The Astonishing Power of Shared Opportunity and Moral Purpose*

Steven F. Freeman
Knowledge + Leadership
15 min readMay 13, 2020

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The Secret to Sandler O’Neill’s Almost Unbelievable Resurrection from the Ashes of 9/11 Devastation

9/11 Memorial Lights with Statue of Liberty by Brian E Kushner

By Steve Freeman and Marc Maltz

From top to bottom, America has been mostly rudderless in the current crisis. There’s more than enough hot air about real and purported failure at the top. But pitter patter towards a President masks lack of leadership and outright failure up and down the system. Including most of us.

Want leadership? Then we need to make it happen within our sphere of influence, which is where it matters. At work and in our communities, we need to support real leaders. Become leaders ourselves.

Unfortunately, the dearth is deep. Most of us are so distracted, disinformed, disempowered, disdained that we hardly have useful models. Previously I encouraged alertness to agendas and to actively seek to make better use of this crisis yourself. Now we begin to explore how.

Leading through crisis

Every situation is unique so there’s no blanket prescription, but we can draw insights, principles and practices from research and experience. The most powerful example I know is one I witnessed while researching 9/11 impact on Ground Zero organizations. Among the hardest hit was a relatively small investment bank: two-thirds of its management team and 39% of its workforce killed, its entire physical plant destroyed. Nearly everyone assumed that the firm would cease operations. But the survivors decided that that they were not going to let terrorists who destroyed these lives win, that they were going to rebuild for their dead colleagues. Within nine months the firm had not only recovered, but was doing better than ever. And did so while taking care of both surviving employees and the families of the deceased with astonishing generosity.

Yes, it’s a different crisis, an organizational situation that may bear little resemblance to your own, and a leader with whom you may have little in common. Nevertheless the way Jimmie Dunne led his people through that tragedy can provide a navigational North Star as we all struggle with leadership through our own specific situations within the current clusterf*ck.

In the aftermath, I took up crisis and resiliency as a professional focus. Now with two decades of experience in this area, I am more convinced than ever of the primal value of what we learned there. Risking both grandiosity and geekiness — I put forth a fundamental organizational energy equation:

Effective Energy is equal to opportunity times purpose exponentially increased as SHARED across teams and organizations

Extraordinary reserves of Energy are released when opportunity aligns with heartfelt purpose. This is true enough for an individual. Just think of the difference in your own effectiveness when you have been extremely motivated and hopeful about what you were doing versus when you’ve simply gone through the motions. That’s E=op.

But the real story here is that power and force grow exponentially to the degree these attributes are shared. Sync them across an entire organization, and, you’ve basically harnessed nuclear power.

Loss and Recovery*

Just the Tip of an Iceberg of Loss*

For greater depth, see separate story on Sandler’s loss and recovery.

Sandler’s ability to recovery from the deaths and destruction might suggest that the 9/11 losses were somehow not economic, but the stark numbers actually only begin to tell the story of loss. Sandler was left to compete in an ultra-competitive industry* despite lost relationships (“We all grew up together”); confidants: (“I lost my mentor and my best friend… who do I even consult now?”); workspace (no wfh), income, equity, records, equipment, management structure, and all the tacit knowledge in the heads of the dead.

Despite universal cliches that “our people our most important asset,” CEOs and their advisors (economists, consultants, etc…), rarely appreciate just how much is lost when good people are gone and good teams dismantled. Survivors spoke poignantly about their departed colleagues:

66 of my colleagues died, [which] made my ability to do everything much more difficult. Z and I had a shorthand. I would talk to him every day. We didn’t need to speak for long, just 30 seconds. But that takes 5 minutes with anyone else.

Mostly it was not Sandler’s core left to face the challenge. The 66 who perished included Herman Sandler, the firm’s founder and “soul of the company” and heir apparent, Chris Quackenbush. The firm lost all of its bond traders, its entire syndicate desk, and almost all of its equity desk.

Many of the 42 “traveling or not yet at work” were semi-retired. Dunne, the third member of the ruling troika, was on the golf course that morning — like most days. By 2001, he worked short hours, checking “ten e-mails a day”; his main aspiration, to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur (golf) Championship. Most of the 17 who fled down 104 flights of stairs, ignoring building advisories, had experienced significant trauma in the past. Many never successfully returned to work at Sandler. And now everyone was traumatized.

Recovery

In spite of the devastating losses and in spite of the trauma, Sandler O’Neill managed not only to survive, but to thrive. By May 2002, revenue and profits recovered to pre-9/11 levels; per capita income reached new highs. The firm substantially strengthened some core areas through new hires and developed new businesses in preferred stock and underwriting initial public offerings.

