Kellogg Gets The McKinsey Treatment

by on September 25th, 2012

Dean Z, aka Betsy Ziegler, Kellogg’s associate dean of MBA programs and dean of students.

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.

So she has taken out McKinsey’s problem solving toolkit and put many of those handy frameworks to good use at Kellogg. 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.

‘Give me a whiteboard and a pen and I go!’

Ziegler is a frenetic dynamo, 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 a very fact-driven person.  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 who have dubbed her “Dean Z” have forged close relationships with the former McKinseyite. “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 Kellogg Student Association. “She is not just an administrator. You can talk to her about anything, from work to personal decisions. So a lot of students have formed personal relationships with her.”

Making Kellogg the Apple, Zappos and Ritz Carlton of business schools

All of this is in the service of insuring that Kellogg can deliver the most distinctive and unparalleled MBA experience on the planet. “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. “It is about how the best companies deliver service because 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 the 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, doing the job and learning on the job and improving what you do every day, empowering your front line to actually solve problems. Why can’t we, Kellogg, do that? We are kind of doing it by chance now, but l want us to be deliberate. That’s the level I want Kellogg to be at.”

Kellogg, of course, is no stranger to excellent execution. For years, the school topped every rival in BusinessWeek’s biennial satisfaction survey of MBA graduates. In fact, only Kellogg’s career management center has been able to land in the top 20th percentile in satisfaction for each of BusinessWeek’s surveys over the past 24 years. But the last time the school finished first in the graduate satisfaction survey was a dozen years ago in 2002. In 2010, when the magazine last ranked MBA programs,  Kellogg had fallen to sixth in the graduate opinion survey and fourth overall.

Making sure that MBA students have unusual voice in the school’s affairs—and leave highly satisfied–has been deeply ingrained in Kellogg’s culture for years. The school has long done both mid-point and graduation satisfaction polls of students, but in recent years fell out of the habit of using those survey instruments to trigger program improvements. “We blew them up and built them over again this year,” says Ziegler. “We redesigned the surveys to make sure we are asking questions that lead us to a conclusion to take action on.”

The difference between Harvard Business School and Kellogg?

Ziegler does not regret her Harvard Business School education. She says it profoundly changed her life. But she’s also not shy to note the advantages of the Kellogg MBA experience. “I loved my MBA experience but it pales in comparison to what students get to experience here,” she says. “It was totally different.”

The difference occurred to her soon after arriving at Kellogg. Ziegler’s best friend from Harvard visited her from London in February. “You know, I don’t understand your job,” he said. “What are you doing?”

Ziegler explained that she spent 60% of her time as the dean of students and about 40% of her time as the associate dean of MBA programs.

“I still don’t understand it,” he replied. “Why do students want to talk to you? And what on earth would they want to talk to you about?”

“It occurred to me that I didn’t have a single relationship with an administrator at Harvard and I was the president of all kinds of clubs. This is not a negative thing. It’s just different. But the story crystallizes the difference. What you hear on the outside about our culture, the focus on collaboration and support, and the partnership model with administrators, faculty and students, is true on the inside. It’s actually even more powerful.”

One of 83 Harvard MBAs who went to work for McKinsey in the class of 1998

When she graduated with her Harvard MBA in 1998, Ziegler was one of 83 Harvard MBAs who accepted an offer from McKinsey & Co. Only three of those 83 recruits stayed long enough to make partner. Ziegler was one of them, gaining election to the partnership in just over five years. All told, she would spend 12 and one-half years at “The Firm,” consulting for a variety of insurance, consumer finance and retail bank clients.

After the economic crisis hit in 2008, she found herself doing some consulting for non-profits, including those in higher education, the performing arts and economic development. “That work lit me up in a way I wasn’t expecting,” she says. “And that also coincided with the idea that maybe I should become the bus driver rather than the bus driver’s advisor.”

She left McKinsey in April of 2010, deciding to do her version of an Eat, Pray Love tour, buying an around-the-world plane ticket for some rest, relaxation and reflection. Ziegler started in Peru and ended up in Cambodia. True to her fanatical roots as a Ohio State alum (she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1993), she then went to a slew of Buckeye football games. She is the proud owner of an eight-foot-ball Brutus Buckeye mascot, and her year-old Portuguese Water Dog is named after Archie Griffin, the Heisman Trophy-winning rushing back for Ohio State in the early to mid-1970s.

An article in the Chicago Tribune brought Kellogg to her attention

“I came back full of energy with the thought that the social sector was the place I wanted to be,” says Ziegler. Nevertheless, a major global financial services concern offered her a big job that she ultimately turned down in January of 2011. To celebrate her rather bold decision, she agreed to meet a friend for a lunch. Waiting at the table for her friend to arrive, she picked up the Chicago Tribune and read a story on the “Seven People To Watch In Chicago.”

One of them was Sally Blount, who had been recently recruited from New York University, where she was dean of the undergraduate business program, to become dean of Kellogg. “I sent her a cold call email saying ‘I was a former McKinsey partner and thinking about going into higher ed. Would you spend 30 minutes with me on the phone?’ It was Sunday afternoon and she responded immediately.

