Kellogg's Sally Blount: My First Year

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on July 19, 2011

sally_blount.jpgIn the past year, Sally Blount celebrated two major milestones: she turned 50, and she became dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. With an ambitious new agenda that includes reorganizing the administration, creating a new strategic plan, launching the school’s “Think Bravely” marketing campaign, and overseeing the construction of a world-class facility for Kellogg to call home, Blount has her work cut out for her.

But Blount is no stranger to the innovation she says has come to define Kellogg. She received her Ph.D. in management and organizations from the school in 1992 and said being an alumna has helped her understand how Kellogg shaped her as a leader.

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Victoria Stilwell, Blount discussed her experience as the school’s new dean as well as the changes Kellogg will see under her leadership.

How has your first year leading Kellogg been?

It’s been an incredibly energizing year. I love being at the helm of the school and the brand that has a whole lot of flexibility in what it is and what it brings. We aren’t constrained by the same institutional constraints many of our competitors have, a sense of doing it a certain way. Kellogg has always been able to innovate, and I love the fact that we’re the competitor that people expect new things from. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

In your most recent blog post, you said “Kellogg has to re-envision itself in light of the 21st century’s challenges and opportunities — strategically, operationally, even as a brand.” What are some of those challenges and opportunities, and how will you respond?

There is more complexity and more uncertainty in the world than ever before. When you have 7 to 8 billion people in the world, that creates more complexity in the process of organizing all the human beings on the planet. We also have many more interlocked economies, businesses across borders that create additional complexity in how the world works.

In our strategic planning process, we're really looking at identifying what are three to five big ideas that are going to be important to the world in 2020. We're going to make some strategic investments in both the research and teaching around those ideas and we've said, "These are the ideas that we want to be known for."

One of the [ideas] I know that we'll think deeply about is what we're calling the "dynamics of demand." Marketing is understanding the demand curve, what people want. You don't have a market without demand, you don't have a market without customers. We're doing a big initiative on how can we re-conceptualize the studying of markets from a demand side in a way that will embrace not just our faculty in our marketing department but also our faculty in finance and economics as well.

How will those ideas affect the kind of community Kellogg builds?

It affects the kind of faculty you hire. Over time it's going to affect how we read applications. We're going to be looking for people who already consider themselves "brave thinkers" and have demonstrated that, but also people who aspire to be [brave thinkers].

We're also going to change our product portfolio over time as we identify those three to five ideas and hone in on the strategy. There are going to be implications for which degree programs we continue to offer. We'll probably cut down on some, and we may create some new ones.

What are your three biggest goals for the next year? What about five years from now?

In the next year we're going to complete the reorganization, we're going to complete the brand repositioning and we're going to finish the strategic plan that's due to be done in December and start implementing it.

In five years we'll have completed our new global hub building on Lake Michigan, we'll have gotten through our first five-year plan, so we'll have two other campuses somewhere in major cities around the world and be expanding our global footprint. We will have been fully repositioned as a brand so awareness of Kellogg in key global markets will have increased.

How involved have you felt in the process of designing and building Kellogg's new business campus? How is the process going?

I feel pretty integral because they talked about this new building before I got there, and I had to make the decision as to whether we would go forward with it or not.

It's going to open in five years--big buildings in Chicago take a bit of time. We had a design competition in the spring, and we had proposals from five architects from around the world, and we'll be selecting an architect this summer.

We re-conceptualized what that building's going to be about. It's going to be phenomenal. It's just a few minutes from O'Hare [international] Airport so the kinds of speakers, the kinds of visitors that we're going to be able to get in our global hub is going to be incredibly exciting. We're going to use a lot of technology to make sure that it's well connected to classrooms around the world. We're going to be completely re-conceptualizing how you build a classroom.

What is your outlook for the future of Kellogg?

It's incredibly dynamic. It's going to be a very special kind of student that we're going to see in the 21st century who understands what we stand for and what we're trying to bring.

We've always been a good place for birthing social entrepreneurs and birthing marketers, and we've always been known as a place that's great at producing CEOs, and the world's going to need more of those than ever.

We need people that know how to run and build strong organizations. That's what we're great at at Kellogg, and we're going to keep getting greater at it.

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