‘Brace for impact,’ and choose how to respond


John Howell’s story




January 2009 — 155 of us on the wings of the plane in the Hudson River


Jan. 15, 2009 was a life-changing day for me. It started out as most days…it was busy, and I was focused on my agenda and all that I needed to accomplish. That afternoon I boarded a US Airways flight in NYC bound for Charlotte. About a minute and a half after take-off from LaGuardia Airport, I heard a series of bumps and clapping sounds. I looked out the window to see a large flock of Canadian geese bouncing off the aircraft. The engines caught fire, then shut down. Silence. Some 4,000 feet in the air above Manhattan, no engines in an Airbus A320 with 155 people on board. Most passengers were frightened and stricken with panic, but I was having a very different experience. My thoughts immediately took me back to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. My older brother George was a NYC firefighter who gave his life as he worked to rescue those trapped in the towers at the World Trade Center. And now I was certain I was going to be killed in a plane in Midtown Manhattan.

As it became clear that we were headed into the Hudson River, Captain Sullenberger’s made one announcement to the passengers and crew: “Brace for impact.” We successfully landed on the Hudson River, and all 150 passengers and five crew members evacuated onto the wings of the aircraft and were rescued.

“Brace for impact.” I’ve thought a lot about that phrase. Every day, from the day we are born, brace for impact. Unexpected and difficult things are going to happen in life. It’s what we do with these experiences that can make all the difference. We must each decide if we will learn and grow from difficult experiences or be defeated and set back by our life’s challenges. I have been blessed with a positive outlook, and over time I’ve found ways to share my experiences and hopefully help others. 

In doing so, I’m deliberately sharing and investing in both my Grant Thornton clients as well as colleagues. It fits perfectly with our firm’s core value of bringing our whole selves to our work. We invest in each other. I tell my story to provide insights that might be meaningful in others’ professional and personal lives, and to invite their stories.



Takeaways from my story



#1 There are no guarantees other than today. Be fully engaged in everything you do. Don’t multitask through your day.


#2 Values matter in all aspects of life. Focus and invest your time and energy only on those things that matter and are core to your values.


#3 If this was my last day, did I spend it doing all I could or giving all I can to those around me?


My brother George, one of 343 firefighters who gave their lives that day. John Howell

I share my story and important life lessons.

We’re a people business. Getting to know the person in front of me and his or her aspirations is important. I’m a managing director in the Financial Management practice, but conversations with those I work with and serve go beyond the work and fees. I’m invested in people and committed to what I can do for them. Leaders use stories to convey ideas and share lessons. My story — the lesson I share — is to be unwaveringly deliberate about living life.


Listening to Captain Sullenberger tell his story and lessons related to leadership, preparation and teamwork.




Making my impact at Grant Thornton



My “Brace for impact” lesson has been invaluable in serving our clients. My focus is on business transformation. I think real client service is a deep commitment to helping clients define a vision and then seeing them through the journey of essentially changing the way they do what they do. Clients don’t hire us just because we have experience. They hire us for the entire perspective that comes with our experiences. My clients know I’m invested in them personally as well as in their business outcomes. I share what I’ve learned in bracing — preparing — for and responding to a wide range of impacts.

My Grant Thornton team receives the benefit of storytelling as a leadership tool. I’m invested in helping, training and developing each team member. Everyone has a role to play, something to offer. Finding deliberate ways to grow and leverage their opportunities is very important to me. 

Fundamentally, through stories I support learning and growth. At Grant Thornton I am blessed to be able to hire really smart and motivated people and to help shape their careers. Similarly, clients know I’m fully invested in them. It’s so much more than a fee-for-service relationship for me. It’s a great privilege to be able to invest and help to advance their personal and professional objectives. I get to play a role in their story just as they’ve become part of mine.