The 2001 Respiratory National Sales Meeting had the earmarks of a memorable event.
Joe Canning and Betsy McKenzie had pulled out all stops to create an agenda
that would educate, motivate and elevate the skills of the entire Respiratory Sales Team.
The Leadership Team which consisted of all of the managers met to receive a final
review of the meeting. The individual managers then met with their Districts to
review suggested topics. At 5 PM we assembled in the Meyerson Symphony Center
which is 3 blocks away from the Adams Mark Hotel in Dallas, Texas, where most
of us were staying.
The short program featured a stirring organ performance by a member of the Dallas
Symphony Orchestra which was the opening act for the legendary Ray Charles. Ray
was in fantastic form as he played through many of his standards. But the
highlight was his passionate rendition of “America.” The standing ovation was
deafening as the group showed their appreciation. Joe and Betsy knew that they
had created a phenomenal week. The 1500 participants dined on hor’d’oevers and
finger foods in the atrium of the Meyerson Symphony Center and slowly filtered
back to the Adams Mark and Le Meridien, the principal hotels for the meeting.
The second day began with a lot of promise. We heard people talking about how great
Ray Charles was the night before. Many stated their disbelief that we would
bring Ray Charles to such a meeting. There were numerous conversations
inquiring about his age.
The meeting began with an opening by Joe Canning, the National Sales Director for
Respiratory Products. He was succeeded by Tony Zook, VP of Sales and Marketing
and Michael Hickey, the VP of Sales, along with Rich Fante and Josh Tarnoff,
Product Directors. The group was dismissed for a break. The break was also to
allow the large group to reassemble in 2 smaller groups representing the East
and West Areas of Respiratory. Doug McNamee was to be with his team in the
East. I was to be with my team in workshops in the General Session room to
receive the product strategy message. It was during the break that the word
circulated about the World Trade Center bombings. The news rapidly moved through
the crowd, as we began to piece together the entire horrific event.
The decision was made to announce the bombings to the General Session and to
dispatch Regional Sales Directors to the different workshops to break the
terrible news. Individuals who were directly impacted were asked to contact
their families. Joe broke the news to the audience and you can imagine the
shock and terror and disbelief. Tears rolled down the cheeks of many as fear
Joe turned the meeting over to me, the stage that is, for a 5 minute introduction
into the next phase of the agenda. I had planned several snappy introductory
comments, but I had to change the tone. No one including myself was in the mood
for motivation. I turned the program over to Demir Bingol, the Product Director
for Rhinitis products. Demir was approximately 10 minutes into his presentation
when Joe and Tony took the stage and stopped the meeting. Everyone was asked to
take the next 3 hours and contact their families to check on their loved ones
and reconvene at 1 PM.
The Leadership Team and higher level managers and people from the various support
groups were asked to meet in the Executive Boardroom to discuss the plans for
the rest of the week.
I spoke to Scott Climes, one of the Respiratory Regional Sales Directors who was
dispatched to the workshops to deliver the news about the bombings. This
message was to individuals from the Eastern half of the US. Many of them potentially
had family or friends that were affected. He said he had never experienced such
a reaction in all of his life. The tears; the terror.
People were wandering in the hallways. Many rushed to their rooms to begin the daily
ritual of following the news coverage. Who did this and how would we respond?
How many were in the two buildings and the pain and the grief that touched their
families? Was it Osama Bin Laden? Who were the terrorists?
The Executive Boardroom would be the war room for the next few days. Here the
highest ranking officers of the Company would determine how to guide its people
through the tragic events of New York, Washington DC and outside of Pittsburgh,
Tony Zook, VP of Sales and Marketing took center stage. With marker in hand and
flipcharts close by he began with our objectives. No one has ever gone through
anything like this. How can we take care of our people? How can we get them
home, the ones who need to get home? Should we continue the meeting? What is
known? How should we communicate this to our people? When we formulate our
recommendations remember cost is not a concern. Our people are our number one priority.
He elicited the key communication points that we needed to flesh out. Some buckets
or titles were as follows: Travel, agenda, communication, an update on the
situation, accountability. Each point was assigned to a team with a leader to
bring up all of the key issues in that area.
