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Making culture happen
At Kellogg, social bonds are as important as stocks and bonds.

by Matt Golosinski

Kellogg culture group shot

©2001 Steve Robb Photography
Among those contributing their perspectives on the Kellogg culture are (left panel, clockwise from back left): Andrew McDill '02, Associate Dean for Student Affairs Ed Wilson '84, Ursula Wright '01, GMA 2000 President Brian Poger '01, Rob Barry '01, Director of Development Liz Livingston Howard '93, Dean Donald Jacobs, and (right panel) Jason Moss '01, Director of External Relations Rich Honack '94, Assistant Dean of Administrative Services Carole Cahill, Director of Alumni Relations Megan Byrne '90, Kanna Kunchala '01, EMP Director Erica Kantor, and BMA Vice President Tracy Pruitt '01.

Melanie Brownrout '98 didn't plan on launching her MBA career this way, but when an unexpected illness kept the first-year student sidelined at home for two weeks, the support of her new Kellogg peers proved invaluable.

"Every day at 5 p.m., when classes finished, I received a barrage of well-wishing phone calls, e-mail, class notes and homework delivered to my apartment from section mates and professors, along with an endless supply of Jell-O and brownies," recalls Brownrout, the class representative for 1998.

This sort of concern could only occur in a business school whose core values -- the bedrock of its culture -- emphasize social bonds in addition to stocks and bonds. A place where teamwork and a collaborative spirit imbue the entire rich fabric of student life.

As Katie Glockner Seymour '84 observes: "There is something about Kellogg that builds strong and lasting friendships, and back in 1984 it wasn't the football team! There was wonderful energy."

At Kellogg, says Dean Donald Jacobs, students don't sit on their hands. They're trusted and encouraged to assume an active part in making the school run. "There's an openness here," explains Jacobs, who paved the way for Kellogg's dynamic faculty-student interaction by instituting an "open door" policy, a communication model that permeates the school's culture. "There's a willingness to listen to the students. These are people with experience; they're not a bunch of 22-year-olds who have never been out in the world. So we have a governance issue here where students take part in running the institution."

And help run it they do.

From spearheading nationally recognized symposia such as the Digital Frontier Conference, to orchestrating the intensive week-long student-to-student orientation known as CIM Week, to organizing some 100 clubs dedicated to every kind of activity -- healthcare to hockey, politics to philanthropy -- the students create a real legacy.

Student governance is what separates Kellogg from other top business schools, according to Brian Poger, president of the Graduate Management Association for 2000. "You bring in a set of professionals who are in their careers five years out and they're used to taking on challenges," notes Poger. "In most schools, the administration [when confronted by student initiative] says, ''That's great, but that's not your job. We're here to teach you.' At Kellogg, they say, 'That's great, sounds like we have 1,200 free helpers.' What the students get out of this is practical leadership experience. That's unique."

In the beginning, culture was just a word

Culture doesn't just happen. Kellogg had to overcome numerous obstacles before realizing its dream of community, according to Ed Wilson, associate dean for student affairs. He recalls the school's virtually "nonexistent" culture of 30 years ago. "Most of our students back then went to work, came to school, then went home," remembers Wilson. "There was very little student life. This was not unusual for the times. Graduate schools were like Marine boot camps, with administrations who held the attitude, 'We are the school, you are the student, we dictate the rules.' Today, Don Jacobs treats the students as customers."

To transform this inert culture, Kellogg resorted to a novel strategy: turning its liabilities into strengths. Three decades ago, times were tough for the business school, Wilson recalls. Enrollment was decent, but funding remained scarce. The recruitment of top-flight faculty -- and, in turn, top-tier students -- was a luxury reserved for more affluent peer institutions. Likewise, the school functioned with a very lean staff. So Kellogg asked its students for help, enlisting them to assist administrators in leading tours and coordinating an applicant's on-campus visit. Students demonstrated such willingness and skill that they gradually assumed a greater role in the school's operation. Soon, students began helping interview applicants -- in essence, co-determining who gained admittance to Kellogg.

The prospect was unheard of at the time, says Jacobs. "A lot of the culture came about because of necessity," he admits. "We were poor then. We went after younger, less expensive faculty that we then groomed to fit our culture. In students, we looked for the late bloomers, those who were better than other people understood them to be. As it turned out, this strategy created something special."

Change in scenery

Wilson considers Jacobs "a hero who has no fear" and whose mission has been to build a community of scholars and students. But before Jacobs assumed the reins as dean, other pieces of the culture puzzle first had to fall into place. In Wilson's opinion, 1972 represents the turning point for the school's culture. That year, the business school migrated from its downtown Chicago campus to Evanston, where a new building awaited. Unlike the downtown facilities which were shared by medical, legal and business students, Leverone Hall brought business faculty, students and staff all under one roof. The suburban locale's green meadows and stunning lakefront views also encouraged a sense of community largely absent on the urban campus of the time. (Today, the Chicago campus, home to Kellogg's evening program, is also a bustling hub of culture.)

Other landmark changes, says Wilson, began with the school's former dean, John Barr, who pushed to increase funding and develop closer connection with business. Barr founded the school's Alumni Advisory Board, stocking it with friends from the corporate world who would offer guidance -- and hire graduates. Corporate leaders began appearing as classroom guests, further cementing the bond with the academy. Next, the school built a department called Organization Behavior, which emphasized group learning. This move broke new ground.

"Back in 1972, people would look at students working in groups and say 'I think they're cheating over there,'" laughs Wilson. "This school took interactive learning and group project work to new heights very quickly."

