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Lessons from the crisis front line, on leading for today.

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I still remember how it felt. Waking up on 12 September 2001, in my bosses apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was sleeping on a very small couch, in an office, surrounded by paper, a fax machine, and my ‘list’. There was a dusty hue to the sky and a stale smokey smell in the air. Looking out the small window I had a direct view of the smouldering towers. But what was immensely memorable was the sound. Helicopters, sirens, voices, busy-ness. Not the normal busy-ness I would have been experiencing on a Tuesday in downtown NYC. This was people, being busy, saving lives.

My work had changed overnight. Our offices which housed over 1000 people on the top five floors of Tower One, World Trade Centre, no longer existed. We had nothing, just our technology left (backed up in another city) and some of our people. My story is not about me though, and the ‘chance’ that was miraculously afforded me – like some sort of sliding doors moment – of not being at my desk that morning, and therefore being fortunate to be at my desk now in my home in Auckland. My story, is about the incredible work that we did – the survivors of that tragic day – to help our people. In that moment, everyone who chose to, became a leader.

You see, here’s what actually happened. There was a moment, a beat, it was probably a few hours, but it felt like a moment. When we – those that were fortunate to not have died – were offered a chance. A chance to decide. Who were we capable of being. Were we someone who wanted to help save the company, help the people, help the families and the community around us? Create something out of literally nothing? Or were we going to fade away. To allow this to engulf, consume, and destroy us.

In that moment, leaders were born. Irrespective of age, of race, of rank or titles, of work experience – there was no past that could prepare you for the present. What you had, was character. What you had, was attitude. Grit. Desire. Hope. And most importantly what you had was energy, to give.

So we got to work. We came together – as a band of brothers – to do the things that had to be done. These were not things we wanted to do, nor were trained to do, but we needed to do. And fast. The whole purpose of the mission was laid out clearly by our fearless leader: Save the Company, Look after the People. It was that simple. And they were intrinsically linked – without a business that recovered, our ability to help our people would diminish. We broke into two teams – some of us worked on the business recovery; communicating with clients, recovering technology, adapting ways of trading and making money. Some on dealing with our people; communicating with staff, families and friends – of those that were lost, and those that were ‘safe’, guiding and helping them through.

That was my team. My first job? Creating a ‘safe’ list of people we knew had made it – because creating the other list, was just too dreadful to put a name on. And then it spiralled from there. The list, that I had woken up next to on September 12 with very few names on, slowly grew, hopefully, but not enough. By 14 September we had set-up a make-shift call centre in a loaned office, we had trained teams to answer phones round the clock, were dealing with grieving families, the Red Cross, the media, and the city officials. We had lost over 700 people, almost 85% of our employees. We were doing work we could not comprehend, and yet somehow, we did. And we all did it, for months. This was not a day in a life, this was a year. One life-changing year of leadership and learning.

My memories from that time, flood back like it was yesterday. A life experience that will have forever changed me, and yet I am only now – some 19 years later – learning to understand how. I have not written about my experience working and living through 9/11 before, and believe me when I tell you it is deeply uncomfortable to try to put in words the enormity of the experience.

So why am I recalling this now, on a Linked In post, in April 2020. There is only one purpose. To share with you the lessons I learned – simply from my perspective – about what it takes to be a leader in unprecedented times. In times you hope will never happen to you. When you need to dig deep and find new courage. When no training can prepare you. Yet you must – for your company, for your people and for yourself.

#1: If you think you can, you can. Instinct is probably your greatest friend right now. We all have the capacity to be creative, to be courageous, to be leaders. For many of us, we have just not had the chance. Now is your chance. There has never been a time when organisations NEED you to step-up, be brave, voice your ideas, try things. Leaders come from the most unlikely places and times. There is no ‘hierarchy’ any longer that can hold you back. There is no rule-book for times like this. What there is though, is innate creativity in all of us that we need to re-kindle – to flame, and to use as an energy to rescue. Your company: rescue jobs, rescue all the work that got you to where you were before this crisis, rescue your security, rescue your clients. And in doing so, your people. Follow your instinct, and act.

#2 Stay calm, stay in the moment, stay present. Clarity of mind is critical. There will be noise all around you – noise to distract, coerce, depress, side-track, confuse and annoy you. You have to block this out. You are required to act with clarity and make decisions that others can interpret and behave appropriately and quickly as a result. And most importantly, you have to stick with the mission. This is a new kind of work that matters more than whatever you were doing before. You must pivot. Re-organise. Re-shape quickly. Recover. Stay focussed on the job and don’t let the temptation for pity creep in, or you will crumble. Sleep helps.

#3 Communicate, clearly and often. Probably the most obvious one, but also the most serious. People in a crisis don’t hear what you say. Their brains are foggy, they are confused, emotional, fearful. You have to say things incredibly simply, directly, and multiple times, often, before they will understand. Be patient. You need to have a muted tone – one that is not able to be mis-interpreted as anything other than confidence. Whilst your intention is kindness, empathy and understanding, show them clarity and certainty. And do it over, and over, and over again.

There is a saying that “Crisis doesn’t create character – it reveals it”. This was never truer for me than in my work in NYC back in 2001. I can’t say at all times I was proud of my character, but I was doing my best. And my new, learned character, is still revealing itself to me today. As it will for you and your teams, as you work through this life-changing global moment, this beat in time.

We are all in this together. I am working hard to pivot my business to help individuals and organisations ‘work their way’ out of this. I hope my experience has in some way encouraged you. If you need help, pick up the phone and call me +64 21 496114 or email me melissa@startnow.co.nz It’s togetherness, sharing of experience and working together, that will change the shape of how we come out of this.

Written by Melissa Jenner, Founder & Managing Director of START Now, a business that helps individuals and companies design sustainable futures. melissa@startnow.co.nz

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