All this was achieved as the partners and employees rebuilt their primary business, reconstructed records and infrastructure, hired replacements, attended 70!! funerals, built out a new facility, attending to their own trauma (with full time onsite counseling), and all the while providing extraordinarily generous care, salary, bonus and benefits to the families of the deceased.

The Source of Sandler’s Resilience*

Aspects of Sandler’s situation pre-9/11 (wealthy, high functioning, etc…) augured well in comparison to organizational and industrial crises typically studied.* But Sandler suffered particularly severe losses. Other WTC firms including five other investment banks, were also wealthy, well-connected, etc… but no other firm’s post 9/11 performance was remotely comparable.

No longer just a “money machine”

It was not a foregone conclusion that the firm would continue. The partners were already wealthy. Several senior partners besides Dunne were “semi-retired,” including Fred Price, who stepped up to deal with the aftermath (press, memorial, city, etc…). Sandler himself was an active philanthropist committed to environmental issues and the Israeli Philharmonic. Some believed that the firm’s natural trajectory was coasting towards a shut down or sale. There was no succession plan.

9/11 changed this. The firm, previously described as a “moneymaking machine,” became a moral enterprise as well: to honor the dead, to care for family members of the deceased as well as the living, and to deny the terrorists a victory. Typical comments included:

Wednesday [Sept 12] I got a call from one of the partners that Sandler was going to make it. This meant that the terrorists did not take everything away.

The whole idea is that we are at war. It is important to keep our economy going.

We want to rebuild because these are the wishes of Herman [Sandler] and Chris [Quakenbush].

We are covering these families for the next five years. This is extraordinary, and I take great pride [in it].

I feel more motivated and more determined. We have more responsibility to … [rebuild the firm] for those who are gone.

One employee who returned after having left to start a non-financial business:

[A managing partner] gave me a call, and we talked about it for a while, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense … from a lot of points of view. I never really wanted to come back to the Street after I left, but this is different. From just a moral standpoint, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

Employee motivation

When Sandler salespeople sold stocks and bonds, they were selling for their dead colleagues both emotionally and literally. Commissions generated through sales and trades on deceased employee accounts went completely to that employee’s estate. In addition, the firm paid salaries through the end of the year, and included bonuses to meet or exceed any prior bonus. Health insurance would continue to all family members for five years — later amended to 10 — and for children until the age of 18.

The firm created a foundation to help children of their lost colleagues and held a memorial service at Carnegie Hall. It invited family members to the opening of its new office, which houses a Steuben Glass “Mobius Prism” memorial engraved with the names of the employees who died. a resource center created to meet family financial and emotional needs still provided counseling services a decade later, and Sandler employees continued to maintain active contact with victims’ families.

Customer motivation

Customers and competitors also treated the firm differently. Immediately after 9/11, it seemed doubtful to analysts and the media that a relationship-based firm in a relationship-based industry could survive the death of so many relationship managers. But all clients remained. Maintaining this relationship with the firm enabled stakeholders to honor their relationship to those who died and to work out their own feelings regarding this national tragedy. Six months after the attack, Dunne noted that, early on:

I made a mistake. I thought that clients would find it a bit presumptuous on my part if I interjected myself into those relationships. I was 100 percent wrong. Not only did they want it, they expected it. Now I am furiously … contacting the key people that our key people talked to.

Dunne’s assumptions were based on the workings of Wall Street in normal times, when clients are often more connected to their investment banker or financial advisor than they are to the firm that employs them. In this case, clients wanted to transfer their good working relationships with now deceased bankers to the firm as a whole.

Secondary effects of Sandler’s Resilience

This moral purpose was a motivational factor in and of itself, spurring on the efforts of the partners and employees, as well as customers, suppliers, volunteers and other sources of external help. But it had multiplier effects in concert with other factors:

· An ability to get help. The world was sympathetic in the aftermath of these attacks, but Sandler was particularly effective in obtaining and utilizing forthcoming assistance.

· The pull of opportunity. Death created opportunities for advancement, leadership, new business and structural change. These opportunities could be seized without guilt because of their link to moral purpose.

