How 9/11 Helped Shape My Career
Today is September 11th, 2017. 16 years ago, as a recent college graduate and new employee at Lehman Brothers, I took the subway to work on an utterly spectacular clear sunny Tuesday. I got to work a little bit early and decided I had enough time to stop into Century 21, a discount store right by the subway, to pick up an extra set of sheets for my bed.
I then crossed through a courtyard, and over a footbridge, through an atrium, and upstairs to my cubical on the 24th floor of 3 World Financial Center. Minutes later, we heard an extremely loud noise and felt the floor shake.
At the time, we had no idea what had happened but quickly, word spread it was a plane that had created the giant hole at which myself and other colleagues stared, having run to the window at the end of the hall.
I had an Aunt who worked in the markets in Boston and immediately heard the news, then quickly contacted my father at his office in MA. He then called to check on me, at which point I said something reassuring to the effect of “don’t worry, it wasn’t my building.”
Minutes later, the second plane hit and I left the building that day in an elevator. I would never return to that office.
I had begun my career at Lehman on July 5th, 2001. And like every other new analyst joining the ranks across Wall Street, I sat in a classroom for ~6 wks enduring accounting and finance coursework, and yes, even exams. In my case, that classroom was in rented space in the World Trade Center, which was that quick walk across that courtyard, walkway, and atrium. I also easily recall that towards the end of the summer, all first-year analysts and associates were invited to a lunch, hosted by our CEO Dick Fuld, at Windows on the World.
By the end of August, we had been placed on our desks, and I joined a team where my boss was a relatively new employee at Lehman herself. As such, she was still trying to get to know everyone and build employee morale. I can still remember the first time we had team drinks downstairs at a popular spot called Southwest and even meeting my boss’ sister, who worked in real estate in one of the twin towers. Spitting images of each other, it somehow made my boss more relatable, meeting a member of her family after knowing her for such a short time.
When I left the WTC at some point around 9:05am on 9/11, I evacuated the building with two colleagues, one which was my new boss. She was frantically trying to reach her sister, the one I had just met that night at the bar. She was, understandably, distraught. Several of us stood around outside the buildings, not knowing what to do or where to go. Eventually, someone had the logical idea that we should start walking north. As it turned out, my boss lived just a few blocks from me and so that day, three of us walked all the way from downtown Manhattan to Murray Hill. At one point on our walk – I vividly remember passing countless lines at payphones – I turned over my shoulder and gasped. It was at that moment that I saw the first tower collapse; thank goodness we had begun walking.
Eventually I made it to my apartment and to my roommate, who had ironically been watching the Today Show and saw the events unfold, literally before her eyes. We also luckily had a landline telephone, and I was finally able to get in touch with my family, as cell reception had been nonexistent that day. When my dad’s secretary answered and heard me ask for him, she gasped and said “Oh Megan, thank God. I have to go find him, he left and went down to the church to say prayers, thinking … ”. She couldn’t finish the sentence.
Ah, the minor detail of my working in the World Trade Center all summer and then moving to the World Financial Center; for those not familiar with NYC office buildings, the distinction had never been so meaningful.
The next day my roommate Annie and I went to Central Park. There was not much else we could do, and it was another gorgeous late summer day. We went through checklists of each of our friends we knew in NYC and those we knew worked downtown; we called people and briefed friends on what we knew, and who we had heard from as we accounted for them all. Except one. We lost our friend Vanessa that day, she was the only one from the class of 2001, and she worked at Keefe, Bruyette, & Woods.
And unfortunately, my boss lost her sister.
The next few weeks were a blur. Lehman Brothers re-opened for business, but at our disaster recovery site in Jersey City, NJ. There were not enough seats as we had employees, so only mandatory personnel were initially needed. My team was to work on a rotational basis. My boss did not return. So all of a sudden, I was a new team member, whose team had no leader, who was working in not only a new office, but in a new state – and I was lucky. Not only was my actual experience on 9/11 relatively smooth compared to what many of my friends had endured, but plenty of my fellow first years had not yet been assigned desks. Instead of prepping pitch books or booking trades, they were suddenly the firm’s newest security guards, checking ID’s at the elevator banks.
The days turned darker and the temperatures colder, and still we took a PATH train to a shuttle bus to the office as the wind whipped across the water of the Hudson River. We had countless evacuations, some based on bomb threats, and soon there were dogs walking the halls of 77 Hudson St. I can’t even tell you how many times hundreds of us trekked down 22 flights of stairs and then back up, because you’d have waited forever before the elevators could transport everyone back up. On one of those treks, I walked next to Dick Fuld.
