Director of the UVA Darden DC Metro, Ms Laura Hennessey, explains how to thrive in time of change, uncertainty and crisis.

Laura Hennessey began her career within the Chief of Staff’s Office and Governor’s Press Office in the administrations of two Massachusetts Governors, and also held roles including Chief Policy Advisor to the Secretary of Public Safety for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Speechwriter for the CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority. Following her years of service in government, she managed operations and merchandising at a Berkshire Hathaway company in New England, where she and her team implemented the opening of a new 250,000 square foot retail and entertainment complex. Hennessey also served as Vice President of Public Relations, Marketing & Development at a regional non-profit in Massachusetts, where she built strategic partnerships and led fundraising and external engagement. Currently, she serves as Director of the DC Metro campus for the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, where she recently led the School’s return to work and school planning for both DC Metro and Charlottesville campuses following closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hennessey has also taught courses as an adjunct professor at Boston University and Dean College, and frequently serves as a panelist and keynote speaker.

University of Virginia Darden School of Business

Uncertainty. Change. Crisis. These three words can cause stock markets to crash; invoke feelings of dread among chief executives and boards of directors; and instill fear and speculation among employees, customers and the public.

We all know that crises and uncertainty are common in pressure-cooker environments such as the White House Press Office, Mayor’s Chief of Staff Office, hospital emergency rooms, military stations, emergency response centers, and other high-stakes, high-profile arenas. And we are all-too-familiar with frequent news reports of catastrophic crises such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Boeing 737 MAX passenger jetliner crashes, and the more recent January 6, 2020 attack on the U.S. Capitol. However, many leaders tend to view these crisis situations as spectators, failing to recognise and prepare for the day when a similar situation could happen to them.

There is an all-too-pervasive mindset that these types of crises happen to other leaders, and other organizations. Yet the recent COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates that no organization is immune from crises, and the inevitable change that comes with them. Whether facing a violent attack, security breech, leadership scandal, or a pandemic, the adage holds true – it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when an organization will face uncertainty, change and crisis.

In addition to navigating the often very public reputational, social and political risks that come with the turbulent waters of crises, significant organizational and operational challenges also require attention and steady leadership. Leaders may need to simultaneously manage a crisis with implementing large-scale change management and project management.

We can define these three forms of management as:

  1. Crisis Management – the process by which an organization deals with a disruptive and unexpected event that threatens to harm the organization or its stakeholders1
  2. Change Management – the systematic approach and application of knowledge, tools and resources to deal with change. Change management often involves defining and adopting corporate strategies, structures, procedures and technologies to handle changes in external conditions and the business environment.2 According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), effective change management goes beyond project management and technical tasks undertaken to enact organizational changes and involves leading the “people side” of major change within an organization.
  3. Project Management – the management of large, complex projects that impact the entire organization3

Whether working in a Governor’s Office, a Fortune 500 company, an academic institution or other organization, every Chief of Staff or executive leader will likely need to navigate the “triple threat” of simultaneous crisis management, change management and project management at some point during their tenure. For example, the recent COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges across multiple organizational functions, including human resources, legal, communications and public relations, budget and finance, and information and technology.

The pandemic simultaneously:

  1. Presented many organizations with full-scale crises (such as health and safety threats to their employees and customers, decreased revenues and stock prices, and workforce reductions);
  2. Invoked dramatic changes to business models (such as drastic shifts toward technology and online interactions, huge modifications and impacts on revenue generation, and sweeping changes to service delivery methods);
  3. Brought large-scale, complex projects to manage (such as retrofitting office spaces while implementing COVID-19 testing plans and developing new health, safety and HR policies).

And yet, many organizations rose to the challenge and not only survived, but thrived. What were the keys to their success?

Many organizations that thrived during the global pandemic implemented best practices that any skilled chief of staff or executive will easily recognize as essential to an efficient and crisis- proof operation. These can be divided into critical steps to be taken across three phases:

  1. Pre-Crisis: before a crisis or major organizational change
  2. Crisis Resolution: during a crisis or major organizational change, and
  3. Post-Crisis: after a crisis or major organizational change

1. Before a Crisis or Major Organizational Change

1. a. Role Clarity

In the midst of a crisis or major organizational change, organizations cannot waste precious time trying to figure out who has the ball on certain decisions or tasks. Successful organizations have clearly established roles and well-defined responsibilities in advance of any crisis.

Role clarity means knowing who to contact and who “owns” each crisis. Who are the institution’s go-to subject matter experts? Who needs to approve certain decisions and plans? Who is responsible for implementation? Who will communicate to stakeholders? These are the types of questions organizations should review and delineate clearly. Successful organizations ensure everyone on the team is clear on roles and responsibilities on an everyday basis, leaving no doubt who is responsible for certain functions and tasks.

