Things I learned being a bouncer that have helped my career in executive protection

April 9, 2019 - By Christian West

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Many paths lead to great careers in executive protection. Backgrounds in the military, law enforcement, and other governmental protective roles are probably what comes to mind first for a lot of people; and, to be sure, there are definitely plenty of successful folks in our industry who got their start in this way. Colleagues with completely different sets of qualifications have also blogged about how they broke into the industry. Rachel pivoted into EP when a planned career in intelligence hit the road bump of a governmental job freeze once she finished college. Max started out working in insurance before transitioning into security. Both are now excellent protective agents who already have a lot of experience under their belts and can look forward to a bright future.

My own protection career began working as a bouncer in Denmark, where I was born and raised. Way before I worked for other security companies or founded AS Solution, I worked the door.

I didn’t know it back then, and certainly wouldn’t have articulated it in so many words if you had asked me at 3:00 a.m. on any given Saturday night, but today I’m really grateful for all the things I picked up being a bouncer. The lessons I learned in my late teens and early 20s working night club security, first in Copenhagen and other Danish towns, then in other cities around Europe, have served me well in executive protection. The funny thing, as I later discovered, is that a lot of colleagues in the industry got their start in security the same way and feel the same: there are a lot of things you learn as a bouncer that really help you later on in an executive protection career. As Anton Kalaydjian, CEO and founder of Guardian Professional Security puts it, “Working in the club environment, in South Florida especially, has helped lay the foundation for our celebrity protection division.”

In this blog, I’d like to reflect on some of the things I learned as a bouncer that have come in handy working in executive protection. To do so, I’ll pull from my own experience and that of some colleagues who also have the honor of writing “bouncer” on their resumés.

Although bouncers have to be ready to rumble, the good ones almost never use physical force and rely on emotional intelligence instead

While the stereotypical bouncer might be big and physically intimidating, this is by no means true for all. Just ask some of my colleagues who have also bounced: most of them don’t look anything like Hodor, and none of them talk like him, either.

I quickly learned that fighting doesn’t solve most of the challenges that bouncers run into. This is a common lesson for others, too. For one thing, there’s always someone who is bigger than you, has more notches and colors on their martial arts belts than you do, or is more of a psycho with no conscience than you are. For another, no club owner wants trouble: turning a place that people go to for a good time into a war zone is not good for business. If you’re quick to fight instead of figuring out smarter ways to prevent, deescalate, or end conflicts, you’ll quickly be out of a job.

Guess what: Corporate and celebrity executive protection clients are a lot like nightclub owners in this respect. They’ve got businesses to run and reputations to protect, and they’re not interested in any kind of EP-induced drama.

What you need to be a good bouncer and a good EP agent is emotional intelligence, not brute strength. Yes, there are hard skills that you need to learn and be able to use, but you also need to have the empathy to figure out where other people are at, the communication skills to convince, and the ability to think fast on your feet.  We’ll expand on aspects of emotional intelligence in some of the points below.

Bouncers don’t have any formal authority, but they still have to enforce guidelines and modify the behavior of others

Unlike soldiers, police, or high school principals, bouncers don’t have any real authority. They can’t detain, arrest, or suspend you. But bouncers do have to enforce whatever rules the nightclub owner might have (e.g., don’t bring in booze or drugs, don’t bother other guests, etc.). To change people’s behavior they have to convince, not flash a badge, and ideally keep everyone smiling. They have to learn how to be authoritative without falling back on some symbol of authority. They need all of their emotional intelligence (as mentioned above) and some of the other traits we’ll mention below.

The same is true for executive protection agents, who don’t have any actual authority, either – but still need to get things done and get others to help them do it. For example, in the early days of AS Solution, one of my first international trips for a new corporate client brought us to a country where the local management had been preparing for the CEO’s visit for more than a year. They had every movement planned out to the Nth degree – without thinking about security in the least. It was my job to tell people that everything they had choreographed so meticulously had to be changed – and to keep everyone smiling.

As my colleague Jared Van Driessche, who’s tried both, puts it: “There’s an art to being a good bouncer and EP agent. Charm, personality, quick decision making, self-deprecating humor and an authoritative (yet unassuming) presence can help you accomplish almost anything for your principals – without a fight or formal authority.”

Jared makes another point about being a good bouncer and EP agent: when you don’t have formal authority, you’ve got to use what you have to get the job done, think creatively – and check your ego at the door. “In my bouncing days, I’d welcome fight challenges within the club or bar. I’d tell them ‘Let’s take it outside’. Then, as soon as the angered patron stepped out to fight me, I’d go back inside and we’d close the door. The person who was a problem inside the club was now outside of the club and was no longer a problem. I’d use the guy’s inflated ego against him. You can’t let your blood boil because someone challenges your manliness. Who cares at the end of the day?”