My team sat in a small room with two interior facing windows. One looked at the elevator banks, the other at the makeshift trading floor. Although I was in the Treasury division, I found myself amongst the titans of Wall Street – Lehman Brother’s corporate bond traders.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that office location served to pique my initial interest in trading. Each day, I had a front row view to the intensity, the focus, and the teamwork that was in play even with such limited resources. I recall frantic shouting into cell phones because there weren’t enough land lines, junior analysts sitting on radiators for lack of actual chairs, and the lines of hungry grown adults as massive lunches were ordered in. And while I didn’t know exactly what was going on there, there was something about the energy outside my office that was utterly addicting.
My boss eventually returned to work, and as a tireless leader she threw herself in, likely using it as a distraction from her loss. Although I would rotate out of her team in the summer of 2002 as I moved on to my next stop in my analyst program, I could not have asked for a better first job out of college. The way she carried herself as an individual and as a leader through such a challenging time – professionally but even more so personally – will be something I always remember and try to emulate.
9/11 and its aftermath was the beginning of my Lehman Loyalty.
Two years and 9 months after 9/11, I found myself the newest member of the Investment Grade Credit trading desk. While at this point, everyone was familiar to me from my rotation in Product Control where I worked closely with the traders on financial reporting and analysis, more than a few had said to me at one point “I remember you, you used to sit in that office right by us after 9/11 in Jersey City”.
And although I never worked for her directly again, I did cross paths with my old boss plenty. She joined Barclays, like many of us did in 2008, and she also eventually took on the role as the head of the women’s network. Now, I have a love/hate relationship with women’s networks (see here – LINK), but for me it was a chance to work with her in a different capacity, and to see her shine through engagement with colleagues and clients. Her network was tremendous, and she continued steadfastly in her career, even as she married, had children, and took on a variety of different roles at the firm. Eventually, she left Barclays, and I recall being disappointed. But I learned she had been passed over several times for key roles and she was leaving for a far bigger platform.
Each day after 9/11, the employees of Lehman Brothers put one foot in front of the other to do more, with less. It was a physically and emotionally exhausting time; most if not all had lost someone in the attacks, many suddenly had a materially longer commute, and countless others were doing tasks that fell beyond their job description, often not by choice. In the coming years, there would be plenty of stress; after all, I worked on a trading desk. But time and time again, my teammates and I put our heads down, remained calm, and took it one day at a time. In fact, never was this more the case than in the summer of 2008 and in those fateful days leading up to the bankruptcy on September 15th, 2008.
It was eerie, how parallel some of the experiences were. To endure the crushing loss of Lehman Brothers was modestly financially but even more so emotionally catastrophic. This was where I began my career, it was the only professional home I had known. And while I lost far less than those who had been there far beyond 7yrs, like 9/11, I again found myself trying to focus on what I could control and just survive each day. And while there was uncertainty and the sense of every man for himself, at no point did I seriously consider leaving to join another firm. I wanted our team to remain intact, I wanted to be part of the rebuilding, to work together to resurface stronger, even if we had a different jersey on our back.
Fast forward a few years, and in time, change started being the only constant, both personally and professionally. I had friends get married, have kids, move to the suburbs. I had bosses, mentors, colleagues leave for greener pastures. I privately fought a critical battle, as my mom became sick and I had a complete shift in priorities. But through it all, there was a common thread of resilience. While my parents may argue I have had that gene from birth, I’m convinced the weave tightened after I experienced 9/11 and again after September of 2008.
Not long after 9/11 my mom asked me if I was going to move home to Boston. How could I possibly want to live in NYC after such a devastating experience and the risk that it could happen again? Yet, the thought of moving, of running away, had never even crossed my mind. In fact, something special had happened to those of us who lived here on and after 9/11. The relentless human spirit of New Yorkers became a powerful connection throughout the city.
if you asked me when I was in college how long I would live in New York, the answer was probably something like “oh, two to three years and then I’ll move back to Boston.” Well, however subliminally, 9/11 certainly changed that timetable for me. I absolutely believe that my having experienced September 11th from the heart of the city and the subsequent healing and compassion New York and Lehman Brothers exhibited in the months and years to come was a big part of my living here and remaining at effectively the same institution for over 15yrs.
Did the deep-rooted Lehman Loyalty hold me back from exploring opportunities at other firms, which undoubtedly would have resulted in more pay? Yes. Would I have been more successful in my career? Would I have been happier? That’s hard to say. But one thing is for sure: for a number of reasons, I was very lucky on this day sixteen years ago.
Although we never returned to the World Financial Center, months later personal items were returned to employees. In my box was the bag from Century 21 with my set of bed sheets. I still have that receipt.