Preparing the next generation of leadership in executive protection

April 30, 2019 - By Christian West

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Is the executive protection industry doing enough to prepare its next generation of leaders? We don’t think so.

Let’s start with ourselves: We’re working on it, but even our own company isn’t doing enough. Although we have been fortunate to produce some great leaders – and we have – the process has not been systematic and repeatable. Of course, we have hired some amazing people who are natural leaders and have contributed greatly to our success, but we have not created a pipeline that can produce these leaders with predictable success. We don’t know of any other company in the industry – big or small – doing enough, either.

EP schools are not (yet) in the business of developing EP leadership

In addition to EP companies, who else could participate in developing EP leaders? EP schools are the obvious answer. Industry bodies and corporations using considerable numbers of EP agents are the less obvious answer.

Unfortunately, EP schools are, by and large, teaching the same sets of (hard) skills as they did 20 years ago. These courses are designed to improve the skill sets of individual EP agents, not develop EP managers. This is all good as far as it goes, and our own Academy is doing the same, but it doesn’t go far enough in terms of leadership development. If we look ahead at the kinds of talent we will need in the future, what schools are doing now is necessary but not sufficient.

What we need in addition is management (leadership) training. This would help potential leaders to develop their influence and authority, better understand how corporations work, and why the concept of enterprise security risk management is increasingly important to them. It would also prepare coming EP managers to get things done in teams, work with and through other people, and develop others as part of their job. We need this kind of EP leadership talent now; and if we and the rest of the industry are to continue to grow as we have done in the past 10 years, we will need a lot more of it in the coming decade.

Why don’t schools offer this training? It comes down to simple economics, supply and demand. Private schools are in the business of selling courses for which there is sufficient demand; there is apparently not enough demand – i.e., paying customers – to create a reliable supply of courses.

ASIS does, in fact, offer a range of leadership development programs and courses – for example in cooperation with Wharton in the U.S. and IE in Spain.  These are great courses that are meant to develop business acumen and leadership skills, but the target group is more at the CSO level than at the level of the EP team lead, and we don’t know of any EP professionals who have gone this route. Maybe more should. Similarly, the IPSB is doing a lot of great things, but this young organization has not yet progressed to the point where it is supporting the industry to develop leadership.

Finally, let’s not forget the corporations that hire considerable numbers of agents, both directly as FTEs and indirectly through companies like AS Solution and others. Although all major corporations using EP want well-trained agents and managers, not all are willing to invest in training and leadership development. Even fewer are interested in or capable of conceiving and implementing successful leadership development programs for the EP departments that are peripheral to their core businesses. Instead, we see too many examples of companies understaffing EP programs – also with their own FTEs – and relying on one or a few “key persons”. This leads to burnout, rather than developing people and teams.

Why the EP industry needs the next generation of EP leaders so badly…

Developing EP professionals who work independently in remote programs all around the world into leaders is a real challenge – and one we already face now. Getting them to think strategically about the broader context of our work, ask relevant questions about what we’re doing and how to optimize it, and get even better at understanding and articulating the value-add that we provide to clients are all things we need to improve as we grow.

But the entire EP industry is growing, too. There will be more work for all of us as more clients demand our services in the future. If AS Solution is going to keep up – and if other companies want to compete at the top end of the industry – we all need more and better leaders now for two reasons, both of which are central to the professionalization of the EP industry:

  1. Operational optimization: As we grow, optimizing the performance of existing EP teams working for clients and adding new high-performing teams will become even more critical. Ensuring that we deliver real value to our clients depends, among other things, on developing people and continuous improvement, both of which require hands-on leadership at multiple levels. No one person and no small group of senior leaders can provide this leadership at scale – we simply have to add leadership talent to the organization as it expands.
  2. Business development: We’ve pointed out many times that the business of executive protection is, well, a business. No matter how much we love the protection work that we do, if we don’t do it through companies that also do all the less exciting things like finance, HR, and sales well, we won’t achieve profitable growth – and we won’t be around to serve any clients at all.  To keep up with growing demand, we need more leaders who understand what it takes to grow the business as well as what it takes to develop protection programs.

…and the kinds of leaders we need

Like all other organizations, we would also like our coming leaders to have basic leadership qualities like integrity, empathy, loyalty and excellent communication and decision-making skills. And as we point out above, it’s also critical that they have business experience and acumen: they need to know how corporations think and organize; they must understand the basics of running a business and how major corporations run their businesses; they can make and keep a budget, deliver on plans, etc., and they can deal with the many stakeholders that we come into contact with – everyone from the CSO, the CEO and the CEO’s executive admin assistant to people in procurement and finance.

Unlike many of the corporations we serve, however, we can’t simply recruit the next batch of leaders from MBA programs. The kinds of leaders we need within the niche industry of executive protection must have operational executive protection experience, too. They know their EP stuff because they have tried a lot of EP stuff. They’ve worked for corporate and high net worth clients, both as team members and as team leaders. They know what works and doesn’t. They’ve participated in the various stages of EP program development (startup, turnaround, re-align, sustain high performance), and they have EP management experience.

What’s preventing the EP industry from developing more and better leaders? The EP industry

I think there are a lot of reasons that we are now facing a leadership crunch in the industry. For one thing, there are a lot of us alpha types who have come up our own. But being a good founder doesn’t necessarily make you a great leader. We’re entrepreneurs who have started companies out of nothing and built them up; we’re ex-bouncers, ex-military, ex-LEO, but there aren’t many corporate types among us. We’ve been growing fast using the management and HR principles that have worked for us at the initial stages of our growth, and, in general, things are going pretty damn well, really. But you don’t need a crystal ball to understand that this will only take us so far.

We’ve changed and adapted over the years, but if we’re going to keep up with our clients’ needs, we need to re-align and move even faster. We can try to assign blame for this situation to others, as we pointed out above – to training schools, industry bodies, corporate clients – but ultimately, we have to claim responsibility ourselves: we got ourselves into this situation, and we will have to get ourselves out of it.

This is actually a great problem to have! Since we can’t expect others to fix this, we’ve decided to come up with our own fixes. It’s a work in progress – and we look forward to sharing more about it in later blogs.

See more information about our approche to executive protection here

Photo by Markus Spiske 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.