Leading Through Disruption

Within just a few weeks, the Villanova School of Business designed a summer practicum that provides meaningful learning experiences to students whose summer internships, jobs, or study abroad plans were disrupted by COVID-19.

people on gears and ladders working together

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC is first and foremost a public health crisis, but it is also an economic crisis that has reverberated throughout the economy in ways that negatively impacted the summer plans for business students worldwide. At the Villanova School of Business (VSB) in Pennsylvania, we set up a task force to address the short-, medium-, and long-term implications of COVID-19, with one group focused on the immediate challenge that many of our students faced when their summer job and study abroad opportunities were scaled back, postponed, moved online, or revoked altogether.

By April 15, task force members had an outline for a new offering. Just a week later, they had gathered feedback and secured approval to open up registration for the VSB Summer Practicum: Leading through Disruption. The new course offered students an alternative, meaningful experiential learning option to help them build competencies they would normally obtain in a summer internship.

The six-week, three-credit practicum, which ran from June 1 to July 10, met online three times per week for 90 minutes. Its curriculum included an academic component, a skill-building component, and an experiential component in which students worked with businesses to tackle real-world challenges related to COVID-19. To alleviate any economic burden that might prevent students from participating, we offered the class at our summer internship rate—roughly one-third of the cost of a traditional three-credit class.

The first module consisted of four weeks of master classes taught by VSB faculty. These classes incorporated lectures in which faculty discussed how periods of disruption and uncertainty can impact a business, as well as discussions and interviews with practitioners. In addition, students participated in professional development workshops (PDWs) to build skills for leading and making informed decisions in challenging, turbulent environments.

Topics for the master classes and PDWs were wide-ranging. Courses in management and leadership included Globalization and Global Management in Times of Disruption, Personal Leadership in Times of Crisis, Navigating Turbulent Times with Heightened Self-Awareness, and Solving Complex Problems. Students explored the potential of technology in courses such as Artificial Intelligence Will Disrupt and Help Create the Future, Using Analytics to Better Manage Health Care Crises, and Managing (Virtual) Team Success. Other offerings covered how the uncertainty surrounding “black swan events” such as the pandemic will impact areas such as real estate, consumer behavior, financial reporting, and liquidity and risk.

In the second module, students undertook a two-week business practicum project that was structured as a short-term consulting engagement. Applying the problem-solving, project management, and consulting skills they developed in the first module, student teams each tackled a problem a company encountered as a result of COVID-19. At the end, each team submitted a final report and made a presentation to the leaders of the business. Participating companies ranged from prominent Fortune 500 firms representing retail and e-commerce and media to smaller firms in industries such as real estate, cloud computing, and professional sports. 

We gained several insights from designing and delivering this course so quickly:

Stakeholders respond to an important challenge. When we approached faculty members to offer a master class, not only did each one agree to participate, but everyone involved in bringing this course to fruition volunteered to participate pro bono. In addition, members of our VSB Advisory Councils were enthusiastic about serving as guest speakers and project sponsors.

Guest presenters are easier to include in remote classes than in live classes. There was one interesting upside to our need to create this experience for students: It was easier to coordinate schedules with guest speakers, because they were asked to commit only 30 to 45 minutes of their time. In just the first week, our guest presenters included senior executives from Blackrock, CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Greater Philadelphia), NBCUniversal, TIAA, and Wallenius Wilhelmsen (global shipping), as well as Wawa CEO Chris Geysens, who leads this chain of more than 900  convenience stores. 

Combining academic and practical content packs an attractive punch. We found that students appreciated having the opportunity to enroll in a program that combined relevant, contemporary academic content with a real-world project. It is no accident that, as coordinators of the program, one of the authors of this article is a traditional academic (Jonathan) while the other came to Villanova after a lengthy consulting career (Stephen).

Consulting projects need not be lengthy and elaborate. In VSB’s required and elective courses, we have tended to create consulting and practicum experiences that last an entire semester. Yet, short, intense projects are also valuable to both students and organizations—especially in a rapidly changing environment.

Speed and agility are critical. Rather than undertake a traditional process for course development and approval, we had to accelerate the process. However, that acceleration modeled the skills ingrained in our school’s culture, such as innovation and risk-taking.

Doing something is better than doing nothing. We know that our initial course design for this practicum was not perfect, but we were able to enhance its model as we went along. Given the time constraints we were under to maintain the continuity of our programs, we knew that doing something was far more important than striving for perfection.

For example, after some reflection, we recognized that preparation for the business practicum should be further integrated into the academic master classes and PDWs. After the course was approved but before it began, we added several short workshops on consulting best practices to the first month of the class. In order to promote further integration, we encouraged faculty leading the master classes to incorporate into their classes applications and specific examples that were relevant for the companies participating in the practicum.

As faculty across the university coordinate initiatives to help students respond to the challenges resulting from COVID-19, we are all coming to a similar conclusion: When we are facing a crisis that presents such widespread disruption to our programs, it is important for us to rally the troops to move quickly and offer something new and meaningful. This experience could provide a model for how we respond to other crises and unexpected challenges in the future.


Jonathan Doh is associate dean of research and global engagement and co-faculty director of the Moran Center for Global Leadership at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania. He also holds the Herbert Rammrath Chair in International Business. Stephen Kelly is a professor of practice at the business school. Previously, he was a senior partner with McKinsey & Company.