 and beyond will require building new frameworks and partnerships and lessening our traditional reliance on functional research and organizing structures. There are three observations in support of this perspective:

  • The table stakes required to compete in business education have already become cross-disciplinary. They have moved beyond the functions of finance, marketing, and management and the associated core courses that are rapidly becoming commoditized. They now also include entrepreneurship, data analytics, social impact, and design thinking—all of which are inherently cross-disciplinary.
  • The most relevant social science research will increasingly move to the boundaries between the traditional disciplines, whether it is development economics, healthcare management, or innovation.
  • The speed of change in the global marketplace means that in order to stay relevant, our tenure-line faculty will need to be regularly partnering in the classroom with seasoned executives. Making this happen will require significant financial investment in training as well as cultural change.

Bottom line: Business school faculty and staff will need to learn to operate in a more matrixed environment, which will require a much higher tolerance for complexity and ambiguity. It is a brave new era that we’re entering!

"[B]usiness education for 2020 and beyond will require building new frameworks and partnerships and lessening our traditional reliance on functional research and organizing structures."

Q: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your role as leader of one of the world’s most prominent educational institutions?

A: It’s all about how you communicate—your words, tone, medium, and meaning. I feel like I keep learning that lesson over and over, at every stage of my career. I learned it in the classroom as a professor at the University of Chicago. I learned it in my first dean's job at New York University. And I learned it again during my time here at Kellogg.

Being a dean requires meeting the needs and expectations of an incredibly broad range of stakeholders—from students, faculty, professors, alumni, and trustees, to global partners and the media. Doing that well is all about effectively communicating; it’s about using your words as well as you can in every meeting, in every email, and in every conversation. And it’s about forgiving yourself when you get it wrong, because inevitably, sometimes you will.

Q: There are only 10 women leading some of the highest-ranking U.S. business schools today, including you. That number hasn’t changed much in several years. What can we do to help more capable women reach top leadership positions in business education?

A: I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I enter my final year leading Kellogg. In fact, one of the hardest things about deciding to step down is knowing that, odds are, this number will drop again with my departure.

There are so many sources of bias, both implicit and explicit, in the process, such as the fact that less than 50 percent of business school faculty are women and most of the women are not in economics or finance, the traditional power alleys within business schools, or the fact that most senior faculty, as well as most university presidents, provosts, and trustees, who are selecting new deans are older men. The list goes on.

If we are to counter these factors, universities must give both more attention and deeper intention to women and to leadership development. We need to practice what we teach at business school! That means we need to require diverse slates at all levels of hiring and leadership selection within universities; we need to get more rigorous about leadership development for faculty; and we need to become more diligent about monitoring and improving the workplace climate for women and other minorities.

And if a board of trustees is really serious, the advice I offer corporate boards should be equally applied to higher education: whenever a high-potential woman or minority departs, board members should require an exit interview and detailed postmortem. Ideally, board members could even perform the exit interviews with departing faculty. The key point would be to not let them leave without the opportunity to gain insight; if we are going to improve, that knowledge is needed at the highest levels!

Sally Blount is currently dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. You can follow her on LinkedIn.