Student becomes Teacher: Executive-in-Residence Shawn McKenna ’77 teaches leadership

Maine Business School alumnus Shawn McKenna ’77 learned how to be a leader during his 35-year career as a successful businessman.

Now, as MBS executive in residence, he teaches classes in leadership so students can learn — before they enter the workforce — how to motivate and influence people, achieve goals, resolve conflicts, and think critically and creatively.

“Businesses are looking for employees who already are equipped with leadership skills for the 21st century work environment,” says McKenna, the co-founder and CEO/managing director of Starlite Development Overseas (SDO) Ltd. in Russia.

“When it comes to leadership, on-the-job training is never enough. It should be a process of continuous improvement,” he says.

McKenna, who teaches two marketing and leadership classes, is a former MBS adjunct faculty member and lecturer. He served on the MBS Advisory Board and is an incorporation member of the University of Maine Foundation.

Since being named MBS executive in residence in 2015, he has spearheaded a leadership initiative that includes his own two classes — one that focuses on leadership styles and one on leadership skills and the integration of ethical decision-making. The initiative, which is still evolving, also includes two other leadership sections taught by MBS adjunct faculty members.

“I love teaching,” McKenna says. “Students keep you young and are not shy about challenging the material; offering their opinions and talking about their experiences. We have animated discussions that keep them engaged and interested. I tell them I don’t see myself as their instructor, lecturer or professor, but as their team leader. I enjoy their optimism, probing questions and personal observations. Teaching at MBS renews my faith in this generation. Students’ commitment to actively participate in class and to do well inspires me to help them become better people and acquire good jobs after they graduate.”

McKenna lives in Bowdoinham, Maine, with his wife. The couple has three grown children.

What was your career path after graduation?

I worked for five years at Sigma Phi Epsilon national headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, where I did development work, raising money for the Sigma Phi Educational Foundation, which provides undergraduate scholarship and leadership programs that help build balanced men.

After that, I worked for eight years for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, ultimately becoming eastern division marketing manager. I left that job to start a consulting group with some of my P&G colleagues. For two years we advised several Fortune 500 companies.

In the mid-1990s, I co-founded SDO Ltd., a restaurant business in Moscow, Russia, with a chain of six American-style restaurants called Starlite Diner. Today, we employ 1,000 people and, with our great food and great service, are among the most popular and longest continuously operating restaurants in Moscow.

For more than 20 years, I commuted to Russia every two weeks. I love the Muscovites, and I loved the challenge of doing business in Russia, which can be very complicated. Working in a dynamic and sometimes hostile environment gave me the confidence to expect the unexpected and to always be prepared. I still serve as CEO of the company, but have curtailed my travels because of my MBS commitment.

Why were you interested in teaching leadership?

I have always had an interest in the subject of leadership. My UMaine fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, developed a Leadership Continuum based on the teachings of Barry Posner and John Kotter, both Sigma Phi Epsilon alumni, more than 20 years ago.

The Leadership Continuum is an award-winning series of distinct and progressive leadership programs aimed at teaching and reinforcing the SigEp mission to lead a balanced life through “sound mind-sound body.”

The MBS leadership focus came from both Dean Ivan Manev and former Dean John Mahon, who asked the MBS Advisory Board to look into creating a competitive advantage for the business school. I enlisted the help of then-MBA student Chris Treister ’13 and asked him to research leadership curriculum among the New England land grant universities, which are our primary competitors. Chris found that, at the time, there was a niche to fill in the area of leadership. MBS jumped on the opportunity.

How did you learn leadership skills?

Through my varied work experiences, I was able to amass a variety of leadership qualities and styles that served me well over the course of my career.

Posner and Kotter, my SigEp fraternity brothers and two of the world’s most famous leadership experts, had a direct hand in advancing my leadership skills during my job at SigEp headquarters and through their publications over the last several years. At Procter & Gamble, I learned about vertical leadership where leaders are in a formal position of authority, which is a more traditional leadership and management environment.

While running my own company, I used the servant leadership style, where the traditional pyramid is inverted and leaders truly serve their people.

Nowadays, I also rely on the situational leadership style, where you choose a leadership style for a particular situation. So, if I’m in Russia dealing with an emergency, I may default to the hierarchical chain of command, and make a quick and direct decision. But, if I’m in the classroom and we’re engaged in a discussion, I likely will revert to the servant leadership style to encourage my students to collaborate.

What did you enjoy most about MBS?

MBS gave me a strong framework, enabling me to understand the fundamentals of business concepts. After graduation, when I worked at SigEp headquarters, I felt confident and well-suited for the job. I felt that I had a significant advantage over my colleagues who were from colleges and universities across the U.S.

What is your fondest memory of MBS?

Once, when I was a senior in former MBS professor Carol Gilmore’s labor management relations class, she realized I wasn’t working to my potential. She challenged me to take a more active role in the class debate by serving as class mediator. I really enjoyed the experience and, to this day, am grateful to professor Gilmore for helping me realize the value of leadership opportunities.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I am passionate about motorcycles and own several bikes that I ride as often as I can. I have served as lead motorcyclist during the Boston Marathon and the Olympic Trials in Boston. I carried the race director, which was simultaneously one of the most pressurized yet fulfilling experiences I have ever been involved with.