7 leadership lessons I’ve learned working in executive protection


August 16, 2018 - By Christian West

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I started my own company because I needed a job – and the jobs other companies were offering just didn’t look that interesting. I’d been in the industry for some years and had worked for several companies. I knew that I loved the profession and the people. I had a lot of ideas about how things should be done, and probably even more ideas about how things should not be done.

So, with no business school, no senior management experience, and absolutely no clue about how to run a company, I started AS Solution. This is probably not what they’re teaching kids in entrepreneur academies these days, but it was the perfect background for me. I knew nothing about leadership, so I had to learn everything.

As I discovered and continue to discover: Learning things the hard way is a great way to learn, especially if you didn’t manage to learn things the easy way.

I don’t think anyone is going to write a book about my leadership discoveries. They’re not that interesting, and it would be a pretty thin book. But I think I can squeeze out a blog on them. So here goes.

1. Lead from the front

In a business like ours, where we don’t really need more than a few management levels between the top guy and the new guy, everyone has to deploy.

I’m not talking about running GE here, although I’m sure this holds true in a major corporation too – at least in some respects. But when you when you lead a small or medium sized company, and, specifically, an executive protection company, it really helps to lead from the front.

If I ask my guys to do something, I have to have been willing to do it myself. If I shoot at the range, I have to at least hit the target sometimes. Because I’ve got practical experience in most aspects of this niche security area we call executive protection, I know that everyone on the team is important – from the newest RST agent to the most experienced EP pro. As I point out below, I know that I need to see the world through their eyes, too. Meeting them where they are helps to do this.

Doing and visiting details helps me better understand both colleagues and clients. The frontline is almost always the place where the good ideas appear first, so it’s important to show up and listen up. Spending time with colleagues on the frontline helps me understand what’s going on in all the different situations and cultures we work in. It shows staff that leaders care, and it gives them a forum to raise questions and issues. For clients, it’s pretty much the same thing. Clients get the message that the leaders care about their business, too. And observing and listening to clients almost always gives you an idea or two about how things are going, ideas that we can use to get better.

2. The time is now

When you’re on a detail and something unexpected happens, there’s usually no time to call home and ask what to do. If the business is protecting people, waiting until tomorrow is usually a bad idea and sometimes just plain unacceptable. You get paid to figure out what to do, and nine times out of ten doing something now is way better than sitting around thinking about it.

If you’ve been working in EP for a while, you know that you have a plan until you don’t. There were supposed to be four people on a detail and two of them aren’t there? Deal with it. Make the best of it. Bring it up later in your after-action review, but don’t let it prevent you from being the best you can possibly be right now, with whatever you’ve got.

From my point of view, this also applies to running a business.  Yes, it’d be great if we had a solid plan for everything and were super structured, but we still have to act when the time is right. I’d rather be 75% structured and 25% unstructured – willing to wing it, improvise, and take whatever knocks that might give – than be 100% structured and always have to wait until tomorrow to act on what matters today.

Sometimes it seems the longer I’m in management, the more procrastination I see. Why do something today when there’s always a perfectly good reason to put it off until tomorrow? We need to figure A before we can do B…I’m waiting to hear from X, who’s late as usual, before I can talk to Y…

Yes, we need to plan and coordinate. Yes, we need to ensure we get the resources we need. But no matter what, we have to provide the best protection we can, with what we’ve got, right now. Not tomorrow after we hold a meeting and write a strategy.

3. Say what you do, do what you say

When you’re working an EP detail with others, you quickly understand how important it is to be able to count on what your colleagues say they will do. If I’m the one who advanced the venue and told my partner a certain door will be open, it has to be open. If he or she says they have the route, they have to have the route. This is more than “managing expectations”. It’s figuring out how to share the same reality and get important things done.

Now that I spend most of my time on the management side of operations, nothing drives me crazier than sitting in a meeting listening to colleagues explain why they didn’t deliver what they said they would.  One completed delivery would be better than ten half-finished.

When people say what they’ll do, then do what they say, others learn that they can count on them and trust them. That’s a good thing in our business, whether you’re an agent, a manager, or the CEO. And yeah, I’m still learning.

4. Understand others, understand yourself, and leave your ego at the door – also when mistakes are made

Even though you really try, you’ll never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head. That doesn’t mean leaders should quit trying to understand others and see the world from their point of view.

When EP colleagues make mistakes (and everyone, including yours truly, has and will again), they were probably doing the best they could in the given situation. If they screwed up intentionally, that’s a different situation. If they think they’re too good for this part of the job, or that some task is beneath them, that’s another situation. If they refuse to admit that any mistake was made, that’s another situation.

But no matter what the situation – whether you’re the agent or the leader – toning down your ego and turning up your empathy usually helps. Alpha male chest pumping rarely helps.

