A good executive protection agent is a social chameleon

June 8, 2016 - By Jared Van Driessche

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Chameleons have the amazing ability to change the color of their skin according to their surroundings or mood. They can blend into the background to escape danger. They can stand out to attract a mate. And they perform their chromatic magic dynamically, instantly switching colors as the situation demands.

Executive protection agents would do well to learn from the chameleon’s adaptive strategy. We too must both blend in and stick out. And we must do it quickly and seamlessly with every new assignment.

For most of us, the sticking out part is not hard. Indeed, the stereotypical image of burly bodyguards in black is all about making a show of protection. But it’s not something most of our corporate clients are too keen on. In fact, one of the most overlooked competences in executive protection is the ability to fit in.

There is no one way of doing things

Executive protection agents need to communicate and interact with principals who are as different as night and day. As we move with them through their business and often private lives, we must relate to all kinds of people and cultures. In order to be truly skilled in executive protection, you must be able to blend in with any principal in any environment and adjust to any social situation. In short, you need to be what I like to call a “social chameleon”.

Many who work in executive protection – even those with years of experience – believe there is only one way of interacting with the principal, and that this one way is the best way. This belief is often based on a career that has exposed them to one tech CEO, one government agency or one celebrity.

As someone who has been fortunate enough to work with a wide variety of principals in very different contexts, I can assure you that this is not the case

While protecting a Grammy-winning hip hop artist I dressed and spoke completely differently than I did when working with the Hollywood fashion icon, which was also different from working with the relaxed Silicon Valley billionaire, who provided yet another experience than working with the straight-laced corporate exec you rarely saw in anything but a three-piece suit. You get the picture.

It might seem silly, but when I replaced my Brooks Brothers look with some sneakers, jeans and a hat my musician client just felt more comfortable. Without really thinking about it, my speech patterns changed from “Yes sir, I’ll get on that right away, Mr. Principal,” to a more informal tone that he shared with other people in his inner circle. Of course, this type of friendly interaction would have been unacceptable with any of my suit-wearing corporate clients, and I understood this.

Understanding the principal’s personal preferences: It’s more than clothes

But this is about more than appearance and language. It’s also about understanding the principal’s personal preferences in all kinds of other ways.

For example, I worked for a long time for one of the most popular – and controversial – hosts on television. Before my first detail, I made it a point to do some prep work and find out what the guy was into, and discovered that he was a huge fan of baseball in general and of the New York Mets in particular. Now some of you might call me un-American because I’m not much of a baseball fan at all, but because I knew my principal was a major-league fanatic, I did my research. The night before I met him, I read up on the Mets on some online sports columns. It paid off the very next morning.

While driving him to work (knowing before-hand that he likes to pass the time by talking about sports) he asked me if I knew the score from last night’s game between the Twins and the Mets. Surprisingly, I did. I was able to chat with him back and forth in great detail about a sport that I couldn’t previously name three players in. Talking over game stats with me made the principal comfortable and distracted him from the numerous threats he had received regarding an event he was putting on.

You know, here at AS Solution we always talk how to keep our principals safe, happy and productive. One thing I’ve learned: Making the effort to connect in an appropriate way socially contributes greatly to that end. Another thing I’ve learned is that that doesn’t make you a friend.

No two principals are alike. So make it part of your SOPs to treat them all in nonstandard ways

I’ve heard the following way too often: “I learned in ___X___ that the correct way to interact with a principal is ___Y___.”

Now, everyone fills in the blanks his or her own way, depending on where they got their fixed ideas about how to do EP. X could be an EP school, the military, the government, a police department, or even the guy’s last detail. But while everyone’s take on the question is a little different, they are all convinced that their answer is is the most correct.

To succeed in EP you have to be smart, analytical and adaptable in your approach. Every time. Why should EP be the first profession that rewards people for trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Every principal is different. What’s more, their needs evolve and change. If you’re used to working with principals in corporate settings and you carry that way of doing things over into work in the sports or entertainment industry, it won’t work. Ditto on the vice versa. Old-school corporate culture is one thing. Silicon Valley corporate culture is another. The worlds of sports and entertainment are different from either.

