October 4, 2001, was the most difficult day of my professional
We called in our 270 employees one at a time—alphabetically, so
as not to give anything away. When each meeting was over, we
asked the employee to go home. Nearly 120 of them left with pink
slips and severance packages in hand; the other 150 survived.
I had done everything I could to prepare my staff, my direct
reports and myself for that day—for what the HR folks insisted
we refer to as a reduction in force, but what felt more like
ripping out my heart.
I was in my office on Sept. 11 when our COO came in to tell me a
plane had hit one of the World Trade towers in New York City. It
was my job to get our incident response center open. Because of
the nature of our business, we spend a lot of time preparing for
the worst, from moving ships around hurricanes to responding to
global incidents. I fired up the three big-screen, flat-panel
TVs before the second plane hit.
We spent the first days after 9/11 getting our passengers and
employees home safely. Then, we focused on the future. Within an
hour of the attacks, cancellations began pouring in. Within a
few days, we were facing a revenue hole of $250 million. And it
wasn’t coming back.
The CEO assigned six of us to what we called the survive and
thrive committee. I still have reams of paper describing things
we thought we could do to keep the business afloat, from taking
things away from the customer (such as lobster dinners) to
mothballing ships. We went through every operating group—in some
cases, cutting fat; in others, muscle.
It wasn’t clear how many employees we would have to let go, but
I knew my staff would be hardest hit.
When I started two and a half years earlier, the company was
investing in four of the largest cruise ships ever built. We
were putting $10 million worth of IT on each. To do that, I set
about creating a high-performance IT organization. We initiated
a $200 million systems overhaul.
Now, with the revenue shortfall, the CEO made it clear that the
massive IT project was dead. And most of the people we had hired
to staff it would have to go.
I called an all-IT meeting on Sept. 19. I told them there would
be layoffs. People said, “We’ll work part time; we’ll take pay
cuts.” But I just had to keep telling them throughout the
two-week process of deciding who would stay and who would go
that there was nothing anyone could do.
I gathered five trusted direct reports and two finance folks,
and created a war room. Assuming our technology environment
would stay static for at least two years, who do we need to
We focused on roles and responsibilities. The worst thing was
that we had to let go some of our best people because they were
the ones focused on the forward-looking systems. And we had to
keep certain people we would have preferred not to because they
knew how to keep the legacy systems alive.
It was an agonizing week. I’d go home at night to my four kids
and my wife of 20 years and I’d think, How would I feel if I had
to tell them that Daddy doesn’t have a job any more? I
On the night of Oct. 3, I e-mailed the staff. We were a
project-based organization without a project, and the layoffs
would take place the next day. I explained how the process would
That morning, I sat in front of my organization in our final
meeting together. I was crying. These were people I had hired
and promoted. I knew their husbands and wives. I knew their
kids. I knew their dogs.
There’s a cost to getting close to the people on your staff.
That day, I paid the price.
The next day, I had a meeting with the survivors. I brought in a
psychologist. We talked about survivors’ guilt—and believe me,
it’s real. We all had friends that weren’t there. We talked
about the importance of accepting what had happened. That it
wasn’t our fault. That you have to allow yourself time to
Over the following days and weeks, I got about 100 notes from
people I had fired, thanking me for being respectful throughout
the process, for being compassionate. I got even more notes from
people worried about how I was doing.
That day in October was the first time in my career I had to do
something that ran counter to my core. At the same time, as an
officer of the company, I knew it was the right thing to do.
The experience matured me. Last May, I started a new job where
I’m building another high-performance IT organization. But this
time, I’m not seeking such close personal relationships. I’ll
always be an empathic leader; anything else would go against my
nature. And I miss the work friendships I used to have. But
we’re going through a lot of changes here, and I’ve learned it
will be easier to approach those from a strictly business-driven
—As told to Stephanie Overby