Dr. Jenn Donahue: “Remain Calm”

Remain Calm — Nobody performs efficiently in chaos. Slow down, or even stop, and take in all possible information around you. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was not uncommon to be called to the Command Operation Center in the middle of the night due to an attack on our personnel such as our convoys hitting improvised […]

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Remain Calm — Nobody performs efficiently in chaos. Slow down, or even stop, and take in all possible information around you. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was not uncommon to be called to the Command Operation Center in the middle of the night due to an attack on our personnel such as our convoys hitting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or our bases being targeted by enemy mortars and rockets. During these times, I found that the calmer I was, the more efficiently my team would work. Remaining calm is an art and must be practiced. Part of this is being a good listener so you can make sound decisions for your follow-on actions.


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenn Donahue.

Jenn Donahue, PhD is a civil engineer, entrepreneur and military reserve officer who works on large scale, high profile geotechnical projects. Jenn has led earthquake and tsunami reconnaissance missions in places like Samoa and Japan; designed the seismic plans for a bridge over the Panama Canal; and built roads in the coldest climes of Ketchikan. During her 26-year military career, Jenn has built a bridge across the Euphrates river in the midst of the Iraq war, commanded a 400-personnel Battalion in Afghanistan, and constructed combat outposts in the middle of deserts filled with insurgents. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or any of its components.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I started my engineering career at the ripe age of nine years old. After saving up several weeks’ worth of allowance, I bought the Barbie® Dream Home. I really wasn’t that much into Barbies, but I loved that Dream Home. I stayed home one day and tore it apart, put it together, then tore it apart again, and reconfigured it probably about 30 times. I don’t think Barbie ever got to live in the house because it was constantly being remodeled. Over the course of my life, I’ve realized that it I love to build, starting with the Barbie house, and moving on to bridges, runways, and buildings. But today, building means something more; I am passionate about building new leaders.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I wear many hats in my life: an entrepreneur, engineer, and mentor. I am a seismic engineer, and the essence of my work is understanding the dynamics between an earthquake and how much your site is going to shake. For instance, I consider all of the faults that surround your site and their characteristics: how long they are, how much do they slip a year, what is the possible magnitude of an earthquake, etc. Then depending on how far away your site is and if it is on super soft soil or rock, I’m able to give a reasonable probability as to how hard it’s going to shake. One of the projects I’m currently working on is a statewide seismic risk assessment to quantify the hazards that earthquakes can cause for California’s gas pipeline infrastructure. Not to be a total nerd, but it’s a really interesting crossroad between cutting-edge science and engineering.

I was a Lecturer for several semesters with UC Berkeley and UCLA. I absolutely love being a seismic engineer and am excited to share my experiences. Through these teaching engagements, it became clear that I want to motivate younger generations. I also enjoy giving back to the community. As part of this I’ve started doing speaking engagements for programs that promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). My topics have ranged from inciting interest in technical topics to improving softer skills such as leadership and mentorship.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

Before I get started, I just need to state that the views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or any of its components.

When I was a senior at Texas A&M, I witnessed my friends going to Houston for job interviews and realized I wasn’t ready for that. I needed to get out and see the world! I looked at the different uniformed services and found that the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) best fit my skill set. After graduating from Officer Candidate School in 1996, I got my wish and was stationed on lots of islands to include Guam, Puerto Rico, and Annette Island. CEC officers are in charge of building and maintaining the infrastructure for the Navy and Marine Corps. After leaving active duty, I remained an active reservist. I have served in multiple Naval Mobile Construction Battalions and have been recalled to active duty to serve in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have led teams of 4 to 400.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

In 2008, I deployed to Al Asad in western Iraq as the Operations Officer for a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion. I was responsible for coordinating 300+ expeditionary construction personnel who assisted the U.S. Marine Corps by providing critical infrastructure. Common tasks for my battalion included repairing bridges and building combat bases and outposts, all with the possibility of performing these duties under the threat of fire. One of our projects was to build a floating bridge across the Euphrates River. I handpicked the leadership and assembled a team that would leave our base for the remote site.

Something to understand about Iraq is that there are terrible dust storms. When the wind picks up, the fine talcum powder-like dust fills the air and the sky resembles the color of orange sherbet. We called these “Orange” days. However, when the wind started to gust, the sky would turn blood red and visibility could be cut down to about 5 feet on these “Red” days.

