#NeverForget – 9/11 14 Years On and some lessons learned

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This blog is dedicated to three very important groups of people; Everyone who lost their life on this terrible day and to those who will forever be affected by it, my family and friends who support me no matter what and the great colleagues – some, sadly no longer with us – that I have the privilege to work with.

As societies we have said, “Let us never forget” more than once before so I am hoping that for the sake of all these individuals, and those who came before and those who came after that we will #NeverForget. 

It is 14 years on and yet I can still feel the deep, in your gut emotions from the events of that day. Sad to say at that point I had already lived through many years of domestic terrorism at the hands of the IRA and yet somehow this act was so extreme, so awful that it had the ability to partially eclipse those events.

The first time I knew that something was wrong I was on an early conference call with my team in New York. I was sitting in the middle of the City of London and they were on the 53rd Floor of 60 Wall St. We all heard an odd, dull crump in the background and then the team said there must be some kind of stock launch and ticker-tape parade as there was paper flying everywhere in the air.

My experience of 20 years of living with the IRA in London kicked in and I told them all that this was no ticker-tape parade and that it was a bomb. I told them to round up our whole team, pair up in twos and to stay together no matter what. I told them all to get to the fire escape and walk down to bottom and ignore any other messages – just get to the ground as soon as possible. I asked them to call me if they could when they got to the ground floor. This was the start of a 72 hour period before we tracked all of the team down safely.

In London, a core of colleagues who had known each other for many years, gathered in one of the senior managers offices to gawp open-mouthed at the TV as the events of the NY morning unfolded. I remember going to my office and ringing my manager’s cell (in NY) 6 or 7 times before I managed to get hold of him in Midtown. At the time we spoke the belief was that this was a terrible accident, that a plane had collided with the World Trade Center. But when I went back to Andrew’s office and we all saw the second plane fly into the building we all knew that it was something so much more terrible than that.

I don’t know how long I stood there, almost paralyzed. I do remember seeing the first tower collapse in an awful slow motion and the collective gasp that came from the room. News started to emerge that there were other planes in the air that had been hijacked. Rumors flew through the trading floors that planes were targeted at all of the major financial centers, London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, as well as New York. I called my husband and told him to shut down the data centers he was responsible for running in good order, now was not the time to be a work hero and get on a train – with me – and get home to our children as soon as we could. I had no idea what was going to happen next but it felt like it Armageddon was approaching and the only place to be was with our children.

Somehow I got myself to Liverpool St. I remember flinching at every plane that overflew the City trying to follow it with my eyes on high alert should it look as if there was any likelihood that it would try to crash anywhere close to where I needed to go to get home. I recall sitting on the train home, every muscle as rigid as could be and asking a group of people next to me to stop talking endlessly about what had happened because I could barely contain my anxiety.

When I got home I made sure that all TVs were turned off, I wanted to be sure that there was no chance that either of our children saw what was unfolding on screen or they would be as traumatized as I already felt. It seemed like hours until Keith finally got home as well – but eventually he did and that bought some level of relief.

The next day I waited until the clock ticked past 1:00pm and I thought that I stood a chance of getting team members on the phone. My heart was in my mouth as I dialed each number and gradually, one by one, we managed to make contact. I listened to their stories of how they managed to get home; one managed to get the very last ferry to Staten Island before the city was locked down, another walked miles home starting with a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and a third found herself in Midtown Manhattan completely unaware that she was covered in head to toe in white dust from the collapse of the second building and wondering why people were staring at her. But one person, my admin Maryetta, remained missing and I was worried that she had somehow become caught up in the area when the buildings collapsed.

Finally 3 days later I managed to make contact. Maryetta had walked to her cousins apartment in Manhattan but had not spoken a word for nearly two days. As best any of us can know Maryetta’s mind blocked out the awful things that she saw a protection. Sad to say, like so many who survived that day she was just never the same person again.

Gradually as the days, weeks, months and even years have passed, those of us who worked together through those dark days have occasionally gathered managed to share experiences and memories from those days. It isn’t always an anniversary that prompts the reminiscence, sometimes the trigger is remembering a colleague that we loved working with that we’ve lost or we’ve lost touch with. But as those memories have emerged, these are the strong themes that have really emerged for me.

Family comes First – Always

Companies come and go. Careers come and go. Jobs come and go. Your family is there for you through all of it. They come first. Put them first. Treat them as if they come first. Sometimes it is hard but I know from personal experience that I have never regretted it. And – candidly, we can all look to colleagues who do not choose to put their families first and see how that behavior has the ability to impact their performance and frequently impacts ours.