Students co-creating the academic landscape

Some of Kellogg's most impressive programming has evolved as students work with faculty to find fresh approaches to their studies. Jason Nordin '01, GMA's 2000 vice president of academics, explains that the secret to this interaction lies in balancing the students' and the administration's agendas. "There's a real art to doing this," says Nordin, who notes the importance of GMA remaining as unbiased as possible to facilitate collaboration with the school.

GMA's success in enhancing Kellogg's culture may be measured by the wealth of student activities and organizations, many of which spring up quickly in response to a perceived void in the curriculum. "The flexibility in student life is definitely one of the reasons I came here," says Marie-France Nuyen '01, GMA's vice president of business development for the last academic year. "We can be so flexible because all of us can cite the core values easily, so we know what we want to stay true to."

Popular student-inspired organizations include Kellogg Outdoor Adventures (KOA), a week of camping and social bonding in locations from Alaska to Spain. KOA allows second-year students to transmit the school's culture to the incoming class. Kanna Kunchala '01, one of KOA's recent trip leaders, says students aren't allowed to discuss either where they worked or attended college during KOA. "There is time enough for that in Evanston," he says. "KOA is an opportunity to get to know each other as individuals who bring more than a résumé to the school."

Many other Kellogg programs exist to enhance student life. They include the Special K Review, which allows students to demonstrate their dramatic talent in an annual sketch comedy performance that draws capacity crowds, and philanthropic programs such as Business With a Heart and Kellogg Service Initiatives. One of the most notable student course initiatives is Global Initiatives in Management (GIM). The hugely popular class began a decade ago in response to students' desire to test classroom theory in a real-world setting. Today, GIM sends hundreds of students and faculty advisers to some dozen countries each year for two weeks of intensive field research -- and fun.

  Special K
© Nathan Mandell
Special K performers psyche up before a show.

Fun is a significant component of the Kellogg culture, and one not confined exclusively to the student body. Erica Kantor, director of Kellogg's Executive Master's Program (EMP) remembers learning the importance of this element right at the start of her tenure. "I was hired by Ed Wilson," says Kantor, "and during my interview he ended the session saying, ŒIf you work here, above all else, you gotta have fun!' This is my boss ordering me to have fun!"

Fun thrives alongside academic rigor at Kellogg, in part thanks to the school's informal nature -- another quality that sets it apart from peer institutions. Says Liz Livingston Howard '93, assistant dean and director of development: "Kellogg is about the most informal large organization I've ever seen. There's very little bureaucracy. The dean's open-door policy contributes tremendously to this. Anybody can request time on his calendar, and that's unusual for a CEO." Rich Honack '94, assistant dean and director of external relations, concurs. "There's an open culture here with a horizontal management style, as opposed to a pyramid style. It's enjoyable. It's friendly. At Kellogg, everyone's voice is heard. There's a freedom to express your view with no fear of getting your head chopped off if you make a suggestion."

The culture offers so powerful a model that Honack says there's a temptation for students to export Kellogg's interactivity into their workplace, something that doesn't always meet with success. The EMP-28 graduate remembers bringing work-related issues to his Kellogg peers for discussion -- an arrangement that produced results. "But you want most workplaces to be like Kellogg, and they're not," Honack says. "It can be frustrating when a potential employer tells you 'that was a nice academic experience you had, but it won't translate here.' I disagree. I think it can."

Diversity a cultural key

For Megan Byrne '90, assistant dean and director of alumni relations, the Kellogg culture is about diversity. As a liberal arts undergraduate applying to Kellogg, she wondered if her skills would find a home among the b-school crowd. She was pleasantly surprised. "During my interview I wasn't even sure what to wear," laughs Byrne, who came to Kellogg after launching a career in the fashion industry. "I didn't have any business background. I even asked the person interviewing me, 'Do you take people from the fashion industry?' She just laughed. I learned that diversity was something of great value in the Kellogg community."

Indeed, that diversity informs virtually everything that occurs at Kellogg. Perhaps it's most apparent in the array of student organizations, including those formed around an ethnic core. "As an African-American student at Kellogg, I've found the community here to be an environment where I can learn and express my views on various levels," says Tracy Pruitt '01, vice president of the Black Management Association (BMA). Pruitt believes the BMA offers him the chance to define himself among his peers, something he considers "crucial to foster the understanding necessary to survive in the business world." Pruitt recalls being immediately impressed by the school's culture, and its faculty. "The faculty is not here just to teach," he says, "but to add value outside the classroom and beyond graduation."

As one of the leaders of the school's Gay and Lesbian Management Association, Robert Barry '01 also feels that diversity is a key aspect of the Kellogg culture. "I'm always proud to say that I and others have found Kellogg to be an extremely accepting environment for gay and lesbian students -- largely because the culture values acceptance in general."

Elusive culture

Culture can prove elusive, but for Kellogg students, it has a visceral feel. Culture is something that surrounds them every day in a hundred ways. It's never complete, and each incoming class is charged with ensuring that the culture flourishes. Consequently, there's always room for new ideas.

This arrangement, notes Jacobs, only works as well as it does because of the trust between students and administrators. "You have to have faith in the students you accept," says the dean. "You have to be willing to trust that the kind of people you admit to the system will not bastardize it."

Jason Moss '01 exemplifies the prevailing attitude among the student body. "It's not sufficient to go to class, get on closed lists, have a solid summer internship and walk away with a kick-ass job. If that's someone's Kellogg experience, they have failed," insists the chair of CIM Week 2000.

"Kellogg is about a larger picture. That's the mystique and secret of the school's culture."


©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University