For example, a governor’s chief of staff may need to trouble shoot numerous crises each day. The day could begin with an oil spill in the harbor, followed by a fatal shooting of a police officer, and end with an electrical outage across multiple towns – all while managing the regular day-to-day operations and various cabinets and agencies of the Executive Branch of state government. Because information must be gathered quickly and decisions often need to be made in a matter of minutes, role clarity is absolutely crucial.

In addition to achieving role clarity for day-to-day operations, crisis preparation often takes this one step further with the establishment of a Crisis Management Team (CMT) or Incident Management Team (IMT): a specific set of individuals who prepare an organization to manage and respond to crises and emergencies. Again, it is essential that all team members are made aware of who serves on the CMT and IMT, how decisions will be made and executed, the reporting structure for CMT and IMT members and the rest of the organization, as well as how other team members will or will not interact with the CMT and IMT.

While establishing responsibilities and clarifying roles, it is important to assess how both formal and informal authority works in your organization, and how that may factor into decision making and task execution. Organizations should assess, and determine in advance, whether informal authority figures need to be consulted or involved. In which ways must they be consulted, and how does that impact, and potentially delay, critical decision making? For example, does the organization have ex-officio Board Members, faculty subject matter experts, founding partners, or other key stakeholders that need to weigh in on certain decisions? Be sure to take this into account and have this clearly delineated and communicated in advance, so precious time is not wasted in the midst of a crisis.

1. b. Emergency Procedures Guides (EPG), Critical Incident Management Plans (CIMP) and Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plans

Successful organizations do not wait until a crisis has emerged to establish EmergencyProceduresGuides(EPG),CriticalIncidentManagementPlans(CIMP),andContinuityofOperations (COOP) Plans.4 In fact, in the middle of a crisis, there will not be time to do so! Critical Incident Management Plans (CIMP) seek to maximise human survival and preservation of property, minimise danger, and restore normal operations as quickly as possible. Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plans outline how an organization plans to continue its essential functions during a wide range of emergencies, including acts of nature, accidents and technological or attack-related emergencies.

Emergency Procedures Guides clearly and succinctly outline what steps need to be taken under a variety of emergency situations: such as severe weather incidents (like tornados, earthquakes and floods); fires and explosions; infrastructure outages; hazardous materials release; medical emergencies; pandemics; bomb threats; violent incidents (such as an active shooter or terrorist attack); as well as how to address suspicious objects, odors and persons; and guidelines for evacuation and sheltering-in-place. For larger organizations such as universities, residential communities and business complexes, emergency alert systems that transmit signals or messages via text, phone and email can also be helpful in alerting stakeholders of impending emergencies.

However, creating effective emergency plans are just one step in effectively addressing crises. Organizations should also ensure their teams are well-informed of all EPGs, CIMPs and COOPs on a consistent basis. Even the best-designed emergency plan will do no good if it is not consistently communicated throughout the organization. New hires should be provided with emergency procedure manuals and trainings as part of the onboarding process, and for existing employees, annual or twice-annual trainings and scenario planning exercises often work well.

By having these emergency plans in place well in advance of any incident, organizations will be far better equipped to handle crises when they inevitably occur. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the University of Virginia was well-positioned to spring into action, since its campuses, such as UVA Darden DC Metro campus led by Associate Dean Greg Fairchild and Director Laura Hennessey, had already partnered with UVA Emergency Management to conduct safety trainings, establish EPGs, CIMPs, COOPs and emergency alert systems, and had built critical relationships with emergency response teams prior to the pandemic. This saved valuable time and allowed the university to focus on other emerging aspects of the pandemic.

1. c. Crisis Communications Plan

Similarly, organizations will likely not have time to establish a complete crisis communications plan in the midst of an emergency. Therefore, it is important for every organization to have a crisis communications plan in place in advance that includes a wide array of potential crises (e.g., violence or terrorist incidents, security breaches, pandemics, public scandal, layoffs, drop in stock prices, and so on) and which outlines how the organization plans to communicate to each key stakeholder group in each of these instances.

In developing a crisis response, University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor June West and Executive-in-Residence Steve Soltis recommend that leaders first evaluate why they are communicating – asking “what is the purpose of the communication?”5 Leaders can ask themselves, “what do my stakeholders need to hear about, and what do I need my stakeholders to hear from me?” This will often help hone the messaging and ensure communications are succinct, clear and effective. This is a time when exhaustive lists and extraneous information should be avoided. As a general rule, simplicity and frequency wins the day when it comes to crisis communications.