Even in Hollywood, where looks and images are worth millions, I’ve seen agents who couldn’t be bothered to adapt themselves to their principal. Or maybe they just didn’t understand how important it is to do so.

I once served a principal who was very big in the fashion world, and seen as one of the most glamorous and best-dressed people in a city that has more than its fair share of good looking folks. One of the agents on the team was physically capable, smart and intelligent, but was really lacking in social (and sartorial) savvy. He didn’t get that since he was working with a fashion icon he needed to dress the part and buy some decent designer jeans, shirts, shoes, etc. Instead, he chose to be an individual and dress for work the way he dressed for everything else: in some out-of-date baggy Levi’s jeans, a faded Docker shirt and tactical sunglasses. I’ve got nothing against Walmart, but if you’re working for a Hollywood A-list celeb who’s consistently shortlisted for the title of the best-dressed woman on the planet, you might want to find some of your clothes elsewhere.

Guess what? He ended up embarrassing the principal, who saw him as an extension of herself and her brand image, so he was let go. Seems harsh? Not really. That’s the world we live in and this guy just didn’t get it. The tough part is that’s also the way he had chosen to dress for his previous principal, a famous rock musician, and it was completely acceptable in that case. But each principal is different, and he couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt.

When up close and personal is part of the job description, you need a good sense of discretion

Keeping the principal comfortable really can be challenging at times. Especially if you’re on a detail that keeps you right next to him at practically every waking hour of their day. And yes, this can include the most intimate times with their family, trips to the restroom and a visit to the White House to meet the president.

It might seem glamourous, but being someone that is famous, always under public scrutiny, the constant target of direct and indirect threats and surrounded by security really take its toll. Think for a second how that would affect you as you move through your own life and be constantly shadowed by someone who is neither friend, family or favorite pet.

I don’t care how charming you think you are. If you spend enough time around anyone you’re going to annoy them. That’s why the best EP agents become masters of neutrality and assiduously avoid displays of annoying personality traits. Of course, you can’t just erase your personality out of the equation, but there are few tricks of the trade that can really make your presence more neutral and less of a pain in the tusch.

One way that I use frequently is to avoid standing in direct eye contact with the principal while he or she is meeting with or talking with anyone. If you always maintain eyeball-to-eyeball line of sight with someone, you’re going to end up smothering them. The solution is simple: Stand to the side or behind them – you’ll give them some you-neutral space, a break from seeing your pretty face, but you’ll still be in a tactical position to respond if needed.

Silence is another powerful tool. Learn to use it. I’ve been on five-hour road trips while sitting next to the principal and not a word was spoken between us. Absolute silence: No music, no small talk, no nothing for five long hours.

Less experienced agents can start to feel awkward and try to fill the dead space with idle chatter. But when you’re famous and everyone in the world outside your car wants to ask you questions about your life or tell you stories about theirs, conversation can be the most aggravating thing in the world. A break in the talk stream can feel like a luxurious holiday. Silence is a good thing. When it comes up, leave it alone.

Dig in, read up

Being a good social chameleon doesn’t mean you have to act like an illiterate reptile. When you travel with your principal to other countries, it pays to do a little research before getting into the plane.

I’ve been to over 70 countries on EP details, and every time I travel somewhere I haven’t been before I try to learn something about the cultural behavior of the people we’ll be visiting. There are plenty of excellent books on practically every culture on Earth, or just Google “social taboos, country X” or “what not to do as a foreigner traveling to country X”. It won’t make you an expert, but it can help you not to look like an idiot.

Find out before you go to Japan that it’s rude to point, accept things with one hand, lean back in your chair and show the bottom of your feet while sitting.  You don’t need to become an expert in Zen tea ceremonies, but you do need to understand that there’s a little ritual around exchanging business cards. There have been plenty of situations where I could clue in the principal on proper cultural etiquette, which makes them look well-informed and makes me look impressive. After all, we’re not only there to make sure they are protected, we’re there to prevent them from any sort of embarrassment.

