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Focusing on the Fundamentals of Business Education

An Interview with Sally Blount

October 1, 2010

To best prepare students for a business world that is quickly changing and constantly evolving, Sally Blount believes it is important to focus on the fundamentals of business education.

It’s a lesson she learned during her time at BCG, and it’s one that she’ll be applying as the new dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

“The big question is, how do you best structure a business school today, given the technological and global transformations that have occurred?” Sally said. “What does an education that’s best suited for that landscape look like? Changes are occurring faster than ever before. That’s why we have to be more nimble as an institution, being mindful of this changing landscape while also staying true to the fundamentals that drive knowledge.”

“Education in the twenty-first century will be very different than what we saw in the previous century. A fundamental geological shift is taking place, and I want Kellogg to be at the forefront of redefining the landscape.”

Sally became dean of the Kellogg School in July, bringing more than 20 years of experience in higher education to the position. She had most recently worked at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where she served as the dean of its undergraduate college and vice dean of the school.

One of the basic principles she brings to Kellogg is the belief that business schools must still insist on delivering the highest quality education, despite evidence that suggests attention spans are shortening and the ability to digest complicated material is dwindling.

“We have to represent for society the ability to sustain attention and facilitate complex thinking,” Sally said. “These things matter when you’re talking about the world of ideas and making sure the next generation of business leaders is adequately prepared to solve the immense challenges they will face.”

As someone whose own education and experience focused on organizational behavior, Sally recognizes that educational institutions have to evolve along with the business world while still maintaining their core values. She credits NYU president John Sexton with helping her realize this, but it’s clear that her own professional background also opened her eyes to the importance of change.

“At BCG, you’re exposed to smart people who don’t accept the status quo. I’m fortunate that I worked in that type of environment,” she said.

She also noted that BCG’s culture helped her see early on that good ideas would be rewarded. She worked in the Chicago office when women like Indra Nooyi—now the CEO of PepsiCo—were moving into leadership positions and blazing a trail for future female leaders.

Sally is now blazing her own trail as one of the first women to lead a top U.S. business school, but what she finds more interesting is the fact that she comes from a background in organizational behavior and undergrad education—a rarity for business school deans. Before moving into education, she was tempted to pursue management consulting as a career path, but coming from an academic family, she saw education as the ideal choice.

“I was excited once I found out I could work in academics in a business setting, because I loved the applied part of it,” she said. “You’re sitting between the academy and the world, so you get to see both sides in business school.”

Sally is also interested in trying to answer some of the key questions that businesses are facing. In particular, she is fascinated by the fact that despite the wealth of knowledge and experience in the corporate world, it is still very difficult to consistently achieve sustained organizational excellence.

“We haven’t really evolved as managers of complex organizations, such that the average manager has the skills needed for effective leadership,” Sally said. “It’s a very interesting challenge, and it’s one that you can’t answer just by throwing money at it. It’s a difficult problem to solve. When it comes to good management, you know it when you see it—but we’re still learning how to develop it.”

It’s that type of intellectual challenge that has always inspired Sally throughout her career. And she acknowledges that tackling such broad issues in academia allows her to draw on her experience at BCG—where she learned quickly how to develop creative ideas and also defend them to a client team.

“At BCG it’s all about your ideas. It doesn’t matter who you are,” Sally said. “It can be a tough environment, but it equips you intellectually for other challenges. When I was at BCG, Bruce Henderson still walked the halls. It was a very intellectual workplace, which is why I enjoyed my time there. Business school has some of those elements as well, and that’s one reason I think it has been such a good fit for me.”

Focusing on the Fundamentals of Business Education
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