2. During a Crisis or Major Organizational Change

2. a. Problem Assessment and Information Gathering

It is important for leaders to first gather some critical information and fully assess the problem when faced with a crisis, before giving into the temptation to lunge forward and act upon the multiple tasks at hand. Be sure you thoroughly understand the problem and the full range of challenges your organization is facing before you dive into problem-solving. Here, the advice often incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein can serve as a good guide: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Leaders should ask some simple, but revealing, questions to better understand the problem, its scope, and its consequences. Simultaneously, they should tap subject matter experts to provide data-driven, fact-based information and guidance. Quickly read the latest research, review guidelines from local, state and federal agencies, consult with experts, and utilize whatever internal and external resources you have at your disposal. Many times, this will enable an organization to follow best practices (and avoid reinventing the wheel), while ensuring that legal and government mandates and regulations are followed and incorporated into planning.

During the COVID-19 crisis, many large organizations (such as local governments, universities, and large corporations) performed benchmarking and literature reviews, and conducted
focus groups, surveys, and town halls at the onset of their planning, given the uncertainty and seemingly ever-changing data and guidelines surrounding the pandemic. Some also established teams of epidemiologists and health experts to ensure that all operational decisions were guided by evidence and science, in order to keep their large populations safe and healthy.

This is a critical initial step before progressing to the next: establishing a plan of action.

2. b. Establish a Project Plan

Remember earlier when we discussed that times of crisis often also bring change management and project management too? After ensuring that the organization has role clarity, emergency procedures, crisis communications plans, gathered critical information and fully assessed the problem, it is time to break down the crisis into manageable pieces for task execution.

Next, establish a project plan and ensure everyone in the organization knows and understands the plan. It may be tempting to dive into the crisis and begin trouble-shooting and executing tasks before a plan is in place, and in a crisis such as COVID19, it may feel a bit like trying to fly the plane while building it. It is also important to ground the plan in a shared vision and a common sense of purpose. A shared vision ensures that the organization has critical buy-in from key stakeholders, who may be essential to executing the plan.

While creating the plan, it is important to establish clear goals, deliverables and timelines for project execution. Depending on the size and scope of the crisis and projects to be completed, include applicable key elements in the plan such as:

  • Gantt chart (a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule): detailing major project milestones and deliverables.
  • Scenario planning and stress testing: before instituting a transformative change, stress test it with actors. For example, walk through the first day back to school from a student’s perspective, trace the steps and customer journey for consumers who may use your products or services, and so on.
  • New or revised policies, procedures, and protocols.
  • Operational changes: for example a new service delivery model, business model, or training employees on new procedures .
  • Major purchases and investments to be made and items to be secured.
  • Communications and stakeholder engagement.

While building out the project plan, leaders would be wise to check in with “boots on the ground” employees and teams, to ensure that the plan is feasible and will work in real time. Often these team members have critical information and can raise important considerations that may impact project execution, which are essential to incorporate in the initial planning stages. Leaders who skip this critical step do so at their own peril, as crises rarely allow time to readjust plans that may have missed essential elements or ignored important considerations that may keep the project on-time, on-budget and successful.

In addition, it is important for leaders to incorporate allowances to preserve the organization’s unique qualities, traditions and strengths. Does your organization have certain rituals or assets that make it unique and appealing to stakeholders? Do you have a strong and tight-knit workplace culture? It is advisable to review and incorporate these considerations into the plan so your organization’s unique assets, traditions, and culture can be preserved despite any operational or policy changes that may be implemented.

2. c. Communicate the Plan

Next, communicate the plan to key stakeholders and the community. Ensure communication happens frequently and throughout all levels of the organization, utilizing in-person communication such as town halls, and written communication such as emails, websites and FAQs. Inform key stakeholders of the plan throughout each phase of the project and pay close attention to the various communication channels that will be most effective. Where and how does your team and stakeholders typically receive important information: via a website, an internal portal, through emails from leadership, or by other means? In addition, large-scale or long-term projects may require the creation of a new webpage, guidebook or portal to keep stakeholders apprised. Be sure to align expectation with the appropriate communication platforms and establish communication channels where your stakeholders know they can always go to receive the most up-to-date information. It is important to refresh the information frequently to keep the content current.

In many crisis situations, and when executing large-scale projects, it is often helpful to create feedback loops to keep gathering critical information. Focus groups, town halls and surveys, for example, will allow the organization to: determine what is working (and what is not); monitor progress; test assumptions; and establish ongoing, two-way communication between leadership and key stakeholders. Feedback loops are also helpful in building trust, which is essential in effectively handling crises, managing uncertainty, and implementing large-scale organizational change. Even the best-laid plans will falter if leaders have failed to build trust and buy-in among the organization’s key stakeholders.

