On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, looking back on some life and career lessons I’ll never forget

Originally published in the Globe & Mail September 11th, 2021

I will never forget the beauty of the morning. The sky was clear blue, and the temperature was warm for September. I was one year into my post-university adventure at a Big 5 firm in New York City. On a typical day, I would have put up with the sweltering commute, trudging with hundreds of thousands of others, exiting the subway tunnels through the World Trade Center to get to my desk before 9 a.m. – but something told me to pay the extra fare and treat myself to the luxury of the air-conditioned bus that day, a decision that perhaps saved my life.

At 8:46 a.m., the bus driver asked us to disembark, having not quite yet reached my destination at 1 World Financial Centre: It looked like there was a serious incident at the neighbouring World Trade Center. While I looked up at the smoke and flames, horrified by what I thought was a terrible accident, I was somewhat annoyed that I had to walk an extra couple of blocks to get to my office. The next few minutes changed my life forever – the second plane struck the World Trade Center at 9:03, and I, like so many others, ran. I didn’t know where we were running – I remember feeling intense heat and the sense that we were running away from a colossal fireball. Miraculously, I was able to hail a cab with two other bus passengers – and asked the taxi driver to take us as far away from the scene as possible.

In a world before social media and wifi, television and spotty phones were our only source of information and communication. As the news broadcasts began, my mother reached me on my newly purchased cellphone before the telecom grid went dark. I was fine.

The next few days were filled with angst – as we dialled daily into our company’s disaster recovery hotline, we were acutely aware of who wasn’t on the line. After a few seemingly endless days, all of my immediate colleagues were accounted for. As we know, thousands of others were not as fortunate. The following week would have marked the kickoff to the annual review my team and I usually conducted at Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the companies experiencing the most human loss at the World Trade Center.

After what seemed like months but was likely only a few days, the city rallied. People were kind and compassionate, having experienced collective hardship – and, for many, unthinkable loss. We cautiously started gathering at local establishments, toasting and commemorating first responders, supporting local businesses and celebrating our privilege of life.

On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I reflect on some lessons that have guided me through my career journey:

1. You only live once. After going through such a traumatic experience, many of us went through a time of reflection, realizing that life is too short to be in a job or career that does not fulfill us. One of my colleagues left a big corporate gig to become a pastry chef, another an ER doctor, and yet another a teacher out west. It was a time to pause and reflect on the impact we wanted to have and the legacy we wanted to leave, while charting a path that would get us there.

2. Great leadership emerges in times of crisis. As a young leader in a post-9/11 world, I felt incredibly ill-equipped to lead my team through such uncertain and volatile times. I was heavily influenced by my own leaders, who demonstrated a balance of confidence and vulnerability. Only recently did I discover that those individuals did not behave this way by chance – they were following the lead of the senior-most leaders in our firm, who operated with a sense of calm; and, through it all, perspective. Perspective was the key to unlocking swift and rational decision-making that was needed in this very emotional time.

3. True urgency bonds people together. Teams, no matter how well-formed prior to the crisis, emerged stronger post-9/11. We were forced to lean on one another, not only in getting back to business for our clients and firm, but also in support of one another as humans. The number-one priority quickly became the well-being of our teams. Therefore, it was critical to align the team to focus on driving impact, not on logging hours at all costs.

Finally, it was critically important not to lose sight of what mattered – and what needed to continue, not just in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks, but indefinitely. Sure, in the weeks that followed, we put our most human leadership capabilities to the test – empathy, vulnerability and growth mindset were necessary for our collective survival. But those leaders who continued embracing and developing these skills set themselves apart and enabled healthier, more resilient organizations for the longer haul.

Personally, in retrospect, the experiences on and surrounding 9/11 were likely the most influential of my career: I developed a curiosity about and interest in the “people” side of the business, leading to a career shift from risk management to human capital. I learned the importance of perspective, of focusing on what is in our control (and letting go of what is not), and not to take for granted the people and opportunities that life affords us. Never forget.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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