Why advance work in executive protection takes more than checklists

April 27, 2018 - By Christian West

Tags: ,

When I first started out in the industry, understanding the importance of advance work in order to carry out effective executive protection was a huge eye-opener. I remember learning that if you got the advance right and prepared for trips in the right way, then the detail was way more likely to go well. The importance of forward thinking changed the way my twenty-something mind worked and has worked ever since. Hey – just look at the tagline in the AS Solution logo.

I learned advance work the way most of us did: I went on an advance trip with a more experienced agent, watched what he did, talked to him about it, and followed his checklist. This kind of sensei-grasshopper relationship is how a lot of learning gets passed on.

My advance sensei’s checklist was gold, encapsulating all his years of experience in advance work into a few pages. If I followed those pages, and checked the same things, then trips were well prepared. I did this plenty of times, of course, and after a while started to make a few checklist changes, then more changes. As time went on and I learned more, my checklists have also been passed to others.

Although a lot has changed since I started out, when most of us think about advance work for executive protection, checklists are still the first things that come to mind. If you’ve got the right checklists and use them the right way, you’re ready for the trip, right?

Well, yes and no. Checklists are certainly helpful. We’ve developed and refined plenty of them over the years, and we understand why a lot of EP professionals view advance checklists like cooks view their secret sauce recipes: you use them all the time, you don’t share them with just anyone – and you probably inherited them from your own mentor – or your grandmother.

But if it’s really going to be useful – and if clients are going to enable EP providers to get the necessary resources to do useful advance work – then advance work requires way more than checklists.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned the hard way about advance work. I wish somebody would have told me about them when I was back in my twenties, but now I can at least pass them on, and maybe someone else can use them. I call them the four WHYs of advance work for EP.

The 4 WHYs of advance work in executive protection

I’d like to use this blog to dig into why we actually do advance work. Because the WHY establishes the goals for advance work, and it is only against these goals that we can measure the quality and efficacy of the advance work we do. This WHY, in turn, informs the how, the who, the when… and everything else that has to do with advance work for executive protection.

The main reason we do advance work is, of course, to keep the principal safe, happy and productive when we do the actual trip. But that’s the WHY for everything we do, so we need to get more specific.

1. We do advances to apply time-tested SOPs that proactively enable good protection

A proactive approach informs most of what we do as EP professionals, and advance work is a clear example of this forward thinking: we would much rather prevent problems than be forced to solve them in a stressed situation. It’s the same for all professions and many other things that we do in life: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and all of that.

When we do advance work we go through both trip-specific planning (e.g., what is the best route to get from A to B? What are the best alternative routes if we need them?) and location-relevant contingency planning (e.g., how to get to the nearest hospital if we need it?).

This is the obvious purpose of advance work, and a lot of the HOW of advance work springs directly from this WHY. What are the best practices, what kinds of SOPs should we use? This is where those checklists come in. Advance checklists are what most of use to operationalize our advance SOPs so that we can be sure to cover the things we need to.

To be clear, best-in-class advance work must be based on best-in-class SOPs – nothing else will do. But as professional service providers, there are other reasons that we do advance work. These are also critical in the real world where you have to make the best use of limited resources, organize operations through many different people, places, and times – and to be frank, to educate clients, bean counters and colleagues on what gives the best protection for the money.

2. We do advances to ensure smooth communication and operational continuity

No matter how good your pre-trip research is, if you and others can’t apply it afterward during the actual trip with the principal, then it really doesn’t matter.

To be useful, advance information also has to be:

  • Accessible: Easy to find what is relevant, for those who need it, when and where it’s needed
  • Communicable: Easy to share with others whether on location, in GSOCs, at client headquarters, or wherever else it is needed
  • Amendable: Easy to change/update/improve as our knowledge improves and things evolve

Redundancy has a bad reputation. If you don’t really need it, then why have something more than once? But to ensure operational continuity, some redundancy needs to be built into advance work.

