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What I learned as a leader from the Joplin Tornado.

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

The F5 Tornado – Managing Change

I was leading a talented Kansas City, MO district at the time with GSK during turbulent times. In fact, GSK was mandated by the Office of Inspector General that business success will depend on the new way of operating in the pharma world, or we may not be operating at all. Incentivization changed based drastically, creating a whirl of very vocal dislike for the changes by most in the company. My team was hungry for a leader who would value their opinions and ideas for change. They were the bottom feeder of performance and change was a must. It also was a time of looming layoffs for underperforming representatives and managers. Those times reminded me of the commercial, “how many licks does it take to get to the center of the tootsie pop?”. GSK was carving off every year and that year would be no different. The center would be your top performing managers and representatives, and 2010-2011 was the year to light the fire, for all of us!

Early in 2011, my VP asked if I would be open to being coached by a consulting group who was getting raves for outcomes and performance. I gladly jumped at the chance to learn something new. They interviewed my team, and it’s May 2011, and I am meeting my coaches live for the first time that sunny Sunday afternoon to review the report and to set the game plan for kick off. As I met in a parking lot of the hotel we planned to camp at for three days, it was interrupted by a phone call from my rep in Joplin, MO.

Patti in her frantic voice shared, “A tornado has hit Joplin. I can’t locate my husband and my son. I going back!” I could hear the fear and desperation as anyone would have felt and sudden “sick to my stomach” what do I do now? I looked at the coaches and said, “I need to hold off until the rest of the team arrives so we can discuss our vision for the next steps."

The remainder of the team joined us in KC as we carefully, as a team, decided that helping our peer, Patti, was a must, and that we would return to KC for the two days kick off to launch our strategic plan.

The kick-off rooms were already lathered in flip charts. That evening we jumped in, plastering multiple sticky notes on every wall and masterminding the tactics for plan execution. We decided our goal was to spend one full day, digging Patti’s life out of rubbles. We carefully crafted lists, decided teams, and car pooling assignments. We went out into the late hours of that evening purchasing goods and supplies for a family that had nothing.

“What if?....”

What if we couldn’t make it through the rubble to Patti?

We choose not to think we could not get to Joplin, but that we will, we can make a difference. There was never a doubt in my mind, or anyone else’s that we would not to go to Joplin, nor did I ask permission. It was imperative, the team has a need.

That day the rain was constant, lightening all around us, and we never stopped. The movies, "Walking Dead," was precisely the landscape. People were aimlessly walking around in shock.

Patti's family was located as were others that were GSK representatives, and many were not as lucky.

Over 150 people died in the tornado causing $2.8 B damage to this small town in the middle of the US. We returned forever changed. The angst over our pay held little comparison to the loss others suffered that day and scars still remain from the F5 tornado, both for the people of Joplin and for our team. The lens for which we looked through was vastly different from those who had not experienced or saw what we did that day May 22, 2011.

Vision: To positively impact the lives of those affected by this natural disaster

Mission: The next 24 hours we would be Patti’s Red Cross

Goals: Define teams, supplies, logistics, and what if……..

What I learned as a leader from my experience with my team through the Joplin tornado….

1. People are always willing to give more if they are emotionally tied to the outcome

2. Changed the lens for your team; inspire them to see what they are unable to see

3. Accountability to each other and to the team success with metrics that drive both will prove extraordinary results

4. "It's rude to look in the rearview mirrors” – Kate Koerner’s favorite saying, and we never looked back.

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