There are always three sides to a story: yours, mine, and the truth. Leading others has taught me that most people who screw up probably need to understand what’s expected of them better; sometimes this is due to them being slow on the uptake or not trained properly, sometimes it’s due to their leaders not being good enough in explaining what they want or how things should be done. Coaching that starts with trying to understand where the other person is can help. Giving more pointers, and letting folks try again, can help. Judging people rarely helps.

5. You can’t be kind of loyal

Just like you can’t be “kind of pregnant”, you can’t be “kind of loyal”.  Sorry, but this is where I get “kind of absolutist”.

I expect loyalty to the mission we’ve agreed to undertake together, protecting our clients. I expect loyalty to each other, to the team – and by extension, to the company. And I expect people to be loyal to their own goals and values. I know it’s hard when our loyalties extend in different directions for different reasons. But who said this was supposed to be easy? We all have to figure it out.

Go ahead and say what you mean. Just don’t say anything about someone that you wouldn’t say to him or her directly.

If someone screws up and you call him or her out on it to fix a situation and prevent the same screw up later, that’s not disloyal. That’s doing your job. Choose how and when you do it but do it. That’s not throwing someone under the bus. That’s keeping the train on the track. Yeah, having hard conversations is hard; and that’s part of the job.

Forget the politics that are almost always a part of any work situation, whether it’s within your own team, in the client’s organization, or somewhere between the two. Do the job right and the politics will sort themselves out.

If someone wants to leave the company for a better job, that’s not disloyal. If we haven’t been good enough at providing professional challenges or a good work environment, that’s on us. If someone on our team gets an offer from a client and the salary and benefits look way better on the other side of the fence, that’s either because they are, or because we haven’t been good enough at explaining our own system.  No matter what, let’s own it and let’s talk about it openly. I might be able to help you down the road; you might be able to help me. You stay loyal to me, I stay loyal to you.

6. Remember it’s a long-term game

When I started having responsibility for finding and keeping EP clients, and for making a payroll, I realized that EP is a long-term game. For sure, there are always short-term wins and losses. Things can look great on Monday, horrible on Tuesday, OK again on Wednesday. But if you stay true to your concept and true to your people (assuming your concept and people are good), things usually work out pretty well.

Things take time. Plenty of overnight sensations were 10 years of hard work and 10,000 hours of practice in the making. It takes time to understand a client’s culture. It takes time to build your own organization’s culture – and even more to change it.

Clients that left you for the cheaper bid come back. Not always, but often enough. People who left the company show up in other positions in the industry; maybe they want to hire the same company they left, or maybe they become even more trusted nodes in your network. Fighting evil with good also means not burning bridges.

When you’re running around in the trenches putting out fires all day, it’s a good idea to keep the old perspective helicopter fully fueled and ready to take off at a moment’s notice. Sometimes you need to see things from a different angle, a higher perspective, to find your way and to stay sane.

How you lift your view to fly above the blinding debris of a shit storm is up to you. If you’re stressed, go work out. It helps me, at least. Another thing I’ve started to do is carve out a block of hours that I dedicate to the bigger projects that I otherwise never have time to think about. Some of these are my version of what the guys at Google call moonshots: they might never work, but if they do, they’ll be awesome. Some are decisions I know will take some time to think through, and I want some peace and quiet to think about.

7. Learning the hard way isn’t learning the cheap way

If I had all the money I spent on bad advice, I’d be a rich man.

I’ve had management gurus, MBAs in finance, and ex-board members tell me I had to cut costs in order to boost profits. They might be right. But when was the last time you heard about an accountant that changed the world? In the long term, quality ensures profit. When profit starts to dictate quality, that’s when the trouble starts.

Alright, I hope someone in the industry might be able to take advantage of some of the things I’ve learned along the way. If something in this blog helps even one person not bump his or her forehead into a wall, and maybe learn something the easy way rather than the hard way, then it’s worth it. If it encourages someone to go ahead and start something new – even if you don’t have all the qualifications they say you’re supposed to have – then it was really worth it. Go for it!

 

Photo by Vek Labs on Unsplash

Christian West

Founder and CEO

Christian has been active in the executive protection industry since the late 1980s, when he worked for Danish musicians who relocated to Hollywood. Upon returning to Denmark, he founded his own EP company, which he quickly grew into Scandinavia’s largest, before it was acquired by Securitas.

Christian founded AS Solution in 2003, and again in 2009 followed his international clients to the US, where he is now based. An active member of ASIS and a leader in the corporate executive protection industry, Christian has personally planned and led high-profile engagements in over 76 countries for a wide variety of corporate and high net worth individual clients, including the international roadshow for the biggest IPO in history.