Let’s face it. All of us in EP have seriously screwed up sometime, somewhere. You know it and we know it. But one of the more interesting things about the people who work in this industry (at least from a clinical psychologist’s point of view, according to our wives) is that we have such a hard time admitting it.
There is absolutely no lack of EP professionals who gladly share how bad-ass they are, and pull out their cross-fit trophies and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts to prove it. We’re generous as hell with tales about how we saved the client’s day through our heroism, and how we run the perfect detail every time. But when it comes to talking about how we screwed up, we get way stingier with the storytelling.
Think about it. When’s the last time you heard an EP story that wasn’t about some guy being the master of the universe, the biggest, strongest, most cunning agent of all? Can it really be that nobody in EP screws up, nobody has issues, nobody has a failure to share and maybe have a laugh at? Of course not.
We think it’s important to talk about failure, too. Yes, we learn from successes, but we can learn a whole lot more, and learn faster, from our mistakes. We’ve had our fair share of both. Fortunately, none of our stupidest mistakes resulted in anything worse than personal embarrassment (in general ours, not the client’s).
So in the spirit of sharing the bad with the good, here are a few of our favorite personal disasters.
Being so discreet that I blended in with the curtains (Christian)
Back in the days when I was starting out in corporate executive protection, EP was a new thing for some of our principals, too. They’d never tried it before, and a lot of them weren’t particularly thrilled with the fact that they had to have a team of protective people constantly around them.
Back then, EP teams still had to gain the clients’ trust. The team I was on walked a fine line between providing seamless protection for a person who was extremely prominent and hyper-busy, but doing it in a way that was as discreet as possible, so neither the principal nor anyone else noticed us more than absolutely necessary. We still do this, of course, but back then our tactical approach was a little different.
To give the client a lot of space, we ran a kind of hybrid program that included elements of protective surveillance and multiple static posts. One of us was always a step ahead of the client, others were nearby. It was more of a zone defense than a man-to-man. Like a band playing together, everyone on the team had to do his own thing and do it in sync with everyone else. Although it was complicated and required a sizeable team, it was really effective. Still, mistakes could be made. Here’s one of mine.
The principal was due to address a big crowd in an auditorium that we had advanced. My post was in a little pre-stage area that was used to mike up speakers before they went to the podium. It had a curtain that I could stand behind so as not to get in the principal’s face while he got miked and walked to the stage. It gave me a good view of the door that led from the dressing rooms in the back, where the principal would be coming from, and of the stage and the crowd. It even had a little table I could sit on while I was waiting. Perfect.
The principal arrived about four minutes earlier than planned. Unusual, since we were more used to running late than being ahead of schedule, but no big deal. I could see my partner, the one who brought the principal into the pre-stage area, keeping an eye on things, and I was out of the principal’s view, keeping an eye on other things from right behind the curtain. Perfect.
The principal got miked and still had plenty of time to spare – a whole three minutes to chill before he went on stage. All of a sudden, I could feel something bumping into my legs. The principal had backed into the curtain, looking for something to lean on while he waited. He then proceeded to more or less sit on my lap, with nothing but the curtain between us. I could see my partner, who had a view of both of us, alternately giving me weird and worried looks. I had basically two choices: either clear my throat, scare the hell out of the principal and look like an idiot. Or wait it out, hope the principal didn’t notice, and then look like an idiot when he did.
Fortunately, the longest three minutes of my life ended early. After about a minute the principal stood up, walked about for a few minutes, then went on stage.
I still felt like an idiot, and my partner had a great time confirming this to the rest of the team. But the incident gave me a jolt that has stuck with me since. Don’t just think through the most likely scenarios, like the principal being late once again, but remember to think through as many scenarios as possible.
Getting too chummy with the principal (Jared)
When I was still relatively new in the industry, I had a client relationship that I learned a lot from. Even though I worked with the principal for almost five years, we just didn’t relate very well. For starters, the guy had all the empathy of a reptile. And then there was the fact that he was a snowflake who easily took offense.
I was young and not very experienced. We sometimes spent hours on end together. Sometimes we’d chit chat and I’d crack the occasional joke, trying to be funny to get on his good side, but also just to pass the time. I can see now, with 20-20 hindsight, that I tried too hard at making conversation and making friends.
Anyway, we once got talking about beautiful women, one of his favorite subjects. This guy had money, fame and power, and he used it all to his advantage. The conversation turned to the observation that beautiful women don’t always have to try very hard to start or stay in a relationship if they don’t want to, since so many men would be willing to do about anything just to be next to them. We were laughing and he agreed wholeheartedly. To lighten things up even more, I said something like, “Yeah, but when you’re an ugly guy like you or me, you have to work hard for everything.”
Dead silence. Then, “Yeah, but I’m not ugly.”
The guy totally missed my ironic comradery and was now insulted that I called him ugly. I went into smart-ass damage control and dug myself even deeper. “Well, wouldn’t be weird if I told you that you’re an attractive guy?” That didn’t make things any better. The relationship never really recovered.
If I had to do it all over again – or give advice to a younger me – I’d just say keep your mouth shut and do the job. You’re there to provide protection and facilitate the guy’s productivity, not to be his buddy. Quit trying to be Mr. Johnny on the Spot or Mr. Anything, and just do the work.