In engineering, redundancy makes systems more reliable and improves performance by duplicating critical functions and components. Data centers, for example, rely on redundancy to ensure uninterrupted power supply. In safety-critical systems such as aircraft hydraulics, engineers may even triple certain parts of the system. And isn’t EP safety-critical by definition?

There are two critical redundancy issues when it comes to advance planning, and good advance planning has to address both.

  1. Contingency and “what if:” As everyone knows, even the best laid plans can go wrong. Plan redundancy, AKA as “Plan B”, is informed by the same on-the-ground research that gave you “Plan A”, and lets you identify the best alternatives to your ideal plan.
  2. It’s not about you: Often the person doing the advance work will also do the protective work on the trip – but this is not always the case. You can’t build a reliable security program around one person. Therefore, advance work has to be easy to transfer to others. The system has to make it simple but safe for multiple people to contribute to the advance plan and draw from it as needed.

3. We do advance work to reduce exposure to liability

There’s always something that can go wrong. In some countries, even if nothing goes actually wrong, there’s always someone who can sue you.

Good advance work relies on agreed standards to reduce exposure to legal and financial liabilities. This is obviously a critical issue for those of us who are professional EP providers, because personal as well as company reputations and revenues are at stake. But this is also important to clients, vendors and insurers.

Good advance work reduces legal and financial exposure by making clear which procedures should be followed, registering who agreed to what, and determining whether these protocols were followed. By ensuring traceability and procedural transparency – basically, by being able to prove you did what you said you were going to do – a solid, well-documented advance system can prevent a lot of potential trouble.

4. We do advances to collect data, but also to use data we’ve already collected – including data that proves the value of advance work

To do serious advance work, agents use time and have travel expenses. For us, it’s obviously part and parcel of good EP. But for some corporate clients – especially those not used to high-level services – it might seem unnecessary.

Do you really need to advance that city? You were there just two years ago. How can it possibly take two days to do an advance? The principal is only going to be there for one day.

Maybe you’ve heard such questions before? Or maybe you’ve asked them yourself? That’s fair enough. Understanding and justifying the costs of advance work is one issue. Weighing concrete costs against perceived benefits is another. Both matter. To be honest, I don’t think we in the industry, myself included, have been good enough at understanding the entire cost-benefit analysis of advance work, or at making this clear enough to ourselves and our clients.

Understanding the value proposition of advance work is easier when both vendors and clients have a clear understanding of what drives costs (e.g., risk profiles, agent hours and travel expenses) and what constitutes value as we’ve seen above: keeping the principal safe, happy and productive by mitigating risk through forward thinking; ensuring operational continuity; and reducing legal and financial liability.

The more you do advance work, the more details you do with the principal, the more experience and data you have, and the easier it should be to explain and justify all the related costs and demonstrate value. But collecting and analyzing data has other advantages, too. By understanding data we’ve collected in the past, we can make better forecasts about the future. I’m not saying you can actually predict what’s going to happen, but you can get much better at figuring out probabilities.

Good data helps make our advances better. Knowing that the principal always packs 10-15 meetings in per travel day helps us plan advances. But so does knowing that the principal only plans five meetings, then likes to act on impulse to fill in the rest of the day, or likes to go for a run in the morning, or checks out art galleries when possible, or pops into a McDonald’s in the middle of the night every week or so.

Unfortunately, most EP teams don’t think in terms of data and transparent reporting, and this is always an afterthought rather than an upfront priority. If and when we get better at using data both as part of our advance work and as a way to prove its value, then both clients and vendors will be better off.

Let’s keep improving our checklists, but let’s get better at understanding and discussing the other 3 WHYs, too

I’m not about to throw away all of those checklists we’ve developed over the years. They’re super helpful and will always be necessary. But I would like to get better at understanding and discussing the other three WHYs of advance work in EP.

I think if we can see advance work in a broader perspective, we can improve both how we do advance work to protect our clients and improve how we do business as professional service providers.

What do you think? What kinds of conversations are you having about advance work – and how can we change the conversation?


Photo by Darkness 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.