In September of 2001, precisely at the time I am writing this, I was facilitating a top executive
closed-door meeting in a hotel in Toronto Canada for the leaders of DaimlerChrysler Financial Services. On September 9th, I and my entire team as well as others headquartered in the US had been attending a global meeting in Europe. Because I had this meeting in Canada, I left a day early to make it back. My team was scheduled to leave for the flight back from Europe around 6:30am local time which meant their flights went into the air after midnight Eastern Time here.
The morning of September 11th, our meeting started at 7:30am. At around 8:50am it became clear that there was not going to be a formal break as originally planned, so I slid out of the room to arrange for the coffee and continental breakfast to be brought into the room. I remember the pathway of the hotel vividly because as I walked back from the lobby, there was a television in the closed bar area, already with images of the first airplane striking the World Trade Center. Only one or two people had gathered around the TV at this time as it seemed like an unbelievably tragic accident.
I went back to the meeting room conflicted as to whether or not I should interrupt the conversation with the news of this accident. After a moment, I whispered to the EVP of HR the situation and asked her opinion. She quietly advised that perhaps a break should be called at 9:15 or so regardless of the conversation going on so that people could find out about this news.
I snuck back out and as I went toward the lobby this time, there were more people gathered at the television. I arrived there at precisely 9:00am and was watching the television coverage as the second airplane hit. As with hundreds of thousands of other people, I can not describe the feelings of the moment, although I can remember them exactly.
The issue of whether or not to stop the meeting was now moot. When I walked into the conference room the CEO and CFO of the time were in a heated debate but it really didn't matter. I interrupted and told them what was going on at which point all twelve executives bolted from the room to see the coverage for themselves.
I then walked out to the front of the building and called home. This would have been around 9:20 or so, and it turns out that I was extremely lucky to call when I did. Within a few moments, the airwaves would be so congested that calls were almost impossible to make. When my wife answered I told her what was going on, that I was fine, that I had no idea what would happen next but that I knew we would be taken care of and that I had no idea when I could call back. She understood completely and we disconnected.
As I looked around I realized that the top executives of DaimlerChrysler Financial were now spread throughout the hotel and out on the sidewalk and that in some strange way, I was responsible for some kind of organization at this point. I was also clueless. I at least had the presence of mind to realize that having any of the executives missing would be a bad thing, so I went to the front desk and asked for the suite that the CEO had earlier checked out of. They were accommodating and so I started a process of finding each executive and, as they were talking on their own phones, giving them the information to join together in the suite.
That was pretty much the only moment of clarity for me for several hours. Once everybody for which I had responsibility was back in one room, the security department for DaimlerChrysler started taking over to establish transportation and drivers to get everybody back to the U.S. Each of us had employees that were impacted and we were all trying to find out where they were and what had happened. Of course by now the news of the plane striking the Pentagon had been released, and there were rumors of many other planes involved in the attack. In my case, I knew my entire team was supposed to be landing in the U.S. right about now and, being unsure at the time of the origination points for the airplanes involved in the attackes, I was horrified.
Eventually, company security had vans show up at the hotel to drive us from Toronto back to Southfield, Michigan. This was a very strange trip as there was nothing any of us could do about anything as we took the hours long drive back home. We heard that the bridges from Canada to the US were closed, then that they were open, then that one was closed but another crossing was open. There was a lot of confusion as we decided which path to take in order to make it across the border.
At one point, we finally had to stop to get some food. Nobody had touched breakfast or lunch of course and by now everybody was quite hungry. We found a place that could accommodate us and filed in. We were an international crew, with American, German and other European nationalities represented in the executive group. We ordered our food and when it was served, we prayed.
Saying this now doesn't seem so significant, but at the time, this was the moment where it struck me how vulnerable and helpless we all felt and how the conflicts of the executive boardroom had entirely disappeared to be replaced by a dozen very confused and very scared human beings. Folks who couldn't have a civil word with each other six hours earlier were now equal. The issue of power, who wielded it and how they wielded it, was gone between the board because the playing field had abruptly been leveled.
There were many other details to the trip home that I also remember vividly, but the most significant for me was the proof that anybody can lead when times are easy, but true leaders are apparent in a crisis. To be honest, there were two or three in this group that stayed focused on their own concerns, but the majority immediately started taking care of their employees to the best of their ability.
One of the biggest problems we realized was that we had employees stranded all over the country. With a company this size, there were always people traveling from one point to another, and we knew there were many that were stranded away from home and family. By the time we had arrived back in the U.S., the executives were putting into place policies that would allow the various branches around the country to take whatever actions necessary to get their people home. In some cases this meant sending company cars to airports to pick up people. Each office had pool cars and all of them were put into service trying to take care of employees.
I was also a senior manager at the time and responsible for the North American operations of our department, but my department was headquartered in Berlin. To be honest, I had very few resources at my disposal for such an effort. As it turned out, I was lucky beyond belief in the fact that I had come back a day early. My friends, Lorraine Paoletti and Scott High had been diverted to Toronto and, because they were some of the first that had done so, were able to find hotel rooms for the night until they could find a way to get home. Kristen Hallett and Dan Rowley were not so lucky and ended up in a gymnasium in Greenland…actually two different locations…where they were stranded for many days. We tried everything we could think of to get them home, including using dealerships who volunteered to send somebody to pick them up at one place and move them to another point where they could get picked up again and brought closer to home.
The day and the event impacted a lot of us in a lot of different ways, all of which were profound to some extent. For me there was no fear really of life and limb but there was a realization that, as a leader, I had an enormous responsibility. There was also the realization that, yes, there is a difference between those who are expected to manage and those who are expected to lead. Without the managers, we would have never been able to get people safely back home. Nobody in that van knew exactly how to do it, nor did they have direct access to run the operation. But as soon as the leaders knew the direction that needed to be taken, and empowered the organization to take it, the managers made it happen.
The direction that came from the executive suite: Do what you think is the right thing to do.
This resulted in not only the safe transport of employees back to their home base, but other initiatives such as moratoriums on collection calls and other business actions that were designed, not for PR purposes or for profit purposes but because it was the right thing to do. That feeling of unified purpose was amazing.
There's really no big point or lesson that I'm trying to drive home with this post. I'm mostly fulfilling a need to engage in my own rememberance of September 11 and to share that with anybody who cares. I'm not going to create some artificial big-picture conclusion here either…it wouldn't be honest and it wouldn't honor the moment. I would only say that within this view of events, there are dozens and hundreds of other stories of the significance of that day. For each of my colleagues who were trying to get home, there is an impact that can only be understood by that person. While it was a shared experience, it was a very personal experience as well. And it changed all of us in ways we can't adequately describe.