Every corporate executive protection program starts somewhere. And although a number of Fortune 500 and other companies do already use EP, a significant segment still does not. Navigating the startup phase of a corporate EP program particularly tricky for many Chief Security Officers, boards and would-be principals: They’re simply not familiar with EP, and they’re starting from scratch.
Borrowing from Michael Watkins, who has written extensively on managing business and career transitions, this blog examines some of the key issues that companies should be aware of when starting a new EP program.
From no EP program to a working program – even at a small scale. The addition of a second principal to an existing program can in many ways also be considered a startup, as can succession from one CEO to another.
Get an EP program running where there has been none, or get an EP program running for a new principal.
- Bringing about the realization that a professional EP program is necessary, feasible and a sound investment.
- Gathering the capabilities and defining the processes that will make it happen.
- Delivering a first impression of operational excellence – even if this is more of a “baby step” than a giant leap forward.
Lack of experience with corporate EP. The corporation has no expertise or track record in EP, no “this is how we usually do it”, and normally no one on board with any practical EP insight.
What is more, preconceived notions and misconceptions abound. Although a CSO might have a clear idea about the differences between professional EP and “bodyguards”, the principal and most of the board probably won’t. Understandably, most executives with no EP experience will easily confuse the tabloid image of intrusive bodyguards with the reality of well-trained EP agents. They will quickly pull up the same pictures of close protection as the general population: Hollywood stars walking behind a phalanx of muscle-bound men in black; scruff-ups with paparazzi; insensitive indiscretions and tell-all book deals.
That means the most important barrier to initiating a corporate EP program is ignorance of what EP actually is (and isn’t).
It is often the case that everyone involved in a new corporate EP program will have to reassess their conception of EP. So one of our most important tasks in the start-up phase is establishing clarity about the nature of a professional EP program and its actual value. This has direct communication consequences for a wide range of C-level players, starting with the principal, board and CSO. As we discussed in our blog on the Corporate EP Ecosystem, however, we need to collaborate and communicate with many other stakeholders throughout the organization.
Building the corporate EP network from scratch
A brand new EP program will have no established network to rely on, so every connection to every stakeholder will have to be created and nurtured. Let’s look at just a few of the departments with which a new program will need to build strong bridges of mutual understanding in order to overcome a lack of experience with corporate EP.
Finance needs to deal with unpredictable costs
EP finances are often different than those of other corporate departments. Among other things, everyone from accounts payable to the CFO will need to understand the vagaries of EP budgeting: When the CEO decides to take an unplanned trip in the middle of a budget year, the variable costs of EP advance planning, travel and manpower shoot up with every new itinerary.
HR needs to hire a new kind of employee
Corporate EP programs may also send HR departments on a steep learning curve. If the program includes insourcing EP agents and/or a manager, HR departments will need to hire, develop and remunerate entirely different kinds of employees than those essential to their core businesses. It should be noted that those who view EP manager and agent positions as easy “retirement jobs” for most military veterans or former law enforcement officers do so at their peril. HR recruiters need to realize that these are specialist roles best filled by qualified candidates.
Staffing levels must be correct from the start or soon become so. Applying corporate cookie-cutter staffing policies and procedures to EP agents who might be called on to work 80-hour weeks and spend more time on the road than at home will have its own consequences.
Another HR issue is training: Even well-trained EP agents are only as good as their readiness, and readiness depends on constantly keeping complacency at bay. Some EP skills are perishable, and while HR departments new to EP may find courses in, for example, emergency driving, more “nice to have” than “need to have”, this unfamiliarity with EP best practices should not be allowed to impinge on the program’s overall effectiveness.
Executive Administrative Assistants add a new stakeholder
A good EP program depends on close cooperation with the EAA. EAAs need to see EP personnel as partners, not competitors; EP managers need to see EAAs as more than gatekeepers.
Most Chief Security Officers have little or no practical experience with setting up or running a corporate EP program, and thus face particular challenges.
One thing is sure: All eyes will be on the new EP program; all services will be examined critically – especially during the initial phases of the startup-up. For the CSO, the stakes can seem daunting. There are risks, and although the potential rewards are high if the program succeeds, so are the repercussions in case of program failure.
- Navigating new territory without a map: Since EP is a relatively new component of many corporate security programs, CSOs have no established patterns to follow. Standard best practices are not known; benchmarking with industry leaders is difficult; make-buy decisions regarding program set-up are unclear.
- Conflicting interests: It is not uncommon that the corporation’s board of directors mandates an EP program for a CEO – even though the principal perceives no need for EP and has no desire to be any part of it. Boards have their own reasons for mandating EP, which may not be aligned with the principal or his/her immediate staff. In the case of EP, it is the CSO’s job to make everyone happy – or at least to minimize dissatisfaction – and that may include navigating between interests apparently at odds with each other.
- CEO scrutiny: The results of the CSO’s work on a new EP program suddenly become very visible, significant and personal for a CEO with whom he may not otherwise have much interaction. While few CEOs dig into the minutiae of campus security guards or biometric door locks, you can be sure that all will have an opinion on an EP program and EP agents. These opinions are quickly directed to the CSO responsible for the EP program.
- Complex reporting lines: Even in convoluted matrix organizations, employees are seldom in doubt as to “who is the boss”. Corporate EP is a little different. Most CEOs will defer to the chain of command if they notice a lower-level company employee who needs to be nudged, reprimanded or ultimately replaced. But if the principal doesn’t like an EP agent – for whatever reason – personal preferences trump corporate hierarchy every time. Similarly, if the CEO’s assistant lets the EP manager know that a sudden, unbudgeted trip has come up, there is probably no time for special procedures to exceed agreed budgets. Dotted lines become stronger than solid lines in an instant, and CSOs need to take responsibility for the whole show.
Important early wins
In light of the challenges we briefly discuss above, a few initial victories emerge clearly for those who are tasked with starting up a corporate EP program from scratch.
- Acceptance of the need for EP: The first must-win battle is gaining approval from the board and principal to provide at least some EP services somewhere, some time. It often makes good sense to commence an EP program with “baby steps” rather than a full-blown, 24-7-365 program. This gives everyone involved the opportunity to experience first-hand what professional EP actually is. If done properly, it also makes clear corporate EP’s all-important collateral benefits: improved travel logistics and increased productivity.
- Operational excellence: First impressions matter. Another must-win battle is that of EP quality. It is essential that the principal and the rest of the organization meet only well trained and carefully selected EP agents always, of course, and especially in the early days of the program. While the program might able to survive a less-than-optimal EP agent after running for a while, if the principal’s and organization’s initial perceptions of program quality are negative, it might be too late to fix the reputation of a program that got off to a bad start.
- Relation building: Creating bridges rather than walls between key stakeholders in the organization is critical, for without these the EP program will flounder. To do so EP professionals involved in a start-up program must realize that they have a double role: Not only must they execute their jobs flawlessly; they must also develop stakeholder understanding of what good EP is and how it happens. This will involve a lot of explaining and, not least, relentlessly demonstrating a professional EP approach throughout the corporate EP ecosystem.
Be sure to check out our upcoming blogs, where we use the same model to look at two other corporate EP challenges: the turnaround of a struggling program, and the maintenance and continual improvement of a successful program.