Learned on 9/11

I stepped out of the shower at my parents’ house just moments after the first plane hit. TV news was claiming it was accident, suggesting that a small plane had wandered off course.

It seemed unlikely that a pilot would wander that much off course during daylight hours, particularly that close to two very busy commercial airports. The hole seemed too large for a small plane. It was a perfect day, weather-wise. From my perspective, the accident story didn’t add up. I wondered why the newscast had taken that angle.

The video of the first plane took care of that.

Lessons: Think before you speak. Gather facts, don’t assume. There is little value to rushing to judgment simply for the sake of speed. Trust your gut.

Distractions

I stepped out of the bathroom and stopped in front of the TV. The second plane appeared on the TV screen and removed all doubt about intention vs. accident.

I had flown to Dallas a few days earlier to attend a wedding and a meeting. I planned to drive to Austin that day for a meeting with a business partner. We had a brief call and agreed that neither of us felt good about spending the rest of the day in front of the TV. Letting these acts impact our businesses was simply not how either of us were wired. We had hectic schedules and this was clearly going to complicate life for some time to come. We decided the meeting was on.

My parents didn’t try to talk me out of it. I left for the four hour drive to Austin shortly after the first building collapsed.

Lesson: The easy thing isn’t always the right thing. You can allow the world to distract you, but that’s your choice. I was pretty clear early on that the attacks were terrorism. I remember being resolved to keeping the meeting because I was not going to allow them to prevent us from doing business. It was a small, symbolic victory that I couldn’t be talked out of.

Distributed is good

The radio said all planes were ordered to land ASAP during my drive to Austin. I remember thinking that it was a smart strategy to quickly clarify the status of thousands of airplanes.

We actually got something done during the meeting in Austin, and I drove back to Dallas. News interviews over the next few days showed many people frustrated with being stuck out of town, and unable to return to work or home. Some were collaborating to share a rental, spending thousands to rent a car and drive across the country. Remote work and a distributed company enabled us to live where we wanted. I was fortunate to be at my parents’ place, so I could stick around there as long as necessary.

Lesson: Eliminate unknowns as simply as possible. The simplicity of “land now at the closest airport” reminds us to seek a simple solution. Distributed companies that allow employees to live where they want and work from anywhere suddenly made sense to a lot more people, even though we’d been doing it for years.

Do your clients feel safe?

My return flight was booked for the 12th. I was rescheduled for return to Montana on the first day commercial flights resumed – Sept 15th. The vibe at DFW was strictly by the book. Passengers were tense and quiet. Everyone was quietly scrutinizing their fellow passengers.

Large, muscular athletes in Oklahoma State logo’d outfits started coming down the aisle. I first thought it was the Oklahoma State football team. OSU’s 2011 schedule tells me it probably wasn’t the football team. Their presence changed the passengers’ state of mind. The clear and unspoken change: “this plane is much safer now“.

Lesson:Perception matters. I remember the immediate change in perceived safety and how it changed the vibe on that plane. At the time, I didn’t correlate it to the value of creating a safe environment for your clients – regardless of what safe may mean for them. I later realized how compelling that shift was and how critical it is to create that sort of environment for clients. I’m speaking not simply of perception, but real safety.

Seek out the lessons life and business is trying to teach you, particularly in the worst of times.