Thursday, September 11, 2008


There are moments that become touchstones in your life. Getting married. The birth of a child. Losing a parent. Whether the event is positive or negative, it’s a moment when you look around and realize that life as you know it has changed. I’m fortunate enough not to have lost anyone in the events of September 11th. But that day, and the days following had a major impact on me. Although I’ve talked with people about that time, I’ve not written about it before. But today, on the 7th anniversary, I think it’s time to articulate some of what I took away from that experience. These lessons are my keys for dealing with a crisis.

Lesson #1. Focus on the immediate problem.
When I went to bed on 9/10, my largest problem was the impending layoffs at our company. I’d spent the evening on the phone with my boss talking through options, and then updated my resume just in case. The next morning, the layoff problem took a backseat. Now we had to ensure our team was accounted for (thankfully, yes) and then figure out what was going on, and what we were going to do. The layoffs would still happen, but they could hold off for a few days as we dealt with the more immediate concerns.

Lesson #2. Find a plan, even if it’s just for the next 2 hours.
In a crisis situation, no one really knows what to do – stay inside? Are the hotels safe? Is it better to be outside? We needed to do something, but didn’t know what it should be. So, someone brilliant said “let’s go to lunch”. It seemed so mundane, but it was the best answer for the moment. Raise the blood sugar; take a break from the news; and over lunch we planned out what to do next: figure out the best options and timing for getting home.

Lesson #3. Do the right thing.
So, how were we going to get home? The next day, the rental car agencies stepped in saying people could rent cars and drive to wherever they needed to go. No fees, no restrictions. Hello, solution: roadtrip. We rented 4 large cars and started on our way. Seven years later, I can still feel the overwhelming sense of relief I experienced when I realized we had a way to get home. Hertz, Avis et al did the right thing, and to this day, I think of that moment when I rent a car.

Lesson #4. Remember that people react in different ways.
In crisis, I’m a do-er. I need to keep moving, so we can find our way through the problem. When the immediate need is over, I fall apart. But others react differently: they need more time upfront to assess and decide what to do. I had to remember to slow down and acknowledge my team members’ needs, so we could make good decisions. I also needed the team to understand me, when I broke down 2 days later. We were half-way home and the airports were going to re-open, so we decided to stop driving and fly home from St Louis. As soon as we stopped moving, the enormity of the situation sank in. I can remember sitting at the Arch, sobbing, wondering how we were ever going to make it through this. Marie checked in that afternoon to see how I was coping – she knew it was time for me to lean on someone.

Lesson #5. Focus on the principles: we are all in this together
It’s easy to become jaded, and focus only on the business side of work, keeping people at arms length. The thing 9/11 burned deep into me, is that there will always be personal connections at work, and people will rise to the occasion. Our company was in a tight spot financially, and we had to get the layoffs done if the company was going to stay solvent. And yet, in every call during that week, our CFO reiterated our primary goal: to get everyone safely home. Nothing was more important. She didn’t care about the cost, she cared about the people.

You never know when you’re going to have an experience that leads to life lessons. And hopefully, we’ll never have to learn from something like 9/11 again. But having touchstones, and recognizing what you’ve learned from those moments is part of what growing as a person and as a professional is all about. So today, when we remember our heroes, and mourn our losses, I want to say thank you to the Icarian team. September 11th was horrible. But when I think of the days following, I think of how we banded together, and the faith I had that even though the world would never be the same, with our team, we would find a way to carry on.

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