We sent convoys out to the bridge side to replenish our personnel with food and water. Though not too far away, the convoys would navigate through a few small towns because they needed to move carefully to avoid improvised explosive devices (IEDs) buried in the roads. During a fateful week in May, we had a massive dust storm that came out of nowhere. We were scheduled that day to replenish the personnel at the bridge site but had to abandon the trip. One day turned into two days. Two days turned into three. Three days turned into four. After several days, our personnel had been without replenishment and were rationing what little they had. With the raging dust storm, they had to hunker down in their tents. Luckily, we were able to identify a small Marine base camp several miles from them. These Marines braved the storm, in conditions with little to no visibility, and provided the supplies to replenish our bridge crew.

I had several key takeaways from this experience. The first is that you always have to be prepared for a crisis. We had become complacent with our normal rotation of replenishment convoys and left little room for error. In the military, we have a saying that “complacency kills” and we were not prepared for this situation. Going forward we had several plans, backup plans and branch plans for all missions. My second major take-away was that I learned the true value to teambuilding and leadership. Prior to deploying the bridge crew to the site, we brought them together and ran them through several drills, preparing them for all eventualities that we could think of at the time. Their training and experiences on site provided the bonds to allow them to remain calm through this life and death experience.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

In Iraq, I befriended several of the Marines. One of them that stood out was a young major who seemed much more mature than his counterparts. As I got to know him, he revealed that in late 2004, he was in the Second Battle of Fallujah. This was the bloodiest battle of the entire Iraq war for American troops. He told us of his combat missions which resulting in hundreds of U.S. forces wounded and 54 killed by insurgents. He told me of his best friends killed in action. All these actions take incredible courage and are acts of heroism. What was the most heroic to me, wasn’t that he was back in Iraq 3 ½ years later, but that he told me of his hopes that we could make Iraq more stable. Coming back into a war zone, where you’ve lost friends and know the truly ugly side of war, while holding on to the hope of a positive outcome, that’s a hero.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

The hero is someone who knows the true ugliness and possible consequences of a situation but goes forward anyway. When we think of heroes, we often think of firefighters as they rush into burning buildings to save people. They know the danger and the consequences of their actions, but prepare themselves and run in. I think of my Marine major as a hero. But a hero can be anybody. Even in a corporate setting, if there is something wrong or corrupt, if there is a bully, a hero can be anyone with the courage to stand up for what’s right no matter the consequences or office politics. That person can also be a hero.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

Both, actually. In the military, the ability to lead others is valued above all other traits. We receive regular training to ensure that we are prepared for the challenges, obstacles and pitfalls that come with the mantle of command. Over the course of my career, I’ve been given the opportunity to explore and understand what kind of leader I am. For instance, through trial and error, I’ve learned that I am not a yeller, nor am I a bold, in your face type of leader. I have learned the virtues of team building, empathy, and selflessness as a leader. When I left active duty and transitioned to the civilian workforce, I was quite astonished at the lack of leadership training given to employees. I spoke with several counterparts in other industries and found the same. From my research, leadership training is only given to those in the middle to upper management. In the military, leadership training starts on day #1. Within the business world, being the technical expert can get you far, but combining these skills with the knowledge of how to lead will accelerate your career advancement. In my last two corporate jobs, I have had a faster promotion rate then my peers. Attribute this to the lessons I’ve learned through the military.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I learned a lot from all my Mentors, ranging from entrepreneurs and industry leaders to academics. I learned the most from a man named Norm. Norm is among the highly revered scientists and engineers that my cohorts in earthquake engineering and I affectionately call the “greybeards.” The greybeards are true thought leaders and the founders of our particular niche of earthquake engineering and seismology. Of all the greybeards, Norm, a world-renowned rock-star in engineering seismology, is one of the greatest. Cited in over 8,500 publications and projects spanning the globe, Norm is the one you call if your project is so unique or your problem is so complicated that no one else can solve it. His time is precious and in short supply, but he saw something in me and made the time to offer mentorship.

