Kellogg’s New MBA Gatekeeper

by on January 9th, 2013

It was over a lingering dinner at Convito Café in Wilmette, Ill., that Kate Smith first thought about the possibility of leaving her corporate job and working for her alma mater Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. A 1998 Kellogg MBA, Smith was dining with Roxanne Hori, who had successfully led Kellogg’s MBA placement effort for nearly 17 years.

Leaning over a table at the Italian-French trattoria, Smith confided to Hori that she might be ready for a career change. Kellogg had recently hired Sally Blount, a new dean from New York University, and Smith was keen to know how what Blount had in store for her alma mater.

“’I need to go through a more rigorous self-assessment of where I should go next,’” she recalls telling Hori. “’That said, tell me what’s going on at Kellogg right now because I’m so intrigued by Sally and what I’ve read and what I see coming. You’re in the middle of it. Tell me what’s going on.’”

By the time she and Hori walked out of the restaurant and onto the Sheridan Road sidewalk, Smith had decided she wanted to be a part of Kellogg’s new leadership team. After a series of interviews in late 2011, she was hired and arrived during the midst of the round-two application deluge in February of this year as assistant dean of admissions and financial aid. For someone who had spent the past 14 years working for some of the biggest consumer brands in America at General Mills, Quaker Oats, and PepsiCo, the MBA admissions game seems at first an odd fit.

From Marketing Gatorade to populating Kellogg with the best and brightest

But Smith, who left her job as senior director of marketing for Gatorade to join Kellogg, recalls an early desire walking the hallways of Kellogg as an MBA student to someday return to the university in a working capacity. Over her corporate years, she stayed close to the school, returning to interview and recruit MBA students as well as to participate in classroom and panel discussions on marketing.

And in nearly every way, Smith is the quintessential Kellogg grad: an exceptionally bright and engaging person with infectious enthusiasm and passion—especially for the school. “I am literally here as a byproduct of the experience that Kellogg is,” she says. “I loved Kellogg. I was thrilled to be admitted and accepted here and it was an amazing experience.”

Smith’s First Class of Kellogg MBAs   

Born in Minnesota, the six-foot-three-inch Smith was a hot basketball prospect in high school. Some 100 colleges and universities vied to recruit her. Smith ultimately went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she became captain of the women’s basketball squad. She graduated in the 1992 recession with a marketing degree. “There weren’t any great marketing roles for an undergraduate in that era,” says Smith. “So as I looked at my opportunities and I followed another path: commercial real estate.” Two years into it, however, and the desire to do marketing was felt. Kellogg became the obvious choice for a career-switching MBA.

In her first season as Kellogg’s gatekeeper, Smith saw applications to Kellogg’s full-time MBA program fall by 7% to 5,071 from 5,459. Interestingly, though, applications to Kellogg’s one-year MBA program rose 6% and the school increased the size of its one-year program by 15% to a record 100 students. In July, Smith unveiled an entirely new slate of essay questions for this season’s MBA applicants while cutting the total word limit to 1,525 words from 2,200.

What makes Kellogg’s admissions virtually unique is that the school requires all applicants to request an admissions. No business school interviews more applicants in any given year. About 67% of those interviews are done by alums, 26% by Smith’s admissions staff of eight full-time staffers, with the remaining sessions done by current Kellogg students.

In a lengthy interview with Poets&Quants, Smith explains the process Kellogg uses to select its MBA students as well as the core characteristics it seeks in an ideal MBA candidate. And Smith explains why she quit her job to return to the school she loves.

So what caused you to leave Corporate America and return to Kellogg?

Ten years into PepsiCo, I came to a crossroads of personal reflection on what I think of as the chapters of my life. I asked myself what do I want the next chapter of my life to be. Do I want to just keep going? Do I want to rise within a major organization, continuing to build businesses and brands? Or am I at a point where I would like to pursue something else? I don’t know if there was a trigger or simply the desire to take the energy, the passion and the skills I’ve built and put those against something with more meaning.  All the energy and time I’m now spending is going to have more significant impact on people’s lives.

What triggered this moment of self-reflection is that when I was a student here I thought I might some day like to return and work here. The funny part of the story is that when you come to an intersection in your career and ask yourself how to identify what’s next, one of the first people you call is Roxanne Hori. I’ve had a relationship with her since I was here as a student. As a Kellogg alum, I recruited MBAs for my entire 14 years in the CPG business. I’ve been responsible for talent development and evaluation. So there are threads here that are obvious connector points, but you pick up the phone and say, ‘Roxanne, let’s go to dinner. I’m at this point when I want to kick the tires and talk to you about my future.’ I go to have dinner with Roxanne and there unfolds the benefits of being a Kellogg alum. Our Career Management Center services are for life. It’s an amazing part of the Kellogg experience.