Welcome to the front page (Christian)
Many years ago, I was working for a corporate client on a trip to Latin America. The principal was scheduled to make a major announcement that day, and there had been a lot of buzz leading up to the event. The press showed up big time.
The principal was supposed to walk from the stage to his car in front of the waiting press, who hoped he might take a few questions as he passed by. There were about 50 journalists and 50 photographers jostling for position, and a story, behind a cloth rope right at the edge of a raised platform. With the help of a few venue security guys, it was my job to keep the crowd on the right side of the rope.
The show was running late and the press were getting antsy, but everything was OK. When the principal finally came by, the two security guards got star struck and turned to watch him instead of the crowd. This left me to cover about 100 people behind 20 feet of cloth rope.
The crowd surged a bit, and one guy lost his balance and teetered off the platform and across the rope. Fortunately, I was just a few steps away and managed to catch his fall. Phew, I thought, the guy was not a hostile, and I saved him from busting his face. But all of a sudden people started yelling about “the bodyguard who pushed the journalist to the ground”, and cameras started flashing. I knew it wasn’t the case, but who am I to argue against 100 journalists?
I’d just committed one of the worst mistakes an EP agent can make, becoming the news, in front of 100 press people. Stories about bodyguards doing stupid things always make great news, and I was devastated. I was convinced that I was going to get fired, and had a hard time thinking about anything else. We stayed in the country for another day, and the team and I talked about the incident a lot. Everyone, including the team leader, shared my concern. Rightly or wrongly, I was toast.
Like I said, this was a long time ago and I didn’t have the same experience then that I do now. I figured this would be one of my last trips, so when we were on our way to the airport, a driver and me in the front seat, the principal and one of his key aides in the back, I decided to go for broke. I turned around and addressed the principal, explaining what had happened and my point of view. The principal brushed it off and told me not to worry, I was just doing my job. His aide asked me if I spoke Spanish (no mucho), then showed me the front page of a local paper. There was a picture of me holding the guy who fell, and the story was about how the principal’s bodyguard saved the guy from a nasty accident. Case closed.
I learned a few things that day. First, just do the right thing and you won’t be in any real trouble. Second, control the narrative. I got myself worked up for a day and a half, with the help of my teammates and what I can now see was an inexperienced team leader, as we talked ourselves into a doomsday scenario for no good reason.
Hotdogging my way into a no-confidence vote (Jared)
And then there was the ski trip.
Now, I grew up in Alaska. I like skiing, and have done quite a bit of it. It’s not as if I’m about to get chosen for the U.S. Olympics team, but I can make my way down any black slope you throw at me and usually have a lot of fun doing it. Usually. So, it was natural that my skiing ability got me chosen for a ski trip with the principal and her son.
We met them at the FBO and brought them to their hotel in town. On our way up to the rooms, I was chatting with the son in the elevator about skiing and snowboarding, when I joked that he would have to show me the ropes since I didn’t know how to ski very well. You know, a little self-deprecating humor with an extra shot of modesty always works out right. Right? Wrong.
The first day was nice and slow. We picked up our equipment and got to know the slopes by taking mostly easier runs. It was on the second day that I screwed up.
The principal and her son were traversing their way down some more challenging slopes. I’m more of a rapid vertical descent kind of guy (in skiing and in screw ups), so at that point in the afternoon I was hanging back, covering the tail of the group while my partner stayed with them – and having a little hotdog fun.
In between moguls my pigeon toe catches me and I dolphin-dive, nose first, into the side of the mountain. Serious ouch. I mean, I had to take a knee. I was bleeding out of my nose and my mouth, spitting blood up. So, I hit the radio and told my partner, “Hey, I’ll catch you guys down on the next run,” then commenced my alpine cleanup routine. This consisted of scrubbing my face with snow to get the blood off, which I thought went pretty well. At least I couldn’t feel my face anymore.
The client went down another run with her son and everything was cool. My partner was with them the whole time, and nobody had noticed either my monumental digger or my temporary absence at the tail of the group.
I caught up with them at a break, and the first thing I heard, from the client, was, “Oh my god, what happened to your face?” I explained that I took a little fall but was OK. The client looked shaken and concerned, but I convinced her I was fine and they finally skied off again. Actually, I hadn’t seen my face. So, I pulled my phone out and took a selfie. Holy shit. My face was a scary mess of ice burns, road rash and caked blood, with a swollen lump of a nose in the middle of it.
From that moment on, the principal had no confidence in my skiing ability or in me. She was still super nice, because that’s the way she was. But at the end of the trip, she got on the jet, went home and told everybody, “Yeah, Jared ruined my vacation because I was worried about him the whole time.”
This was another self-inflicted, avoidable disaster. It started with me joking with her son about not knowing how to ski, and how he would have to show me how to do it. Then it turns out that I crashed and beat my face into mountain mush. Takeaway: The less unnecessary talk you throw out there, the less there is to come back and haunt you.
In praise of mistakes
We’re all different. We all have our very own insecurities and issues. And we’re all going to make mistakes.
The only people who don’t make errors are those who do nothing. If you’re an EP agent out there working, learning and growing, you’re going to make the occasional mistake. When it happens, learn from it. Do the work as well as you possibly can, every time. And be sure you don’t keep repeating the same mistakes.