A mentor like Norm changes the trajectory of careers. I know because I’ve experienced it. Norm promoted me and as a result, I participated in some of the world’s most prestigious engineering seismology projects, including the seismic hazard analysis for five nuclear power plants. Eventually, I gained enough contacts and experience from my time under his sponsorship to get where I am today.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

I define a crisis as any unanticipated event that has the potential for great instability and/or detrimental effects.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

By definition, crises are typically unexpected; when they happen, everyone is caught off guard. But as business owners and leaders we must always be prepared, which creates the conundrum. I would recommend having brainstorming sessions with your team on a periodic basis (once a year or more depending on your business model). Consider all eventualities, especially those that seem farfetched. Then make a plan of action, including backup plans and branch plans, for what you will do during those situations. I don’t think anyone could have predicted a pandemic for the year 2020. However, a good business owner or leader should have considered a global market crash in their crisis planning. They should have also considered loss of staff and/or natural disasters as well. While not specific to a pandemic, the reaction plans for these three situations could be combined and initiated. Using this methodology, the business owner/leader is not experiencing a crisis, but rather an unfortunate event that is more easily managed.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

Immediately upon realizing you’re in a crisis, stop and remain calm. If this is a situation you have previously planned for, pull your response plans off the shelf and take action.

If this is new, assess the situation and resist the urge to react too quickly. Of the thousands of initial emergency reports that I’ve received, maybe only 5% of them were correct. Let the crisis start to unfold and more information will become available. In my experience, I have not always had all the information needed when it is time to make a decision. In a crisis, you will need to make decisions based on imperfect information. In the military, we have a saying called “paralysis by analysis”, meaning that some are afraid to act in the hope that they may eventually receive more information. This fear wastes time. Have courage and take decisive action when it is needed. Know that you have the team’s best interest in mind; make the decision and stand by it.

I do believe that there are opportunities in every crisis, but it takes some creativity to find what they are. After the initial shock of the crisis has worn off, you can find opportunity in two ways. The first is to focus on the good that has come from the crisis. For example, the Coronavirus lockdown has given my family the opportunity to become closer over the last several months through the initiation of regular video conferencing and increased group chats. The second way to find opportunities is to look for the gaps that start to open up in the status quo. I’ve spoken with many business leaders who have modified their business model because they are no longer traveling 1–2 weeks of the month. This creates opportunity from the efficiency of working in a home office. Don’t be afraid to innovate and change.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

  • Calmness — In the words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t Panic”. Times of stress or crisis require controlling your emotions. Others may look to you to be the calm, rational leader they need. Anticipate what can go wrong in a crisis, create mitigation plans, then practice your immediate reactions. Preparation leads to calmness when under pressure.
  • Flexible — By definition, flexibility means bending without breaking. In a crisis the status quo is often too rigid to survive; you must change course and find a new way. Learn to look around and beyond problems as opposed to tackling them the same way you always have. I like to think of the analogy of someone asking if the glass is half full or half empty. I always answer that the glass is neither, it’s full: it’s half full of liquid and half full of air.
  • Positivity — This trait is instrumental for your mental health. Learn to recognize destructive behavior and negative thinking. Focus on the positive things in your life. When the situation is too bleak, find that one good thing and hold on to it like a life raft.
  • Resiliency — Your psychological state is like a rubber band. The rubber band stretches as you are stressed, and your resilience is the elastic restoring force returning you to equilibrium. But unlike a rubber band that has an elastic limit beyond which it will never recover or snap back, there is no such limit on your resilience. Resiliency skills can be learned and contribute to a quicker recovery during difficult times.
  • Visibility — There is a natural tendency to turn inward during an emergency or crisis. Don’t go hide out in a closet, literally or figuratively. Rely on your social support network, whether this is family, friends, or even coworkers. Consider cultivating and nurturing new relationships through either personal or professional organizations. If you’re in a leadership position during a crisis, visibility is crucial because people automatically look for someone to follow. Be visible and communicate often and openly with your team. They need to see you out front leading.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I’ve picked these traits after viewing two people during crises. Combined, they exhibit all of these traits. The first is my mentor, Dr. Norm Abrahamson. As I’ve stated before, Norm is in high demand and works on the toughest, and often most contentious, projects in the world. I’ve witnessed Norm in multiple meetings with quarrelsome colleagues and he is always the calm in the middle of the storm. When faced with a challenge, he explores multiple paths to a resolution, usually in the most unconventional way, while exuding confidence and a positive attitude. The other person is Rudy, the former CEO and president of the company I used to work for. During the economic crash of 2008 and 2009, it could have been so easy for him to sit at his desk, send a few periodic emails and become absorbed in the grind of keeping the company running. Instead, he would calmly and honestly communicate the status of the company on a regular basis. Always maintaining a positive attitude, he would lead townhall-like video conferences to answer questions for all employees. These two gentlemen exemplify the calm, flexible, positive, resilient, and visible mindsets to survive a crisis.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

