Meet Michael O’Leary: The Dean Who Develops Changemakers

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Michael O’Leary can be found teaching management courses, developing new diversity initiatives, and, as the senior associate dean for Custom Executive Education, working with organizations to build programs that help them achieve their goals. Since 2009, he has worn many hats at Georgetown McDonough, but the constant thread has been to help his students build connections and gain the knowledge they need to bring about meaningful change.

How did you choose your career path?

I always have been involved in education – starting with education- and labor market-related public policy and university strategy and administration, and then shifting to teaching and research. I love my work – the autonomy, variety, creativity, and community. And I love Georgetown’s vibrancy, as well as its deep history and commitment to our underlying values.

What motivates you?

  • Developing lasting connections with students while they are here and then as they continue to develop their careers and families. They are the lifeblood of the university.
  • Finding (and occasionally creating) the best available social and management science and then translating and sharing it in engaging ways that students – from first-year undergraduates to senior executives – find applicable to the daily challenges of life and work in organizations.
  • Combining things I like outside of work with what I do at Georgetown – like teaching classes on globalization using the global wine and olive oil industries as the focal examples, and traveling to Mendoza and Santiago to do so. I like blending my love of history with the book that a team of us recently wrote about 60 years of women at McDonough.
  • The curiosity, energy, and commitment of Georgetown’s amazing students and alumni, and working with great faculty and staff colleagues, including the Custom team!

What do you hope participants take away from Georgetown’s Custom Executive Education programs? 

I hope participants leave our programs committed to making positive change in their own organizations and communities – and that they do so with an appreciation for the best available science and a heightened ability to combine it with their own sense of the “art” of great leadership and management. I also hope they leave with a sense of the power of their connections with each other.

Our programs rest on the three critical legs of customization (there’s no “off-the-shelf” here), content (great science shared by outstanding, dedicated scholar-teachers), and connections (with their fellow students/participants and faculty). Each has a strong foundation in carefully crafted experiential learning. For almost everyone, we learn the most by *doing* in an environment where we can practice, get and give feedback, and practice again. That’s at the heart of all McDonough programs.

What has been the biggest change to the business world since you started teaching?

The dramatic changes in technology, a broadening of the definition of business’s role in society, and the globalization of business. We are well into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it’s exciting to help students and companies work effectively in a world where AI and other technology is dramatically altering what’s possible. 

No important problem today can be solved by one sector alone – it must be addressed by businesses, governments, and nonprofits working together. And no important problem is just a U.S. problem or one faced by any other single country or region. Georgetown has recognized that for decades, and our curriculum reflects it, but the pandemic has made it even more vital to understand the global nature of our challenges and the solutions to them.

How would you describe the sense of community at Georgetown McDonough?

I love how Georgetown combines a global network of faculty, staff, students, and alumni with a wonderfully tight community. Students always are surprised when they reach out to fellow Hoyas near and far and get a call, email, or text right back. Hoyas really turn out for Hoyas. I traveled with a group of students to Santiago, Chile, and – with little advance notice – dozens of Georgetown alumni turned out to welcome us even though we were thousands of miles from the Hilltop.

How are you influenced by Georgetown’s Jesuit values?

I didn’t grow up attending Jesuit schools, but I now have taught at two Jesuit universities for the last 20 years, and I find the emphasis on educating the whole person, cura personalis, interreligious understanding, and community in diversity to be especially meaningful. One of my favorite moments on campus was at a commencement ceremony where the campus rabbi (a woman) opened with a prayer in Hebrew and the campus imam closed with a prayer in Arabic. The confluence of those great religious traditions at a Catholic institution struck me as an “only at Georgetown” kind of experience. It is a recurring reminder for me that we are stronger when we celebrate and learn from our diverse experiences and traditions.

The emphasis on community in diversity is something I’ve been especially committed to with my work on the McDonough alumnae book project and the school’s DEI initiatives. We have lots of work yet to do, but I really appreciate that the work is grounded in our core values.

Care for our common home (the Earth!) is a Jesuit value that is especially relevant as extreme weather and its effects on business and society become more severe. McDonough’s new Business of Sustainability Initiative and the undergraduate, masters, and executive programs we have built around the issue of sustainability are a crucial part of our future at Georgetown and around the world.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Live in the moment, but play the long game. A wonderful advisor once counseled me to savor life’s daily blessings, avoid getting too wrapped up in the politics of organizational life, and focus on long-term goals. That plus an emphasis on persistence and a roll-with-the-punches attitude are things that I always tried to keep in mind.

What can we find you doing outside of Georgetown?

Enjoying time with family (preferably on a beach somewhere) and friends, traveling, cooking, eating great food from all over the world, playing tennis, and reading everything from great history and biography to a good page-turner spy novel or legal thriller.