Attracting Help

Although the ability to cope with trauma depends partly on the ability to attract and use help, there is an inherent dilemma. Trauma can be isolating; victims feel violated. They worry that their experience cannot be understood and that others are judging them on their response. They oscillate between being locked up in the emotional aftermath of the trauma, exhibiting the physical and emotional stress of their self-imposed prison, or being overly sensitive to their environment, openly reacting to a face, a memory, a picture, a plane, a siren or another noise. In other words, just when people or organizations most need help, they are often least capable of seeking and using it. Organizations may sensibly worry that were they to solicit help, the resulting publicity could stimulate lawsuits over who was to blame for the crisis or its consequences and expose their weakness, leading potentially to a loss of key personnel.

In the first months after the attack, other WTC financial services firms especially Cantor Fitzgerald and Marsh McClellan provided little access to the public (or us). This might explain why Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick made and then changed decisions, after getting bad publicity, on how he would financially treat the families of dead employees.* He lacked the openness that would have enabled him to test ideas and possible policies with friends and advisors.

In contrast, Dunne’s unflinching commitment to fight the good fight, to wage a crusade on behalf of fallen colleagues and what he saw as the American way, enabled him to request and accept help from all corners without reservation.

Volunteers

Once trading began the following Monday, volunteers traded for the firm and for the deceased without taking salary or commissions.

Sandler’s clearing agent provided temporary mid-town space. Relatives answered phones, laid cable and set up computers; ex-employees came to work the phones, and they were soon up and running. Prominent CEOs, lawyers, financial advisers, and many others showed up to volunteer a hand. Employees reflected:

It was impossible to tell who was a Sandler employee and who was there to help as a hired hand, relative, or volunteer.

Good people with background and training [came] to help us.

Support for extraordinary demands

Immediately, the firm faced an avalanche of extraordinary demands: managing the media, handling waves of calls from well-wishers, legal concerns, estate issues, regulatory issues, childcare, funerals and counseling. Dunne retained control over some matters as a personal responsibility — he immediately put policies in place to care for the victims’ family members and was in touch with most of the widows and widowers in the first few hours after the attack, but he drew upon top legal, financial, and other expertise to deal with most extraordinary functions. On 9/12 Sandler hired a public relations firm and on 9/13 Maltz’ organizational consulting/counseling firm. At the memorial service of a deceased managing partner, a close friend approached Dunne and asked if there was any way he could help. When it turned out that he had managed communications for a prior New York State governor, Dunne recruited him to do so for Sandler.

Help from larger banks and competitors

The crisis generated publicity and celebrity, including a Fortune cover story and profiles on CBS60 Minutes and CNBC. Dunne became an unexpectedly sympathetic and charismatic figure. Although he had been highly respected, Dunne was not liked. Employees regularly turned to Sandler and Quackenbush for advice or guidance, but few sought out Dunne. His transformation into this leader is a story in itself, but for now, let’s just say that he saw what the situation called for and rose to the occasion.

Combined with effective public relations management, this led to invitations for new deals. Management fully accepted the generosity of others, allowing the firm to be cut into whatever deals were made available and made business sense. One partner told us, “XX gave us a deal. It was great. They practically filled out the paperwork for us.”

The Pull of Opportunity: “Sprinting a marathon”

Sandler O’Neill partners and employees put forth astounding energy and effort rebuilding the IT system, reconstructing records from memory, contacting the customers of deceased employees, and creating a workable temporary facility while also planning for a permanent move. One described the tenor of the months following the attack as “sprinting a marathon.” A partner noted that the intensity had reached a level of “white heat” and wondered how long the firm could sustain this tempo. One employee noted:

After 9/11, I think everybody that worked here felt themselves as a partner because they were involved in the company in a way that they’re never going to be involved in any other job in their lives. …

Tragedy’s upside: Opportunities for Individuals

The loss of friends and colleagues was personally devastating, yet the tragedy had an upside: the loss of leadership and talent created new opportunities for survivors. As one put it, “for every destruction there is construction.” Although reconstructing the firm was physically burdensome and psychologically difficult, many stepped forward to fill voids not only for their dead colleagues, etc… but because the situation presented an opportunity to advance.

Interviewees at all levels of the firm and the many job seekers who contacted the firm in the months after the disaster were quite conscious of opportunity. Although not part of our initial interview protocol*, a majority of interviewees offered without prompt some such recognition:

I am ending up with a chance to work on accounts of those who have died. There is good business there. These are situations I would not have had a chance to be involved in. There is more latitude in terms of where you can go.

I will make more money now because they need competent people to maintain the relationships.

I think that one of the neat things about this firm is that there are more opportunities that you could follow up on — bigger account lists than a salesman could cover, the matrix of accounts and potential accounts and products and product opportunity. There will never be enough hours in the day.

“Opportunities start from an empty space.”

