Why the wrong framing causes dysfunctional executive protection programs

January 27, 2020 - By Christian West & Brian Jantzen


We’ve written extensively about what makes executive protection programs work. In the first of this new blog series, we turn our focus to what makes EP programs not work.

When we started to think about this topic, it soon became clear that we could write extensively about this, too. For starters, though, we’re going to limit ourselves to the first of six dysfunctions that we think are the main ones and responsible for a lot of trouble in both corporate and high net worth protection:

1. Dissimilar framing of what executive protection is all about

2. Poor scoping of executive protection programs

3. Inappropriate span of control in executive protection programs

4. Poor executive protection program leadership

5. An environment of fear in executive protection programs

6. Too much ego in executive protection programs

As in other areas of life, these dysfunctional traits are related, and one problem often leads to another. On their own, any one of these six things is enough to cause trouble and ultimately derail an otherwise healthy EP program. If two or three of them rear their ugly heads together, then things get even worse. If all of these preventable problems are allowed to take root and grow, well, you’ve probably got a disaster of a program on your hands. It happens.

This blog series will take a look at each of these dysfunctions in turn. Let’s start at the beginning with a very basic problem: when clients and providers talk about executive protection, they’re sometimes not even talking about the same thing.

Dissimilar framing of what executive protection is all about causes a lot of program dysfunction

Just as a frame defines what’s in and out of a painting or photograph, sociologists use framing to describe how we use stereotypes and stories to understand and communicate about reality and what’s in and out of the categories we use to talk about it.

Framing helps us put complex, messy things into neat little boxes – and thus helps us communicate in simpler ways as we muddle through our shared reality. When we use the same frames for the same things, framing is really helpful. When we use dissimilar frames to talk about the same things, framing causes trouble.

Dissimilar framing of executive protection leads to confusion and, ultimately, to program dysfunction. New clients’ frame of reference for executive protection is often defined by what they see about “bodyguards” in the media. And why wouldn’t this be the case, since all most people know about personal protection is what they see in Hollywood movies and the popular press? That frame of reference is quite different than ours, however, which is defined by several decades of working with corporations and high net worth individuals.

To make matters worse, not even all of us working in the executive protection industry frame what we do in the same way. As we’ve written about previously, ours is an industry in sore need of standardization. Agreed standards would contribute greatly to shared frames of reference for what is good and bad executive protection service.

If you take a look around the industry, it’s clear that many providers have a different frame of reference. Big shops can be very different than mom & pops. Some teams rely heavily on protective intelligence and advances; others don’t. North American and European perspectives are different. Someone used to the resources that the Secret Service spends protecting POTUS will be in for a rude awakening in even the most ambitious corporate programs (and their budget rounds).

From our point of view, the framing of corporate and high net worth EP should be about more than keeping the principal out of harm’s way. It’s also about enhancing productivity and providing service in a way that respects the client’s personal preferences and lifestyle. We are more than fit people who can fight.  We will most likely not save your life every day, but we can help you optimize your time and focus no matter where your job or interests take you. We need to communicate with clients about the value proposition of a well-run, comprehensive EP program and the soft skills that make this possible – not just about the hard skills. It is far more complex than that.  

Dissimilar framing of a professional service like ours leads to poorly managed expectations about things that matter – to the program dysfunctions we mentioned above – and more.

So, how do we fix the problem of dissimilar framing? We calibrate framing through communication and education

If clients are not familiar with executive protection practices (and again, how would most people acquire the insights and perspectives that it has taken the rest of us decades to develop?), then it’s up to us to make our framing of the key issues very explicit.

To take just one example, in our frame of reference, it’s clear that sustainment training is a critical part of any good program. Without this, perishable EP skills diminish and team readiness suffers. For many new clients, this comes as a surprise: Why can’t we just find some agents who have received training and know what they’re doing? If ongoing training is not part of the client’s framing of personal protection services, then it’s up to us to communicate about the pros and cons of including sustainment training as we calibrate framing.

Common practices are not necessarily best practices or even good practices

New EP clients naturally look to what their counterparts at other companies are doing to establish a frame of reference. Unfortunately, in our profession, common practices are not necessarily best practices or even good practices.  If a new client uses an EP program that has fallen afoul of one or more of these dysfunction-causing issues (and this happens), then this shared reference does more harm than good.

To calibrate a shared frame of reference, we need to clearly describe how we view executive protection best practices. It’s on us, as providers of a specialist service with which many new clients do not have much experience, to take the lead here. This calibration process includes talking through issues like leadership and proper scoping and span of control – as mentioned above – as well as SOPs, training, quality control, and many other issues that impact program success. When we communicate and educate about best practices consistently over time, we earn the role of trusted advisors – not commodity vendors.

Such framing calibration happens increasingly in well-run RFP processes where

  1. The point of departure, the agreed frame of reference, is best-in-class personal protection with all that this entails. Clients should have the opportunity to benchmark their security needs against those of others in similar situations and to understand how a solid, contemporary EP program is dimensioned and run.
  2. Once they understand what’s at stake, clients actively choose which components of such well-run programs they do and do NOT want to include. Personal preferences and budget considerations vary, of course, but the opportunity to choose from a full palette of tested risk mitigation methods should be constant.
  3. The scope of work (SOW) clearly delineates what is in and out of frame. In our experience, the more granular these SOWs get, the better.

Both in RFP processes and after, defining in clear terms how program success looks is an important step towards shared framing. We need to establish consensus around this picture of success, and we need to document it in the form of metrics and key performance indicators that can help us identify gaps between current and ideal states. We then need to protect this consensus with regular meetings with relevant stakeholders to agree on corrective actions to keep things on track. Over time and cumulatively, it is such efforts that drive a shared understanding of why the EP program does what it does – and provide regular opportunities to align our framing of program quality.  

Well, that’s our first take on the most critical causes of dysfunctional EP teams. We’ll be back with more later. In the meantime, ping us on social media to let us know whether the framing of this problem works for you!

Photo by pine watt 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.

Brian Jantzen

Executive Vice President

After leaving the US Marine Corps as a captain in the early 1990s, Brian has pioneered corporate executive protection services internationally for Fortune 500 companies, high net worth families and NGOs.

Brian has provided protection at the highest levels of corporate and philanthropic environments in over 35 countries. With his demonstrated ability to align security operations with both the client’s organizational goals and personal preferences, Brian uses his strong relationship building, collaboration and project and vendor management expertise to create security solutions that deliver program efficiencies and customer satisfaction. Brian graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Sociology and is the subject matter expert chair for the ASIS Executive Protection Council.