2. d. Execute the Plan

Finally, execute the project plan, ensuring adherence to budgets and project timelines. During project plan execution, it is important for busy Chiefs of Staff and executive leaders to designate project managers, who can handle the day-to-day elements of the plan and keep their leaders apprised. Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative experts Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus note the difference between leading through a crisis and managing through it, arguing that “The most effective leaders in crises ensure that someone else is managing the present well while focusing their attention on leading beyond the crisis toward a more promising future.”6

While keeping an eye on budgets, timelines and other critical aspects of the project plan, effective leaders prioritize the human side of the crisis and the toll it might be taking on their team, customers and other stakeholders. One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it brought front and center something that can often get lost in organizational settings: that organizations are comprised of human beings, and human beings need to be cared for. The human suffering, mental health challenges, and physical toll that the pandemic laid bare helped many organizational leaders to recognize and reaffirm their commitment to tend to the people under their care. According to University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Toni Irving, “You have to be kind to everyone. You have to pay attention to everyone. You have to humanize everyone. You have to listen to everyone.”7

Amidst the complex matrix of project expenses, deadlines, deliverables and the 24/7 news cycle, it can be all-too-easy to forget that human beings will be impacted by nearly every decision the organization makes during a crisis; so human beings should be at the center of each decision and action. This humanizing concept was illustrated by James “Jimmy” Dunne, managing partner of the investment bank Piper Sandler, which lost 40% of its personnel in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attack. Dunne claimed that “the more he led on the people issues — personally attending funerals, continuing salaries and benefits, and other efforts — the more the business issues seemed to take care of themselves.”8

3. After a Crisis or Major Organizational Change

3. a. Solicit Feedback

After resolving the crisis, completing the project, or instituting major organizational change, solicit feedback from key stakeholders. Seek out constructive criticism to evaluate what worked well, and where there may be opportunities for improvement. Conduct surveys, hold focus groups and town halls, or create an anonymous suggestion box to facilitate honest feedback.

As with any major undertaking, it is crucial to conduct a post-mortem and a review process to evaluate your efficacy, and use this feedback to incorporate key learnings into operations, policies and procedures moving forward.

3. b. Review and Adjust the Plan

Even the most effective and successful plans will have room for improvement. Review and adjust the plan as necessary. It is advisable to view the plan as an iterative process, as opposed to a “one-and-done” document that sits on a shelf. Since future crises undoubtedly await, successful organizations continue to tweak their planning documents as feedback and new and more complete information become available.

3. c. Learn From Your Mistakes

Learn from your mistakes and use those lessons to incorporate long-term, transformative change. Take time to reflect on your process and consider what you were unprepared for and incorporate these elements into each plan going forward. What wasn’t a part of your emergency plan, crisis communications plan or project plan (that should have been)? Leaders should ask themselves and their stakeholders what worked well, what didn’t, whether there were any communication gaps or holes in the organizational structure, where there may have been delays in decision-making and project execution, and so on. Since it is unlikely that this will be the last crisis the organization will face, it helps to review these lessons while they are still fresh in stakeholders’ minds, so the organization can be even stronger and more adept at resolving future crises. As former White House Chief of Staff, Congressman and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once advised, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”


With the current pace of change and disruption, and the ever-present possibility of impending crises such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, organizations need to be prepared to address crises and position themselves to effectively implement the inevitable organizational changes that ensue. Thriving, and not just surviving, these challenges means taking appropriate steps before a crisis, throughout the crisis, and post-crisis.

Although in the moment a crisis can feel much like a sprint race, it is more akin to a marathon. It requires careful preparation before, during and post-event, as well as a long-term perspective that sees the organization successfully beyond the crisis and into the future. As Hootsuite founder and CEO Ryan Holmes once said, “You can run a sprint, or you can run a marathon, but you can’t sprint a marathon.”9 Sidestepping critical steps in preparing and responding to a crisis will undoubtedly lead to negative (and sometimes catastrophic) results. The organization that prepares well, and for the long haul, wins the race.


1. Jonathan Bundy, Michael D Pfarrer, Cole E. Short, W. Timothy Coombs, “Crises and Crisis Management: Integration, Interpretation, and Research Development,” Journal of Management 43 (6): 1661–1692 (2017): doi:10.1177/0149206316680030. S2CID 152223772
2. “Managing Organizational Change,” SHRM, accessed April 5, 2021,
3. PMP Project Management Professional Study Guide. (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003), p.354, ISBN 0-07- 223062-2 .
4. “What is Continuity of Operations?”, FEMA, Accessed April l7, 2021,
5. June West, Steve Soltis and Gosia Glinska, “Communications in the Time of the Coronavirus: Lessons for Leaders,” UVA Darden Ideas to Action, April 14, 2020,
6. Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus, “Are You Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2020,
7. Mary Margaret Frank, Morela Hernandez, Toni Irving, Lili Powell, Laura Morgan Roberts and Catherine Burton, “Wisdom from Female Experts at Darden,” UVA Darden Ideas to Action, March 30, 2021
8. Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus, “Are You Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2020,
9. Drake Baer, ‘How HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes Is Building A Yoga-Loving Maple-Syrup Mafia’,
Fast Company (2013)
Link: maple-syrup-mafia