Bernadette Birt, Kellogg’s new assistant dean for Executive MBA Global Network, is not new to Kellogg. She spent the early part of her career in Kellogg’s Executive MBA Program, where she dedicated herself to the student experience and contributed to the launch of global partnerships and programming. Returning to EMBA as assistant dean, she reflects on her leadership journey, as well as her passion for Kellogg’s Executive MBA Program and what makes it so distinct.
Can you tell us a little about yourself as a leader and when you first began your career at Kellogg?
I like to think of myself as being a leader who is in a learning and a listening mode. I tend to ask a lot of questions — even very basic questions to make sure I can understand where people are coming from and set the stage on where to go. I also have this level of respect for what’s already in place, knowing that we’ve gotten to where we are because of the work people have done before us. This mindset of respect is what helps me stay grounded and always keep an eye on how we create more value for the students.
I’m always thinking about the student journey and what the actual investment is in themselves and in their future. I also think about what these students could be doing if they weren’t pursuing their MBA and I always come back to thinking that there isn’t anything as transformational as investing in themselves and this education. And so, a big part of my path has been about focusing on that academic journey and thinking though our mission, our goals and how we’re measuring our progress.
Additionally, it’s very important for me to not be insular, but to think more globally. I try to always think about what’s happening in business, what’s happening in other programs and what’s happening across the globe to inform my thinking and approach to the student experience.
When I first began working in Kellogg’s Executive MBA Program, I leveraged my previous experience in customer service, human resources and accounting to conduct admissions interviews and oversee aspects of departmental budgets and finance. Later, I became director of domestic Executive MBA Programs.
Throughout that time at Kellogg, I had wonderful bosses and mentors, and this helped me stay focused to develop myself professionally. Additionally, in the EMBA team I found a close-knit community that always pitched in, was creative, and was incredibly entrepreneurial — where we could pitch ideas, conduct external and internal research, listen to students, faculty and sponsors on how we could improve and ultimately, launch new programming to build out the student experience.
That collaborative relationship between students, staff and faculty worked so well and each stakeholder was dedicated to continuing to make the program better.
All of these qualities of the EMBA team and the Kellogg culture are still true today.
Is there a particular initiative or project you’re most proud of during your first chapter at Kellogg?
An initiative that stands out during those earlier days in EMBA was launching the joint, global programs with Hong Kong, Israel, Germany and Toronto. These partnerships were the first of their kind, and contributing to the expansion of those global networks, as well as being able to welcome those classes and be a part of that network, was truly unique and exciting.
However, I’m most proud of the integration of the global partners into our Global Network Week — which still exists and is thriving — where negotiations and crisis management courses brings everyone together. This was a week of programming that used to be solely domestic and I was part of building it out to a global experience. It was such a cross-cultural opportunity to educate people on how to manage situations in a negotiation. It wasn’t about who was right or wrong or the better negotiator, rather it was focused on the learning that came from how cultures across the globe approach a negotiation. That cross-cultural piece promoted the idea that you can’t just be in your own head or way of thinking to get the best outcome. And one of my favorite aspects of that week was the culmination. Students’ mindsets were so moved by the experience that when they went back home, they listened to the news differently. For example, if something was happening in Israel or in Hong Kong, they were reminded of the friends they made during GNW and thought about how they might be impacted by the event. GNW enabled students to think more broadly and take into consideration other cultures’ points of views, either in making business decisions, or just caring about their friends and classmates.
This has always been something Kellogg really excels at; we bring in really smart, empathetic leaders, and we help them see the world more broadly to better understand the impact they can have on the world.
You were at Kellogg for many years and then you made a change. Can you tell us a little bit about that change?
After many years at NU and Kellogg, I had just started a master’s program and was beginning to think long-term about my career. I absolutely loved Kellogg, but I decided to take advice that I had been sharing with students, which was, “Get out of your comfort zone.” The easiest path for me would have been to stay at Kellogg, which is where I had always been and was comfortable for me. The harder path was to leave. So, I chose a school and location that was entirely new for me and became the executive director for Wharton’s Executive MBA Program in San Francisco.
The experience in San Francisco was incredible, as I was able to take what I learned at Kellogg — building out Kellogg’s EMBA Miami Campus and establishing the global partnerships — and apply that to leading a build-out effort for Wharton, as well as lead the campus and program.
What brought you back to Kellogg?
Covid-19 presented an unexpected opportunity for me to take stock of where I was in my career and life, and where I wanted to be. The desire to be close to family and friends was the driver but it had always been in the back of my mind that one day I might return to Kellogg. And so, when the assistant dean position became available, it was a perfect fit. It really is a dream job for me because I’m able to lead the global network for EMBA, as well as further develop the very programs I was a part of at the very beginning.
In your short time back, have you noticed any changes in the program?
When I was first at Kellogg, everyone used to wear so many hats. Coming back, I’ve noticed how the operation has grown and manages wonderful complexity. The staff is still so good and competent, but I’ve noticed they’re now able to specialize in their respective areas and bring that expertise to the table. While still espousing the strength of teamwork, that specialization has really helped the program and the student experience grow and constantly improve.
What hasn’t changed, and what is great to see remain intact, is how cohesive the program team is. They are all keenly focused on the student experience and the academic journey. Additionally, while DEI has always been part of our DNA at Kellogg, seeing programming in place to support that work, as well as efforts dedicated to measuring and understanding the outcomes, is really exciting to see.
You’ve dedicated a large part of your career to EMBA. What keeps you invested in furthering this space?
There are so many students who choose to pursue an MBA later in life, and the Kellogg Executive MBA Program gives them an opportunity to do something they weren’t able to do at an earlier point in their career (whether it wasn’t needed or necessary or in their sight lines). And having a program like this at such a top-tier institution is transformational for those students. They’ve made their way with various degrees and work experience, and now they’re managing at a higher level. So, they’ve taken their career as far as they can and now, this program changes their trajectory; they can have a bigger impact on their current career or ventures, their communities, and on the world. I’ve stayed connected with a lot of alumni over the years and seeing the impact they’re making on the world is incredibly rewarding to me. Many of them attribute their success and their impact to their experience in the program — whether it was their peers who inspired them, their faculty or the experience as a whole.
It’s early in your return to Kellogg, but is there anything new in Kellogg’s EMBA Program that you’re particularly excited about?
Recently, it became possible for most of our EMBA students to participate in in-person programming and the energy around students wanting to come back to campus is really telling about how they value their relationships with their peers. This says a lot about these students in that they’re caring, they’re empathetic and they understand the value of their teams. I’m really looking forward to meeting and working with all of them.
For students currently considering whether to pursue their EMBA at Kellogg, any additional insights you’d like to share with them about the Program?
First and foremost, we’re respectful of the time students are taking to invest in their education and we’re going to use their time well. The program team cares so much about the students’ experiences, from the moment they’re admitted to helping them stay on track to accomplish their goals and getting the best possible experience they can have. We’re also always looking at ways to enhance the program through the people they’re interacting with; this includes their teammates, their classmates and their peers across the globe. This global network is truly an exceptional part of the program. They’ll take the education with them, of course, but they’ll also take the relationships they’ve built with their peers to enhance their careers and be better human beings. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, studying coursework across business disciplines which perhaps you had never been exposed to and learning with smart, diverse and motivated peers is an experience that can propel your career and your life forward in incredible ways!