Over a three-hour lunch, the pair clicked. Three days later, Ziegler started consulting for Kellogg. Two months after that, she interviewed for the Kellogg job she eventually started on June 27th of 2011. Says Dean Blount: “She is an operations genius. It was fabulous working with her as a consultant. It is even more fabulous bringing her on the team. Folks like her make it really fun to come to work.”

When she assumed her job at Kellogg, she spent the first four weeks doing what every McKinsey consultant does at the start of an engagement: 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.”

Being king or queen for the day

“The 90 people on my team wake up every day and kill themselves to deliver on the student experience,” she says. “I wanted to know how they think about what they do. 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.”

Source: Kellogg School of Management

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. Focus groups were formed to help design the questionnaires. 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.”

Discovering Kellog’s ten moments of truth

The MBA students were given 100 “importance” points to parcel among a dozen different touch points. Then, students were asked to grade the school’s performance on each one using a one to five point scale, with five being the best. Each respondent was put in a drawing for a free iPad3, an incentive that quickly attracted nearly 350 participants.

If something was deemed important and Kellogg was under-performing, an opportunity would become immediately apparent by the gap between its importance and the school’s performance. Closing that gap would presumably yield significantly higher satisfaction. “It’s like the top ten moments of truth,” says Ziegler. “It’s very consultant-y, but the exercise allows me to make trade-offs pointed at the things that are important to our students. It is a starting point for sure, a good foundation to build from as we plow forward.”

The analysis examined out-of-classroom touch points only. But when Ziegler asked students to spread their points between inside-the-classroom factors and outside-the-classroom factors, the MBAs assigned equal importance to both.

Thumbs down on food and facilities – thumbs up on clubs and the Career Management Center

The results? What mattered most was the leadership opportunities afforded by Kellogg’s 98 active student clubs, which also got the highest performance grades (see table left). The worst scores, not surprisingly, were for food and facilities. So Ziegler has been pressing renovations to Kellogg’s Jacobs Center because 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, she saw opportunity for improvement. Kellogg, for example, found alumni interaction with current students was fairly important, garnering ten importance points. With a performance score of three, about average, Ziegler saw a chance to make a difference. Kellogg is now building a social network to more effectively connect alums with students, faculty and administrators. The beta test for that network will occur 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. And Ziegler made a point during this year’s orientation of telling MBAs, “From this moment on you are part of a 54,000-strong community and that is something you will have for the rest of your life. This is the time to celebrate it and embrace it.”

Yet another of the “consulting projects” examined the school’s global immersion in management trips, an elective course that for years has Kellogg MBA students traveling to far flung locales in the world. In recent years, Kellogg MBA candidates have been to Kenya, China, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, Brazil, and India, Students had played a major role in the curriculum design for those trips even though a professor is assigned to each class. “The feedback from students was, ‘we don’t want a student designing the curriculum for us.’ So we took away the curriculum role,” says Ziegler.

Source: Kellogg School of Management

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 and had already landed a product manager’s job with Apple, 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 insured 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 on the senior team cares. And 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.”

Exit interview: Six core questions asked of the class of 2012

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.

At the core of each session, lasting roughly 30 minutes, were six questions:

  1. What were your expectations of Kellogg and how did the school perform against them?
  2. What did you like most and what did you like least?
  3. Has there ever been a time when you felt especially proud to be a Kellogg student?
  4. Has there ever been a time when you have been less proud?
  5. Let’s pretend you have Sally’s job or my job. What would you do?
  6. Would you recommend Kellogg? Whether your the answer is yes or no, what is the single reason you would give for your recommendation?

Answers mostly reaffirmed the value of Kellogg’s close-knit collaborative culture

The answers to those questions largely reaffirmed the value of Kellogg’s close-knit culture. Some 223 of 225 interviewees said they would recommend the school to others. The remaining two students said they would recommend Kellogg to people who they thought would best ‘fit” the school. “The number one reason is some combination of people, culture and community–one of those three words,” she says. “The other reason that came up a lot was a phrase that seemed a little bit like, ‘you will be a better person after you have been at Kellogg.’ It’s this idea that I am better because I spent two years here.”

Out of those exit conversations came the idea to have a fully dedicated staffer in Kellogg’s career management center devoted to international students and domestic students who are seeking jobs outside the U.S.

Why is this stuff important?

Ziegler puts it this way: there are seven schools most often considered the best in the world: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Chicago Booth, Columbia, and MIT Sloan.

The best seven business schools deliver three things consistently

“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 this culture and community,” Ziegler believes. “I characterize it as being one of partnership or co-creation. It is a student-driven culture that supports a diverse array of voices and ideas at the table. 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.

“Or I hear stories about how swamped students might be but they will always respond to another student who asks for help. I think that is special, particularly relative to the other six in the seven. That is something we really cherish and celebrate and need to continue to cultivate. Not every person wants that. Not every person wants to be expected to play a leadership role and put his or her fingerprints on the school. That’s okay. That’s why there are lots of choices.”


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