Bouncers need all their senses to read the crowd – and then some

Whether they’re working at the door or inside the club, bouncers need extremely good situational awareness. Who will soon be too drunk to walk straight? Who’s there to have a good time, who’s looking for trouble? Who’s coming out of left field swinging a baseball bat?

How can you tell? You need to sharpen all your senses. You need eyes in the back of your head. Sometimes you might even need more.

Here’s how my colleague Mac Segal puts it: “Being a bouncer taught me to watch everyone. I remember once when the guy I was working with was sorting out a fight between two guys. All of a sudden, a small, thin young woman hit him in the head with a bottle. When we work EP, especially in crowded spaces at conferences, public events, etc., the threat can come from anywhere and anyone. Not everyone who looks bad is bad, and not everyone who looks harmless is harmless.”

Back to Jared: “When new patrons would walk into our bar or club, we were quick studies to pick up on their motivations by body language and other social indicators. We’d know if they were there to have fun, start something, get women, or cause some mischief. Most often the biggest guys that looked like troublemakers were the ones you had to worry about the least. Why? Because they are huge and don’t have anything to prove since they’ve always had the intimidation factor that prevented them from being tested. They were usually the easiest people to deal with when they got drunk and belligerent. The people to watch out for were the skinny, small, wiry-sinewy guys that had chips on their shoulders.”

Another colleague who started out as a bouncer, Thomas Hald, tells a different story. “Once I started working the doors, I felt something happening after about six months. I began to get a funny feeling inside when I was checking IDs and looking for alcohol, drugs, and weapons. Sometimes it was when a group came into the club, sometimes it was a single person. At first, I didn’t know what the feeling meant. It was like a voice inside me saying ‘Hey, something is not right here’, but since I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t listen to it. As time went on, I slowly started to understand that when this ‘voice’ came, something happened. I now call it my sixth sense, and it’s saved me thousands of times working as an EP agent. I think it’s something we are all born with, but we usually forget when we grow up. Some people never lose it, others find a way to get it back. It’s a very powerful tool if you know have to use it correctly.” What Thomas is referring to reminds me of a Gavin De Becker quote from his great book, The Gift of Fear: “Intuition is always right in at least two different ways: It is always in response to something, and it always has your best interest at heart.”

Bouncers need to work well in teams

When the music’s thumping and the hormones are pumping, bouncers really need to work well in teams. The guy working the door needs to be able to count on the guy working the floor and vice versa. People need to learn from each other. Communication isn’t always easy in the noise and stress, so bouncers have to figure out alternative ways to get their messages across.

I still remember one of my early bouncer colleagues, a Danish guy named Fleming. Fleming was not big, but he had some smart methods. If a guy was causing trouble on the floor, Fleming would approach him and try to talk to him. Whatever the decibel level, Fleming would tell the guy “I can’t hear you, let’s go downstairs so you can explain.” As soon as Fleming and the guy got to the street, Fleming would turn around and go back in. When I was working the door and Fleming came walking out with a guest, I quickly learned that the guest was trouble and was no longer wanted inside. All I had to do was to not let the ex-guest in again.

Bouncers need to tolerate high levels of stress

Working as a bouncer can be really stressful. The hours are what they are, no matter how you slept the night before. The clientele can be nice and rowdy, or just plain rowdy and not so nice. They might be drunk, high, naturally belligerent – or any combination of all three at the same time. Insults, taunts and other provocations directed at you flow as freely as the booze. And you’re the one who has to stay calm, sort things out, and keep people happy.

I was once hired as a troubleshooter by a nightclub that was having a lot of problems with fights and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. On my first night of observation, I noticed that the bouncers started working at 9:00 p.m., when the club opened, and continued without any breaks until 11:00 the next morning. My first recommendation was straightforward: give the guys a 30-minute food break, then another 30-minute break later in their shift. This simple stress-reducer solved most of the club’s problems pretty fast.

Not all problems are this easy to solve, of course. Still, despite the stress, it is possible to thrive in this job. I’ve done it and I’ve seen plenty of other people do it, too. I’ve also seen would-be bouncers who burn out quickly. A good dose of emotional and physical resilience helps here just as it does in EP. In fact, I think working some years as a bouncer can be a good stress test: if you can handle the pressure of keeping nightclub guests safe and fairly happy, you just might do well at keeping corporate clients safe, happy and productive, too.

In conclusion, let’s not forget the famous words of Patrick Swayze in Road House, the bouncer movie that critics love to hate but bouncers working in 1989 still love: “All you have to do is follow three simple rules. One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary. And three, be nice.”

I’d love to hear your ideas on this blog – especially if you have been a bouncer. Ping me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or via email – or comment to a post on social media. Thanks!

Photo by Brandon Erlinger-Ford 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.