Lessons from a 911 Call

At a recent neighborhood association meeting, we had a man collapse, become unresponsive, and, in general, scare the holy crap out of all of us.

In short, the neighbor, Charlie, had what equates to a stroke. The following are the lessons that made themselves apparent and the series of events surrounding this emergency as they unfolded.

It is natural not to immediately acknowledge a bad situation

This situated started as I was walking to check on the kids who were playing in the yard adjoining the meeting, I noticed someone lying on the ground, face down. If I showed you a photo it would be quite easy to describe the situation and what was happening. However, as I was walking toward the person on the ground, I kept trying to convince myself that what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing. Surely this had to be an odd shadow or a kid playing a game with the others.

As I continued to walk, I was six feet from Charlie when his wife saw what was happening, and cried out. This was the confirmation needed for my brain to take hold of the situation. I jammed my hand into my pocket, retrieved my cell phone, and called 911.

How many times in our professional lives have we looked at a dismal situation and tried to avoid reality?

  • “I don’t cold call, I only talk to important people”
  • “All I need is to close 40% of my pipeline and I’m good”
  • “The next bug fix release will help us drive revenue”

Challenges to you and your company’s established position will come from areas that you do not expect, and from players with whom you are not familiar. It is extremely difficult to build and maintain a competitive advantage, and it is far too easy to lose it by not staying focused and having visibility to the events and circumstances that surround you.

You have to know what you don’t know

I reached 911 immediately and described the situation to the emergency operator.

The operator began asking me a series of questions in order to evaluate the situation and to gather pertinent information that she would relay to the ambulance drivers.

“Name? Age? What was he doing when he collapsed? Had he had any complaints about not feeling well before he collapsed?”

The answers I delivered included “Charlie, mid-50s, no complaints but has a history with a heart condition.”

Next question “Has he taken any medication this evening?”

I asked the wife. She replied “He’s on heart medication; he’s taken other medicines in the past. He could have gotten his pills mixed up.”

You need to know what you don’t know.

  • What is the profile of your typical customer?
  • Why do you win (and lose) deals?
  • How does your competitor drive 30% of revenue through partners and you can’t?
  • How loyal are your customers?

“I don’t know” can often be the smartest thing you will ever say – it gives you space to think, research, and gauge your colleagues without losing face, or leading someone down a path that will not bear fruit. Never be afraid to admit you don’t know something. You can always learn and win, but if you lie, you will lose.

In a crisis, people panic and will put them first

With the ambulance on its way, the next question from the 911 operator was “Is there a Doctor or Nurse in the area?”

I yelled the question to our group.

Ms. Houlihan came up and stood next to Charlie. She announced that she indeed was a nurse, a few years retired, but unfortunately she just had knee surgery and could not comfortably get down on the ground to check on Charlie.

On the ground you have Charlie, my wife who is keeping track of Charlie’s pulse, Charlie’s wife who is alternating between caring for her husband and freaking out, and me with my ear to my cell phone communicating with 911. We all momentarily stopped and looked up her. You could tell by her tone she was used to throwing out the whole “knee surgery” ploy to generate sympathy, pity, and maybe cut in line at local buffets, who knows?

When times get tough, two groups usually emerge, those who seek solutions, those who complain about problems.

  • “Its sales fault, they are the ones responsible for revenue”
  • “You can’t cut my department we are too important”
  • “We are too busy to do any extra, you get your team to do it”
  • “We just need to keep what we are doing”

Assumption is not a replacement for intelligence

As Charlie was loaded into the ambulance and the 911 operator bid me goodbye, I looked around for my kids – ages 8 and 10.

In the commotion they had retreated back into our house. I went inside to survey the level of trauma and try to calm them down.

I found them in my home office with my son playing on the computer. He seemed reasonably unfazed. He is 10, and he didn’t really know Charlie at all, so I took this to be a reasonable response.

My daughter however was sitting on the love seat, crying softly.

I breathed a sigh, and sat down next to her. At eight years old, she is definitely the tender-hearted one of the bunch. She has cried after seeing a good puppy food commercial, so this was what I expected.

“What’s wrong honey?” No verbal response, but tears and sniffles.

Mentally I’m trying to recall the sage advice from the parenting books on how to communicate with your children during a crisis. I start to panic when I draw nothing but blanks. I flash forward 20 years, a therapist’s couch, my daughter, her escort from the correctional facility, and a shrink proclaiming “So your dad royally screwed you up that night, now we know!!!”

I try again.

“Honey, can you tell Daddy what’s wrong?” Waiting for the obvious. A moment passes.

Finally, as she chokes back the tears she starts to speak “I was playing hide-and-go-seek and the other kids where playing freeze tag and no one came to find me!!!!” More tears.

Soooo, the whole neighbor collapsing on the lawn and being unconscious, no biggie, BUT, the fact that she spent 10 minutes crouched down in our shrubs, now that was problem.

How common is this in business, where we assume we know marketing conditions, customer preferences, or competitive threats?

  • “They have been our customer for 17 years, we know what they want”
  • “That company has never been a real threat to us, so we ignore them”
  • “Do you know who we are? We do not have to worry about things like that”

I think you would have found these same attitudes at Kodak, Delta, and General Motors.

Charlie is still recovering. We wish him and his family the best.

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