I will always reflect on where I was was on September 11, 2001 and the leadership response we experienced in this horrific crisis; one of the finest examples of corporate leadership I could imagine.
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 took over.
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, Pennsylvania.
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 the week.
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