Sure it was a while back and “things were different back then” but the story is still worth sharing. Post 9-11 – actually around 2003 – 10 years ago, I spent an entire day cold calling facility managers at the Pentagon. That’s right. I wandered the halls with my escort – a sign maker who already had a contract to make signs – who knew how to find all of the offices because he understood the office numbering system – and wanted to help me introduce my services as well. I realized pretty quickly, though, that instead of him leading the way, I was the one with the list of names of people I wanted to see and it gave him a chance to give his elevator pitch just one more time.
So, I met my contact at the front of the Pentagon and he had already pre-arranged clearance for me to go inside. Of course there was a series of extensive security measures. The security team was focused, alert and very respectful. Once through the security, our day began. My contact asked me where I wanted to go first and I opened up my list. Yes, the Pentagon had published at the time a list of the facility team members, their phone numbers and their office numbers. Although I call this my cold calling day, I did warm it up by calling and leaving messages at each of the facility manager’s voice mail telling them I would be in the building and that I hoped they would at least say hello to me while I was there.
Sure enough, the facility managers I visited with were cordial, informative and helpful with every question I asked. In fact, the first facility manager I sat down with was the one who not only designed and managed the construction of the new wedge – that was hit on 9-11 – but she had managed the design of the repairs which included a memorial chapel where the impact occurred. We took a few minutes to discuss that September day and we took a few minutes – off sales topic – to discuss how the Pentagon employees were coping with coming into work every day following 9-11. She said something very interesting. She told me that they would decompress with one another and they shared the same feeling. Prior to 9-11, there was an unspoken constant feeling of something was going to happen throughout their entire careers, and when it DID happen and they survived it and endured it, they all expressed to each other a sense of relief. She confided in me that they actually felt safer now than they did – before it happened. I was struck by what bravery it took to come back to work after such an attack. Since that conversation, I have carried a different understanding of what it takes to serve our country – whether you’re in the military or serving as a civilian – it takes dedication, focus, and guts.
The inside of the Pentagon was quite an experience. It felt to me like I was inside a giant school building. The floors were cement and they had this long, winding ramp which you had to use to go floor to floor. There were no escalators. And…there were doors along that ramp with no numbers on them – oddly placed. Imagine walking up a 5 degree cement ramp and then against the wall are doors — to just step into those rooms would be strange because the ramp outside is tilted, but the doors were straight. My mind kept picturing behind each door, a scene from “Dr. Strangelove” when they’re in the War Room. But, back to reality, these were offices….and people coming to work doing their perspective jobs. It was interesting when we would walk down a hall to get to an office (remember I was with their sign maker so he knew where we were going) and suddenly the corridor would have a wall…blocking our path. And we would have to figure another way to get to the intended office. This was a random and regular situation throughtout our day.
When we reached the newly refurbished and replaced wedge, it was like walking into a separate building all together. There was carpeting and office lighting and escalators instead of ramps. It was modestly – but cleanly designed. It looked ……..normal.
All of the sudden, the fire alarms sounded. That’s right. I was in the Pentagon, post 9-11 and the fire alarms went off. My escort and I quickly looked for the exits and we were directed to the center of the Pentagon. We were not directed to walk out of the Pentagon. We were directed into the center park-like area. So, there we were, fire alarms blaring, outside – but inside the Pentagon – while the flights from Reagan National Airport continued to fly overhead. I couldn’t help but realize that I was literally standing at Ground Zero and there was no way out. So, I started to laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I guess that happens when you realize there’s nothing you really can do — regarding your fate. You either laugh – or cry. As I kept giggling – not hysterically – but in that “Of COURSE this would happen while I’m here today” giggle ……. more and more people from the Pentagon poured into the center park. Top brass everywhere were gathered waiting for the fire alarms to stop sounding – but they continued for at least another 15 minutes.
At one point, a very high ranking officer walked over to me and said, “You know this is NO laughing matter young lady!”
I responded, “I don’t mean any disrespect sir, but if I’m going to die today, I’m going to die laughing.”
He said, “You know what? I like your attitude – here’s my card. If you need any help setting up a meeting with someone here, you let me know.”
…….And the rest is history.
Of course things are slightly different selling to the feds today, but what was the take-away from this experience? What was the life’s lesson for me as a federal sales executive?
Understand our federal customers go to work every day into a building that is a potential target. It takes an incredible amount of intestinal fortitude to serve our country, and if they can show up to work with a sense of duty, we can fearlessly pick up the phone, thank them for their service, and then introduce them to our ideas, innovations, products and services.