2021 Best Undergraduate Professors: Sharon McMillen Cannon, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Sharon McMillen Cannon

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Dr. Sharon Cannon is the best professor I have had in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Undergraduate Business Program. In her communication courses, she pushes every student to become more comfortable with public speaking. She takes time to get to know every single student and builds a meaningful relationship with them. Together, they create a list of goals for the course and steps they will take to effectively teach/learn. Dr. Cannon is incredibly deserving of any and all recognition because she is such an exceptional professor. She has single handedly made my experience at Kenan-Flagler second to none because she finds ways to stimulate our hunger to learn and improve.” – Brianna Pinto, student

Sharon McMillen Cannon, 63, is Clinical Professor of Management and Corporate Communication at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. She has been at Kenan-Flagler since 2012 after an earlier stint from 2004 to 2007.

She has a PhD from North Carolina State University, an MEd from the University of Florida, and an AB from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently teaches Intercultural Communication for the Global Workplace, Leadership Communication, and Gender at Work.

She is the winner of the 2020 Weatherspoon Award for Excellence in MBA Teaching. In 2020, the American Council on Education selected her as one of 15 U.S. faculty members to receive training and support to launch a COIL course (Collaborative Online International Learning). She partnered with a professor at Sophia University in Japan, which gave students at both universities the opportunity to collaborate on a project in a virtual team setting. She has facilitated presentation training for the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health program, the Royster Fellows, National Science Foundation Fellows, UNC medical interns and others.

“Sharon Cannon cares deeply about student learning and providing students with tools to be better leaders in the global workplace,” writes Angela Bond in her nomination. “She includes intercultural communication simulations and activities in her classes so that students begin to understand how cultural differences impact leadership and business. … During a time of uncertainty and closed borders due to Covid, Sharon’s willingness to embrace a new way of teaching helped ensure students had the opportunity to broaden their perspectives beyond their respective country experience.” 


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I came to UNC Kenan-Flagler in 2004 to direct the Business Communication Center. I had just finished my doctorate and found a place where my passions for public speaking, writing and advising students with job searches could collide into one career in teaching management communication. However, business school must have always been in my future because I took organizational behavior courses when I was a psychology major and a masters student. My first experience with research in my 20s was working with a University of Florida business professor who was studying the most effective approaches to delivering performance review feedback. Becoming a business school professor was a new path for me in higher education because I had been a dean of students before working on my doctorate. I’m a believer in John Krumboltz’s happenstance career theory that says you don’t have to always plan because sometimes unplanned opportunities can lead to wonderful careers. 

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? As a teaching professor everything I delve into is about widening the knowledge of what I teach. I’ve been reading a lot of history because of the Gender at Work course I began teaching this past fall. One fascinating discovery this past fall was that “pink” used to be a color for boy infants. For example, in 1918, Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department publication claimed the “generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” This continued to be true in 1927 when Time noted that large-scale department stores in Boston, Chicago and New York suggested pink for boys. This surprising information helps give students a context that so much of what we believe gender to be is about social influences and not nature.

If I weren’t a business school professor, I’d be… a director of a university women’s center or a professor in another field like women’s history. I can’t imagine myself out of a university setting. I’m such a nerd.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I’ve always provided experiential learning to undergraduates. This past year I’ve been working with Dr. Gavin Furukawa at Sophia University in Tokyo on what’s called a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) course. In spring 2021 and fall 2021, my undergraduates worked on projects with students at Sophia University. Most recently they created commercials marketing new products to the other country. Those projects were a fantastic way for my students to experience what they’d been learning in the Intercultural Communication for the Global Workplace course. And this experience was particularly important when the pandemic was preventing students from study abroad.

One word that describes my first time teaching: One word: Excited. (More words: I get energy from public speaking and sharing knowledge. It’s never been a scary experience for me.)

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: You don’t have to wear a suit to teach. When I realized I didn’t have to do that, I found I could relax so much more in the classroom.

Professor I most admire and why: All of my management communication colleagues at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Judy Tisdale, our department chair, is a master at empowering our whole faculty team and is a dynamic professor as well. When I’m struggling with a tough teaching situation, I think about what Judy would say or do.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? The undergraduates at UNC Kenan-Flagler are curious and push themselves to try so many things. The most amazing experience with students was when I got to take a group of undergraduates to Japan in March 2018. We were part of the Kakehashi Project, a Japanese government-funded exchange program that brings American students to Japan. I remember a couple of students had never even flown on a plane – much less traveled abroad. We were so excited to be on that adventure together.

What is most challenging? Sometimes they’re so driven that they become too perfectionistic. I can help them know that they’re going to be okay if everything academic doesn’t work out perfectly. 

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Checked-out

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… I don’t know what my students would say. My husband would jokingly say I spend too much time writing feedback – I simply think a lot about providing what might help students grow in their thinking, writing, and presenting. Students might say I’m a bit picky about punctuation because I probably am.


What are your hobbies? Gardening and reading … and family research. We knew little about my father’s side of the family, and I’ve enjoyed recovering that lost family history. One fascinating find was an obituary of my third great grandmother in Indianola, Iowa, that discouraged young women in the area from wanting the vote. As an ardent believer in women’s rights, I was quite stunned her life was being used to convince young women into accepting the status quo; however, reading it provided me a window into the culture of the late 1800s in middle America. And I now use that obit as an interesting artifact in my Gender at Work course.

How will you spend your summer? Gardening and reading. One book on my to-read pile is biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, edited by my second cousin, Noelle Baker.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Any place with a history. An ideal vacation for me involves plays, museums and food. That’s why a couple of my favorite vacations have been to London. Visiting historical sites is more interesting to me than hanging out at a beach.

Favorite book(s): For escape, give me a Louise Penny mystery. Not only do I love her character development but also her mysteries take place in a part of Quebec where my great grandfather was from. However, one of my undergraduate majors was English, and I have always been drawn to writers like Steinbeck, Dickens and Angelou – authors whose storytelling helps you walk in the shoes of struggling people. Research has shown that people who read fiction tend to better understand the feelings of others, including those different from themselves. 

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? My current guilty pleasure is watching “The Gilded Age” because I enjoy the historical storylines of the younger women who are trying to rebel against the traditions the older women are holding on to, and the writers weave historical people like Clara Barton into the story. The lines they’ve written for Christine Baranski crack me up – she’s delightful playing a stubborn and feisty snobbish matron.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? It’s not that I’m not listening to newer music, but we all have a soundtrack from our youth. Therefore, classic ’70s rock makes me the happiest: Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, etc. And songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Lean on Me” bring out my idealism. I also love musicals and have tickets to see “Hamilton” with our daughter in June. 


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… Weaving humanities and social sciences into the business curriculum. To me a future business leader should know the historical context of why we are where we are today and understand the emotional side of people at work. Obviously, I’m a fan of what our organizational behavior professors teach. Managers would be so much better with DEI if they were bringing that background knowledge into their work lives.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… recognizing the value women bring to an organization. Old models of work have made it hard for women to achieve everything they’re capable of. And businesses miss out as a result. My students in Gender at Work are hoping that the more flexible work-from-home model that the pandemic introduced on a large scale can be a part of the future at work.

I’m grateful for… UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. I have the best job and appreciate that the school values what the management communication team brings to our students. 


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