I came away from that dinner thinking I wanted to go back and work at Kellogg. I did do additional self-reflection to help me confirm that this would be a wise choice. But I still remembered that when I walked the halls here as a student I felt that I might want to be here one day.

Was there a magical moment for you as a Kellogg student that really helped to drive you back to the school?

I’d say it was the total experience. If you go to one moment, they are all formative and additive. I don’t feel there was a transformational moment. I feel the two years was the transformation. What I love about Kellogg is the diversity in the student population and the experience. I grew up in Minnesota. I went to the University of Illinois, and I came to the big city of Chicago. Then, I came to Kellogg and the world came to me. And I went on and became much more aware of what was going on outside the Midwest because of my Kellogg experience. So it was transformative for me in terms of my view of the world and my understanding of business.

Interestingly, I had an undergraduate business degree so I qualified for what was then called the four-quarter program at the time. And I looked hard at which one I should pursue. Because I knew I wanted a career change, the two-year program was the obvious choice. I would have a better chance of getting into marketing with the summer internship, which was completely a proof point. Lucky for me, I came out in a boom era where the offers were everywhere. It was a very easy transition because of what Kellogg provides and I was well equipped to make that change.

I now get to talk to perspective students who have dreams as well as the current students who are here experiencing what I went through years ago. There is an energy in this place that I cannot compare to other schools but it’s unparalleled. That life changing conversation thread is the same conversation for almost every student and alum.

What I knew about Kellogg when I applied and what is still relevant today is that it is the number one school for marketing. It has a highly collaborative culture that values the contributions of every student and provides so many leadership opportunities outside the classroom. At all these top schools, you’re going to be well educated. You’re going to walk out well equipped to go on and be successful in a business career. But to me it was Kellogg was a 360-degree experience. When I evaluated which school to go to for undergrad, the best piece of advice my parents gave me was to evaluate the schools on three areas: the academic experience, the athletic experience, and the social, outside-the-class experience. I applied the same principles as I looked at graduate school. I can still name every member of my first team group from all over the world.

Typically, when a corporate type comes into an admissions role at a university, they are almost always HR (human resources) people. You’re an exception because you’re a marketer. So what gives?

I floored most people when I did this. They said ‘huh?’ So after my conversation with Roxanne, Sally then went and hired Betsy (Ziegler, a former McKinsey partner who is associate dean of MBA programs and dean of students). So now you’re telling me the opportunity to make this transition exists. So then I was thinking, ‘Wow, I could work with a McKinsey partner at Kellogg. I’m going to get challenge and growth and the opportunity to be a member of a phenomenal team. We have a magic equation in insuring the type of person we want here and yet no other school has followed. I had a ten-school group meeting last week and every single one of them asked me if I were going to continue to interview every applicant. Of course, we are. It’s a very important element to what we do.

Our students read and evaluate every application. So who better than a current student who is living it and who understands what they had to do to get here to help evaluate our future classes? It was part of the magic of what we do. You learn as much potentially from your classmates as you do in the class.

It’s known that the admissions officers of the top ten business schools meet together on a fairly regular basis. What was your first meeting with your colleagues like?

It was in Boston. Dee (Leopold) at Harvard and Rod (Garcia) at MIT were our hosts. When you’re at Pepsi, you don’t talk to Coke. When you are at General Mills, you don’t talk to Kellogg’s. So there is a frame of reference here that was unusual for me. That peer alliance is a really special thing because it allows you to have a forum to learn from others who have a lot of experience. It’s reinforcing of higher education. We shared best practices and learning. I actually met Derrick (Bolton of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business) during my decision process. He came out of Stanford the same year I came out of Kellogg. I cold called him and he called me within minutes. We met and I said, ‘Tell me about what you do because I’m really thinking about doing this?’

Derrick didn’t scare you off?

No. I’m loving it. It comes back to my motivations. I bleed purple and I love Kellogg. The other piece of the story is that I didn’t look at any other job opportunities after my conversation with Roxanne. I pursued this and if I didn’t get this then I was going to think about what next. So I spent all my time and energy getting smart on what would that transition into Kellogg be, what might the opportunities that exist for me be, and going through the process of interviewing and then being selected. From what I understand from Betsy, I was the only non-admissions person for the job considered. I am thrilled they saw the value I can bring to the team. But the motivation is that I have the opportunity to change all these kids lives just as mine was. I am here to put the best and brightest into each Kellogg class, shaping the experience the students are going to have by virtue of who they are sitting next to, and helping them achieve their dreams and goals. It sounds cliché but actually it does happen.

