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9 Years Ago. . .

This year The EO List will be released on September 10th so this week is the best week for me to be publishing my almost annual blog about September 11th.

The other evening I was watching television with a goal of trying to fall asleep. There wasn’t anything on of interest, which is a good thing when you are trying to fall asleep, so briefly I turned on a documentary about September 11th.

I’m not sure what I was thinking, as watching something like this is a good way to spur on nightmares. Luckily before I could get very far into it, my husband came in and said, “I can’t watch this”, and so I just turned it off.

That doesn’t mean I stopped thinking about that day, nine years ago.

On a scale of 1-10 of those who were alive on September 11th, my connection to it is a seven. I didn’t live in New York, and I didn’t know anyone personally who died, which would’ve moved me to a nine or ten. That said, I am an American, my husband worked for Merrill Lynch at the time and had colleagues in the World Trade Center, I was working in the U.S. and was away from my family, and let’s face it, I’m human. Of course, I had a pretty strong reaction.

At this point in time though, some aspects of that day are starting to fade for me. I don’t gasp when I see videos of the towers fall, and I don’t immediately well up when I think of how many people were lost.

If you look at photos from the 1970s, you’ll see that the quality of them is really poor. With time most of these photos have picked up a magenta hue. September 11, 2001 occurred before digital television so now the video streams you see have this certain blurriness to them that is characteristic of vintage video. It is funny how technology aids in dating places and times. I was thinking about that when I briefly watched that documentary the other night.

I was working in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 11th. The one thing that distinguishes the Midwest and Cedar Rapids from other parts of the world is how much your world revolves around freight trains and their schedules. On the morning of September 11th, I had decided not to leave early to go to work and it took longer to get in to the office because I had to wait 10 minutes for a large freight train to pass.

As I sat in the line waiting for the train, I remember thinking that the music on the radio was good (which it ALWAYS is in Iowa—that’s how people entertain themselves). The songs Kryptonite by Three Doors Down and It’s Been Awhile by Staind were played that morning. To me, it is funny how these insignificant details are the ones I remember the most.

With time, I think I am better able to talk about the day from a business perspective. On reflection, there are some take-aways from this event:

1. It is important that your company have an emergency plan. The events of that day were in New York but they directly impacted little ole Cedar Rapids. We have got to recognize that there is a likelihood that something like this will happen again in our lifetime. If your systems are down or the world is in chaos, how do you reach your people? Should employees come to work? Are you going to run with normal production? What should be said to customers?

2. Plan for the fact that someone needs to be responsible for messaging. Who will formulate the message? What will be said? When? In what form? One of those silly things that I remember about day is that at my office someone in a low-level position sent an e-mail around to staff that it was OK to leave the office, but that if you did so you would be docked a vacation day. While this was policy, it neither needed to be said, then, nor did the policy need to be invoked, then. The very next day a very high level executive had to send a message to say something to the effect “so sorry for the insensitivity and of course if you left, you don’t need to record it as a vacation day”. Now if the first e-mail had never been released, I probably would not have remembered the second e-mail.

3. Plan to be generous. How will your business reach out to its community? Customers notice when corporations are good citizens. Good citizens are good employees. Don’t send the wrong message by ruling the situation strictly by the corporate wallet. That doesn’t mean your organization should be irresponsible but it shouldn’t be stingy either. On September 14, 2001 Cedar Rapids held a memorial in the park downtown during lunch hour. Our office encouraged staff to go down there if they wished. I’m not a big hugger, but it was one of those touching ceremonies where I remember hugging virtually all of my co-workers. Following that, there were several staff meetings and e-mails describing our plan forward.

4. Be vigilant, but don’t be ridiculous. In the years since September 11th, we’ve all seen our civil liberties encroached upon, perhaps much more so at work. Fundamentally, to be able to have a great working environment we have to be able to trust one another. Don’t over-rely upon security and don’t let security get in the way of building positive relationships.

We all lost something on September 11th, but let us relish in the wisdom that time heals those wounds and gives us new perspective.

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