My first miserable failure was attempting to lead 12 people as a junior officer in my first battalion. I didn’t know how to lead so I looked to the more senior officers. They were yellers, and I thought “oh, this is how you are supposed to lead; you yell at people to make them do what you want.” So, I yelled at my team…and it felt awful. I shattered the trust I had begun to build and had become “one of those officers.” Luckily, I got a second chance. I was assigned to drill and blast a road for the Metlakatlan native American tribe. Here I was, a 26-year-old, in charge of 18 men on a remote island off the coast of Alaska doing something I had never done before. I was excited, but a bit apprehensive after my previous failure. Luckily, they paired me with a seasoned, crusty Chief (the rank of E7). He took me aside and helped me understand not only the principals of leadership, but who I was as a leader. Those 6 months on Annette Island, where my men practiced their craft, was my leadership training grounds.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Preemptive Planning — The best means of surviving and thriving during a crisis is to plan in advance. In the military, we use the Joint Planning Process for known, in-depth planning and the Rapid Response Planning Process for short-fused operations. These processes lean heavily on the key staff brainstorming and analyzing different courses of action for the mission. The next step is my favorite: wargaming. Members of the different staff sections and subject matter experts attack the plans, finding vulnerabilities, risks, and shortfalls. Through this process, the plan with the greatest survivability wins. No plan is perfect, but through this process, weaknesses can be identified and remediated. When I spoke earlier of brainstorming with your business team, this same methodology of brainstorming and wargaming can be used. Find the weaknesses within your business strategy and have a plan to shore them up before a crisis occur.
  2. Remain Calm — Nobody performs efficiently in chaos. Slow down, or even stop, and take in all possible information around you. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was not uncommon to be called to the Command Operation Center in the middle of the night due to an attack on our personnel such as our convoys hitting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or our bases being targeted by enemy mortars and rockets. During these times, I found that the calmer I was, the more efficiently my team would work. Remaining calm is an art and must be practiced. Part of this is being a good listener so you can make sound decisions for your follow-on actions.
  3. Maintain Perspective — When you’re in a crisis, it feels like it can last forever. Force yourself to remember that a crisis is transient and there will be an end. It’s also common to get so wrapped up in the grind of a crisis response that you begin to lose perspective. If possible, take a break; maybe it’s 5 minutes or possibly longer. Take time for yourself to clear your head and regain perspective. I’ve deployed several times in both peacetime and war and the one common denominator is that there always seems to be one type of emergency situation or circumstance after another. Find your own way of keeping perspective. For me, it was taking some time out in the middle of the day, putting on my running shoes and going for a jog. This was healthy not only for my body but also my mind. Afterwards, I was always sharper when I went back to the office.
  4. Innovate — Shift your focus from the short-term to longer-term goals. Since, your immediate plans may no longer be viable, establish goals for how you want to be positioned when the crisis is over. A crisis or emergency is when you find the greatest opportunities for innovation because the status quo may no longer work. Over my 20+ years in the military, I’ve experienced the rollercoaster of budget cuts and budget surpluses. With each budget cut, the military has learned to become more innovative or risk being put on the chopping block. Although it’s always difficult to change, these innovations have led to a leaner and meaner force.
  5. Debrief — In the military, no mission is complete until after the debrief. Whether you are working in a team, or you have an individual crisis, make time afterwards to sit and reflect. At the end of a crisis, most of us want to look ahead and put the situation behind us. Don’t fall into this trap. Consider what actions worked well and what can be improved upon. Document what you have learned. There will always be new crises and unfortunate events; prepare for the future with your lessons learned.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A nationwide mentoring program. There are so many experienced, proven leaders who have never had a mentee. What would it be like if all leaders, great and small, committed to mentoring at least one promising person? I’m not looking for a formal program that assigns mentors and mentees; rather, a shift in mindset that would make mentoring commonplace for all leaders.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

I would love to sit down with the former Secretary of Defense, General Jim Mattis. I’ve always had a great admiration for General Mattis; I’m actually a bit of a fangirl. I’ve followed his trajectory through the military and politics, and I’ve read his book. He has a great mind for tactics and strategy, creating loyalty and trust in teams, and leading under intense pressures. I would just be thrilled to meet him face-to-face and get to know a little more about the man behind the medals.

How can our readers follow you online?

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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