At Kellogg, it seems as if there is a reexamination of every core process critical to the business school experience. Has that reexamination touched the admissions process yet?

Yes, from the day I walked in the door. It’s my job to understand what is exceptional and is working great and then where the opportunities are. I have the same DNA as Betsy. I believe your work is never done and you can always do better. It’s my job to figure out where we can do better, but the foundation is solid. The admissions team here is exceptionally good.

So what happens to an application when it comes to Kellogg?

We have the unique element of trying to interview every applicant. So for us, we’ve actually created a two-part process which I think is unique to most applications out there. Part one requires that an applicant submit basic information about him or herself with a resume. That part one submission comes to us and immediately sets up a match with an interviewer. Then, they are allowed to submit part two while we are working to get them an interview.

We don’t review until the application is complete. It’s just a trigger point to say Amit is in India and who can we find in India from our alumni network to interview him or will he be able to come to campus for an interview. Once we get part two, which includes the letters of recommendation and the essays, the review process begins.

First up, it goes to a student. We have about 20 trained student readers, both first and second year MBAs, who are part of our admissions process. And we have 20 students who do interviews on campus. Then, when they graduate, they go out and populate our alumni interview team. It’s like building a virtual network of our admissions staff year after year.

In any given year, how many Kellogg alumni participate in this interview exercise?

We have a base that is in the thousands. We have annual training so we reengage with them every year. We have a manual and send it to each and every interviewer. Don’t go find it. It’s more about how do you conduct a good interview and what are we looking for in the evaluative process. We are definitely looking for certain attributes and qualities in the interview process.

Is there a scoring sheet?

Yes. We have a number system based on a five-point scale on 13 or 14 attribute areas. Five is our best.

What kind of attributes are scored?

Certainly, interpersonal skills. Presence. How do they come across in articulating their answers and who they are in an interview. We are probing for certain experiences and your ability to demonstrate critical thinking. These are all skills that are critical in business. It’s to help us understand why we should admit you to Kellogg.

When those scoring sheets comes back is there a bottom line grade on a candidate?

No one gets jettisoned only by an interview. The interview is a component of your evaluation. The application in total plus the interview report are the total body of evidence per applicant that is evaluated.

Do you wait for the interview report before you assess the rest of the application?

We do. To us, it’s a key component.

And your first reader is a student?

Yes. Where we can have a student involved, we do. There may be a handful of applications when we’re on break that we might read first. But the intent is to have student involvement with each and every application we can. We have a wide range of specific attributes that we evaluate each applicant on. We believe they are indicators of what makes a great student at Kellogg. We train every reviewer to look at that entire range of qualities and to seek for evidence of those qualities in every applicant. They are reviewing and calling out evidence of each of those attributes to help make a recommendation. We do have this one to five scale, but we are asking each student to recommend an admit or a deny based on this review. You don’t get to pick wait list.

Then, the application comes to an admissions officer regardless of the recommendation. So every application gets two full reads before it comes to the director. We tell our staff not to look at the previous recommendation but to read the application independent of the first review. Then, you can go back and look at the student review so your recommendation is based on the two reviews. Then, it comes to the director who reviews all of the applications.

So if the student and admissions staffer agree that an applicant should be rejected, you would still look at the application?

Yes. I did a lot of reading when I first got here. The benefit of that is that you have three people coming to a conclusion. It’s the value of making sure we are admitting all the students we should. We don’t want to say no to someone that we should be considering for admission. And sometimes all eight of the admission officers will come together to talk about some of the applications. That happens organically.

Do the applicants come alive for you when you read these pieces of paper?

Yes, to the degree that you can imagine who they are from the body of evidence in front of you. But the true come to life is when you meet a person. So reading that interview report is what brings them to life.

So what is your vision of the perfect Kellogg student?

First and foremost, you’re looking for someone who is going to have a major impact in the world. So we want people at Kellogg who are going to go out and have a positive impact on many levels. Then, we are looking for an individual who has that collaborative element to who they are. I had been not only an athlete but I was a team athlete. You enjoy the competition, but you get even greater enjoyment by doing it with others.

And we obviously want them to have the core skills that will make them greater leaders: the intellect and work experience, a bit of courage to not always sit and accept the status quo. People who have an impact are usually questioning and curious. So having a natural curiosity and the desire to learn and grow and develop is part of the magic of the equation as well. We are seeking students who are going to make every minute here count.



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