Thursday, September 08, 2011


On September 11, 2001, Jimmy Dunne was on the golf course when a tournament official rolled up and suggested he call the office. He tried. There was no answer. When he finally reached a friend, he was told, "You have to come to terms with the fact that most of the people in your firm are dead."

Dunne was a senior executive at Wall Street firm Sandler O'Neill, the "little big firm" that had its headquarters on the 104th floor of Tower 2. On that day 83 people came to work at Sandler, and 66 never went home. Dunne found he was the only surviving executive. Leading this shattered company through its overwhelming losses would prove to be the greatest leadership challenge of his relatively young (44 year old) life. Between that Tuesday and the following Monday (when the stock market opened for business again), Dunne attended countless funerals. He cried his tears and steeled his nerve. The company set up temporary headquarters on West 57th Street.

When he gathered with the survivors the next week he gave them this challenge: "Look, we've been involved in an international incident. It's not something we wanted, it's not something we were prepared for, but the reality is, we're right in the middle of it." He acknowledge that some in the company might want to leave the firm. As for himself, he was going to stay and rebuild. He continued, "Come on in! There's room in the boat. Everybody can get an oar. Now, there are some of you that are doubting. We cannot have you in the boat! We wish you well. But you can't come in the boat. Because if you're in the boat you have to have an oar."

The team signed on. Everybody grabbed an oar and started rowing.

The results have been astonishing.

The firm has grown exponentially in the past ten years to over 340 employees. Spurring their growth: the legacy of those they lost. They decided to take the proceeds of the firm and provide health care for the victims' dependents for the next ten years. As a group they committed to pay 100% of tuition, regardless of merit or need, for all the children of the deceased. Their work matters. The story of Sandler O'Neill is a great illustration of what can be accomplished when a group of people are called to active engagement in pursuit of a greater purpose.

At CTK we say, "Always a Place for You." But when we say this, we don't mean that there's room in the boat. We mean that everybody can get an oar.

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