When you need to communicate and you don’t have the luxury of a shared tongue, body language is invaluable. An experienced EP professional can negotiate transportation, ask for help, buy food in a market, and get directions from a stranger through hand motions alone.  Remember, also body language can get lost in translation. A typical gesture from your country might mean something completely different in other parts of the world. It’s wise for Americans to know that the V for victory, or peace sign, means “up yours” in the UK and Australia, that showing your palms in Greece is insulting, and that giving the thumbs up in Thailand is a sign of condemnation.

It’s simple when you break it down, but so often overlooked in the EP industry.

Go ahead and act natural

Bringing all of this together to adapt to your principal isn’t a simple thing to do. One of the toughest parts for someone new to the business is coming off as genuine rather than someone playing a bit part in a high school play. The tricky part here is that being a social chameleon only works if you are genuine. It can’t be an act, it needs to be real!

Every person walking the earth has different sides that come to the fore in different situations. This isn’t about being a fake. It’s about being perceptive to other people’s sensibilities and needs.

Think of some examples from you own life. The way you talk to your grandmother at her dining table is probably very different from the way you talk to your buddies in the locker room. You don’t act in exactly the same way around your co-workers as you do with your wife, your brother, your best friend or your worst enemy. It’s all you, but you adapt to varying social situations for your own good and for the good of the folks you’re with.

The same holds true for how you choose to communicate with your principal. The relationship is unique, and at the end of the day that’s perfectly alright. Be yourself, but be the version of yourself that you need to be in the special social circumstances that define close protection.

Bruce Lee said it best: “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend.”

It’s not about you

One our tenets at AS Solution is that when we protect principals as they move through their daily lives, there’s no room for our personal opinions, beliefs, philosophies or ideas. It’s not about our needs, it’s about the principal’s.

Of course we are our own people, but our personal opinions aren’t our principal’s business. Our philosophy and personality while providing a service must match the principal’s sensibilities and needs. If the principal changes, we must adapt to the changes.

The same holds true for communication style. If you don’t adapt to your principal’s communication style, this can cause unneeded friction and confusion. This is easier said than done: Our social skills and adaptability vary considerably, and some of them seem more or less baked into our personalities. They are tough to learn if they don’t come naturally. And while I think everyone can learn and improve at least to some extent, some people just don’t have the psychological makeup that will help them become happy campers as effective social chameleons.

Don’t fly too close to the sun

One of my favorite stories in Greek mythology is the tale of Daedalus and Icarus.

The father-son duo was imprisoned by a king, but Daedalus, a brilliant engineer, found a way to escape: He fashioned wings from feathers and wax so that he and his son could fly over the prison walls to freedom. Although Daedalus warned his son not to fly too high, Icarus was tempted and flew high in the sky and much too close to the sun. In doing so, the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea and died.

The old adage “don’t fly too close to the sun or you’ll get burned” is also true for executive protection professionals. In in our world, the principal can be seen as the sun: Although many are powerful and charming, it can in fact be dangerous to get too close. If you’re flying too high and getting chummy with the principal, you become overconfident and start taking risks; you ignore warning signs because being close to the sun is glorious and thrilling. You become so enthralled that when you reach the moment of splendor, you have the ultimate downfall. This all happens because you didn’t understand the realities of the world your principal lives in.

If you want to have a long and successful career in our field, working close to the sun (our principals) every day, you need to learn how to insulate yourself from the principal. Don’t think that you need to be friends with them. Do try to be part of the small percentage of people in the principal’s life that doesn’t want something from them.

Successful executive protection agents don’t ask for favors. They don’t ask for business advice. They don’t ask for friendship.

They do understand that most people around a celebrity, billionaire or any other famous public figure have their hands out and want a piece of that money, notoriety or fame.

Be one of the rarest people that your principal has ever seen. Be the social chameleon that doesn’t want anything from them.

Jared Van Driessche

Senior Director of Global Operations

As Senior Director of Global Operations, Jared is responsible for strategic leadership and oversight of AS Solution’s operations worldwide. Over the course of his long and diverse career, Jared has planned, executed and led close protection details for CEOs, dignitaries, heads of state, boards of directors, celebrities, and various public figures on more than 300 international trips to over 70 different countries. He has extensive international experience, including the provision of close protection and threat assessment to clients in high-risk environments throughout Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, Europe, and the Middle East.