Likewise, the tragedy created opportunities at the firm level. Some larger banks and competitors saw Sandler O’Neill as a symbol of how Wall Street, the capitalist system, and the U.S.A. could and would respond to foreign attack. For the first time, Sandler O’Neill was “invited to the table” to participate on large underwriting deals. One respondent asked rhetorically:

Opportunity? A ton right afterwards. Competitors included us in underwriting. Companies that we would never speak with, such as XYZ; there was an open forum… Some of these relationships will be enduring.

The tragedy also created “structural” opportunities — the chance to make changes that otherwise would have been unfeasible because of either sunk costs or entrenched personnel. For example, an IT professional said that in a sad way the disaster was an opportunity to improve the computer systems, “Opportunities start from an empty space.”

The tragedy created the opportunity to take the firm in new directions, such as underwriting and preferred stocks, and to completely remake a relatively under-performing equities group. An executive from Goldman Sachs came because, “the opportunity to rebuild the equities business [from scratch] was unique.”

Opportunity to hire well

Death created slots for strategic, high-quality new hires. The firm hired Wall Street talent from prestige firms who, by virtue of skills and relationships, brought new kinds of business. The voids created by destruction and the ease with which Sandler’s was now able to attract top talent allowed enabled Dunne to hire “people that can broaden our scope”:

Some new senior hires have helped a great deal: I miss X so much but hiring Y has been a godsend for me. And it’s also helped everybody else behave better.

Additionally, the firm received such good publicity for the moral stance it took in relationship to its families, that top tier graduates who normally would have sought positions at larger firms, now applied for jobs at Sandler O’Neill.

Dancing on colleagues’ graves?

As with asking for help, there is a dilemma in availing oneself of opportunity through death. Several expressed such ambivalence:

You have been given five new accounts that were existing Sandler O’Neill clients. … Do I deserve someone else’s money?

I took on coverage of better accounts. This is not the way you want to get [these accounts]. It is an uncomfortable idea.

A respondent who joined the firm in November 2001 said:

I don’t know how to express how I feel. I am glad to be here but not happy for the reason why.

Under normal business conditions, coworkers’ ambitions often clash. This becomes a durable part of organizational politics. But in framing their rebuilding as a moral crusade and backing up that rhetoric with grit and generosity, Sandler was able to dissolve the dilemna: Morality could liberate ambition. To take advantage of an opportunity was not to deny it to another. Instead, by helping the firm survive, the ambitious were stepping up to create resources to help families of co-workers who died and to create future opportunities for others. Under these conditions, ambition became a gift.

Intersection of moral work and opportunity

This story of Sandler O’Neill may seem like hyperbole or the stuff of legend. But we were there to record it and to the best of our abilities, there’s not a word of exaggeration. Which leads us back to the original question: Given how difficult it is to build a such a successful business under favorable conditions; how is it conceivable while dealing with such extraordinary losses and in the face of such extreme challenges?

The full answer goes well beyond this story, but Figure 1 illustrates the key insight I have hoped to covey here. Normal Life consists of compromise between what we have to do and what we want to do, between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. In work life, this manifests as trade-offs between pay and meaning: typically business for material gain (upper left quadrant) and volunteer work (lower right) for moral payoff.

Some treat business with unrestrained ruthlessness, but balance their moral books with charity. More often, work lies somewhere on a spectrum. We sacrifice pay for work we want to do or about which we don’t feel awful or that leaves time and energy for what we value. Wherever we are along this Normal Life spectrum we do what we have to, as do others. At times together; other times at cross purpose. Things get done, not well, not good, but good enough. We earn our pay. We pay our bills. Life goes on.

In many cases, work is even less than that. In demoralized organizations next to nothing is accomplished; payoff of any sort is altogether insufficient. People feel depleted; efforts are at odds.

There’s a fourth possibility. When we feel from head to toe the rightness, the necessity, of our efforts and likewise have an opportunity to realize gains commensurate with the value we can produce, we put forth enormous energy. And if you can ever hit this sweet spot, the E in E=op(shared), where an entire organization feels purpose resonating through to their core and all likewise have real opportunity — not simply to be called “essential” or “heroes” — but to actually realize gains commensurate with the value they can produce … you have, well, Sandler O’Neill post 9/11.

* * * Footnotes and References are here in a separate article * * *

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Steven F. Freeman
Knowledge + Leadership

Expertise: crisis preparedness, resiliency, innovation, research methods & applications. Faculty Jefferson, UPenn+. PhD MIT. Advising industry, govnt, orgs, YOU