We were fortunate enough to have 2 members of our Sales Team who had
anti-terrorist experience. Additionally, our Chief of Corporate Security was
present at the meeting because of the resources present and number of people.
Bud Bender also had contacts within the FBI which would come in handy during
A leader was assigned to each team and other individuals were assigned and asked
to align themselves to a team where they could provide input. American Express
One was the travel company. Julie Whalen, our meeting planner was asked to head
the travel committee.
We were asked to take 45 minutes to discuss all pertinent issues and to reconvene,
to make a flip chart presentation to the group. This allowed the group to
provide input and fine tune the response. We were under the 1 PM deadline. We
needed to complete our assignment early, so that we could present our recommendations
to the group. MJM our production company would need time to input the
information and create a Power point presentation.
My team headed by Doug McNamee covered accountability. We wanted to make sure that
for the next 24 hours we knew the location of each employee at the meeting. We
discussed the sales representatives staying in the hotel that evening until we
knew more about the extent of the problem. Reps needed to contact their
management team twice a day to state their locations and any changes. Managers
needed to notify up the chain of command that everyone was present and
accounted for. If anyone left the meeting to go home, it should be documented.
The buddy system was suggested as a good way to keep track of each other, which
was easier said than done.
The dynamic interchange during the presentation facilitated by Tony Zook was a
pleasure to behold. Senior Leadership eliciting and contributing comments and
suggestions, motivated by how we can help our people was marvelous. We were
fortunate to have strategically or luckily assembled the highest ranking
officials in our Field Sales force at the same meeting. We also were fortunate
to have the talent from the military, security and Travel at the same site.
The diversity of talent and experience made it easier to handle our mission. For
with over 1500 people at a Sales Meeting, with many of them fairly young, who
had not face any national emergencies in their lifetimes, this was a
significant challenge for all of us.
One by one the teams presented and the adjustments and suggestions were made to the
strategy and the presentation.
We were developing a game plan to keep people comforted and focused for we wanted
to show our employees that we valued them. The human side came out repeatedly.
There were times we wanted to over protect, but backed down because over
protection can heighten fear. We discussed how to care for those directly
impacted. We knew that the meeting was secondary to our people, but we also
knew the meeting was necessary to keep people focused on something not related
to the terror in the land. After all, the meeting was scheduled to last until
Friday and this was only Tuesday. It became clear that air travel was not going
to be an option for an indeterminate period of time.
The stories began to appear. People worried about their loved ones and tried
frantically to locate them. The hotel telephone system was overloaded. Cell phone
transmission had difficulty for a while. Some people did not wait for the 1 PM
meeting to see what the company proposed to do in this tragedy. Several
instances surfaced of people renting cars and driving toward home without
letting anyone know they left. One manager rented a van to drive their people
back home. Alternate travel plans were
cropping up all over the place. Some of this is to be expected when you have
sales people who are action oriented.
The meeting reassembled at 1 PM. On the stage were the principal contributors led
Tony Zook, Michael Hickey and Joe Canning. What followed was another example of
leadership at its finest. The depth and professionalism of the presentation led
many to wonder how we could put together such a professional presentation is
such a short period of time. Most commented that they worked for a great
company. We continued with the meeting for that was the best option to care for
our people. There were interfaith religious services arranged by Scott Buchanan
and others in attendance.
Arrangements were made to get everyone safely home. The travel team rented 20 luxury travel
busses to send to 20 different parts of the country to get our people home.
They were richly equipped with food, DVD players, games, blankets and all
manner of creature comforts to make the trip comfortable. One bus left with
only one person on it for he was the only one going to that region of the
country. There was a story of the Company renting two limousines to get one
sales rep home in time for the birth of their child. Watching this tragedy unfolds
and our reaction to it validate our history of being phenomenal in a crisis.
People left saying what a great company we work and what a great country we
live in. I appreciated being a part of leadership making a difference in the
lives of our people during a very unsettling time in our Nation’s history.
Copyright © 2011 Orlando Ceaser