Choose the People that you Work with Well

We spend as much time with the people that we work with as we do with our family. Sometimes we spend more time with them than we do with our family. If we are able to work with people of integrity who share our values, individuals who truly care about our professional and personal well-being, colleagues who challenge us with positive intent, many of the minor irritations of the working day can be put into the appropriate perspective. I have been privileged to work with colleagues who I trust implicitly, who I would work for time and time again and who I would count as true friends. Many of those individuals are people that lived and worked through that same period of time with me. Equally when I have made poor choices I know that I have suffered and so has my family.

Collaboration can sometimes be better than Competition

I was recently struck by an article I read about Lauren Croke’s approach to IT innovation and governance within Eileen Fisher. What struck me about the article was how open she was to bringing in thought leaders from organizations who might be considered the competition. I respect this as a gutsy approach that I believe will reap benefits for Eileen Fisher by acknowledging that others in their sector are facing similar challenges and may have figured out better ways to solve the problem or simply be viewing the challenges from a different perspective. Having had the opportunity to have a conversation with a few of the Eileen Fisher team, I think that the approach that Lauren is leading may become a game-changer in bringing effectiveness for this area of IT Governance and portfolio prioritization.

How is that relevant on this day of all days? At the time that the planes hit, my organization was working its way through a rather ugly acquisition that was being called a merger. That fact is relevant only because the sensitivities were adding to an animosity between the two heritage organizations who, candidly, had a pretty low opinion of each other. The immediate needs of the crisis, not only for our own organization but also to keep several Wall St competitors up and running to the eyes of the rest of the world, forced people to work together in such a way that they came to understand that each brought qualities to the table that might be different but they had equal value. The team that stayed locked in the 60 Wall St basement Data Center for 3 days when the whole area had been evacuated, not knowing what was in the air, spring to mind as a group of people doing the right thing to keep our base financial systems going and avoid a mass panic. The adversarial nature of the firm’s integration disappeared almost overnight as the two groups got to see what they brought to the table in situations of extreme stress.

I saw some of that happen again at an operational level during the darkest days of the financial crisis, although I’m pretty sure that Gretchen Morgensen and The New York Times would never let us all admit that the banks did something right! I’ll say no more than that a great deal is owed to a small team down in Tampa, FL, by a great many people (and by the way, none of these people earn the big bonuses that the traders do).

Never Turn down a Conversation, focus on the Relationship first

I have to credit Tom McNeil (MDL Partners) for hammering this lesson home with me. If I hadn’t listened to Tom, then I wouldn’t have taken a chance on working to create a small business as a distributor for India Hicks. If I hadn’t taken that chance, I wouldn’t have connected with a very unique organization and joined them for their first Great Get Together. And if I had’t done that, I wouldn’t have met Stephanie Messer Danko. I want to thank Stephanie and her thoughtful tributes to her fellow flight attendants on this sad day for inspiring me to write this piece. Stephanie – and a few of her friends that I haven’t even met – helped me to experience a level of emotion about the events of 9/11 that I’ve been suppressing for 14 years.

I’m not very good at this “people stuff”. I’m really very shy, particularly in social settings. Yes, I know all of you that know me well either professionally or personally cannot believe that – but it is true. I can still be paralyzed in settings where I don’t know anyone and I don’t have any professional expertise to offer. Tom and his team have helped me by giving me concrete strategies to start off conversations with complete strangers and as I am still in the stage of “Conscious Incompetence” I do have to follow their instructions in a rather mechanical way.

However I can share for all of my fellow Introverts, fellow members of the “mortally shy club”, it really does work. By following Tom’s advice I have met some amazing and lovely people and, to my surprise, most of them seemed to like me.

Which leads me to my final insight ..

When you give feedback, make it straightforward and concrete

Now that I have been practicing Tom’s advice for a little while, I can see that some of my other managers were trying to give me similar advice and feedback. However, somehow I wasn’t able to take it onboard or I was interpreting the feedback as something different. I’ll bet that there will be a number of people reading this who will either empathize with being in that situation or resonate with the frustration of trying to communicate with a team member who is “just not getting it”.

I’ll give credit to the following great managers and coaches who know how to give great feedback in a straightforward way, with concrete examples of how to improve or learn something new. In no particular order:

Trudi Ryan, Coachmatch

Karen Bridbord, Karen Bridbord & Associates

Melissa Moore, J.P.Morgan Chase

Tom McNeil, MDL Partners

N Dean Meyer, NDMA Partners

Lesa Levine, Morgan Stanley

Maureen (Mo) Osborne, EY

Kedisha Ebanks, EY

Jay Subramanian, EY

It has been a joy and a privilege to work with you all and I hope to have many opportunities to continue working with you all in the future.

And last but not least, again a big thank you to my new friend Stephanie for providing this unexpected but welcome chance to voice the emotions that I have linked to the 9/11 anniversary and let us #NeverForget.


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