The 20th Anniversary of September 11, 2001

Powerful examples of leadership in action was evident at a national sales meeting during a national tragedy. On the 20th Anniversary of the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center we reflect on the lives lost and our country coming together in solidarity.

I was on stage in the general session when news of the World Trade Center bombings began to circulate. I could see the commotion, but I did not know why. The news rapidly moved through the crowd, as we began to piece together the entire horrific event.

We announced the bombings to the General Session. The National Sales Director broke the news to the audience. Individuals who were directly affected were released first, to contact their families. Regional Sales Directors were dispatched to different workshops to discuss the terrible news. You can imagine the shock, terror, and disbelief. Tears rolled down the cheeks of many people, as fear and panic took over.

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.

People were wandering in the hallways. Many rushed to their rooms to follow 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? Who were the terrorists?

The Executive Boardroom was the war room for the next few days. Here the highest-ranking officers of the Company determined how to guide our people through the tragic events of New York, Washington DC and outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The VP of Sales and Marketing took the stage. He requested a flip chart and markers to record information to develop our strategy. With marker in hand and flipcharts, 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?

He elicited the key areas we needed to address. Some of the categories were travel, agenda, communications, updates, security, accountability and miscellaneous. Each category became a team with a leader to explore all the key issues in that area.

We were fortunate enough to have two members of our Sales Team who had anti-terrorist experience. Additionally, our Chief of Corporate Security was present at the meeting. He had contacts within the FBI which would come in handy during the week.

Each team had a leader with individuals to provide input. The message to everyone, was “When you formulate your recommendations, remember cost is not a concern. Our people are our number one priority.” The VP demonstrated something that was in the DNA of our company. We were phenomenal in a crisis.

The accountability team ensured that we knew the location of every employee for the next 24 hours. 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, we needed a record of their departure. We used the “buddy system” to keep track of everyone; which was easier said than done. We wanted to make sure everyone was present and accounted for.

The dynamic interchange during the presentation facilitated was a pleasure to behold. Senior Leadership eliciting and contributing comments and suggestions, motivated by how we could 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 manage our mission. We had over 1500 people at a the meeting. Many of the representatives were young in their careers. They had not faced any national emergencies in their lifetime; this was a significant challenge for all of us.

We developed 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. The National Sales meeting was scheduled to last until Friday, and this was only Tuesday. No airplanes were flying and rental cars were not available.  It became clear that air travel was not going to be an option for an indeterminate period.

The stories appeared. 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. Everyone reassembled at 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 salespeople who are action oriented.

What follows is another example of leadership at its finest. The depth and professionalism of the presentation to the audience led many to wonder how we could put together such a professional presentation is such a brief period. Most commented that they worked for a great company. We decided to continue with the meeting for that was the best option to care for our people. We conducted an interfaith religious service, for those who were interested. We worshipped together across differences with various faiths represented

The travel team created an incredible plan to get everyone home safely. The travel team rented twenty luxury travel busses to send to twenty parts of the country to get our people home. Busses were stocked 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. We were successful in completing the meeting and addressing the mental, physical, psychological and spiritual needs of our people during this horrific national tragedy.

Leadership lessons

– A structured well conceived plan provides comfort

– Take care of your people – take the necessary steps to meet your people’s needs

– Money is not an object and should not stand in the way of caring for your team

– Provide structure for your people until more information is available

– Note the location of everyone

– Provide frequent updates to share recent communications

– Delegate responsibilities to those most gifted to lead in their area of expertise

– Understand people’s emotions and relate with empathy

– Establish a timeframe to report progress

– Allow people time to release and relax

– Value people and show concern for their families

– Determine the key areas on which to focus your attention

–  Strong leadership created stories and pays dividends in loyalty and performance

Watching this tragedy unfolds and our reaction to it validated our history of being phenomenal in a crisis. Leadership came through when it was most important. At that moment, we truly made our people feel that they were our most important asset.

The total story, my step by step recollection can be found in an earlier blog:

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