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Becoming a Trusted Advisor
Posted June 19, 2012

What does it take?

By David L. Johnson, DABCHS, CHS-V

During the 2012 Protective Security Conference hosted by Michael Nossaman and Varro Press, I heard an oft-repeated common theme amongst executive protection practitioners attending the conference and observed that this theme was incorporated into a number of presentations delivered at the conference.  That theme is a common goal of executive protection professionals the world over and we all strive, or should be striving, to meet the goal that it articulates:  to become the trusted advisor on matters of personal security to our Principals.  What we espouse by that statement is a desire for our protectees to recognize that we possess specialized training, education and experience specifically related to personal protection issues and that as professionals, we can provide sound advice on matters that may concern them.  Without reservation, I support the desire and efforts to achieve that goal.  Seasoned agents can measure themselves by this standard when evaluating the success of their professional ambitions. 

It sounds good but it may not be a goal that is easily achieved.  Like respect, it is something that must be earned and this status is generally not given lightly.  Before we can achieve this status with any given Principal, we must generally earn a position of special faith, trust and confidence.  Only then, in my experience, will we occupy that position of being the trusted advisor.  So, in the days since the conference I have given some thought to the issue and having enjoyed that special status on a few occasions, I started to think about what it takes to get there. 

You Won’t Always Get What You Want – But So What?

One of the things that I think we all need to recognize is that we will not always get there.  Most of the time, the very nature of the beast in the private sector sometimes does not allow the kind of longer-term tenure needed to develop that kind of special faith, trust and confidence that we must develop with our protectee.  I just finished a trip supporting a colleague of mine who had won a contract to support a star-studded special event, red carpet and all.  There were a number of protectees at the venue, a number of protection professionals and we got to support them for an approximate total of 48 – 72 hours all in all.  Not a one of them ever saw me as I assisted the operation from the command post position.  Not once did I ever get to provide sage advice to a protectee and none of them know my name or would recognize my face.  That’s ok, that’s a part of this profession but just because I did not get to be the “trusted advisor” to a well known entertainer at that event, it doesn’t mean I did not enjoy that status.  In fact, I did.  If not to the protectee, then who valued my contributions in such a way? 

I would like to think my boss did.  In fact, his actions indicated he did as while this successful practitioner, company owner and successful contract winner went about his planning and coordination efforts, every once in a while, he’d bounce an idea or a concept off of me to get my feedback and input.  He gave me authority to make decisions, to allocate resources, to provide direction, to coordinate activities between protective teams and to lead various portions of his efforts.  I also enjoyed having younger agents ask for guidance, suggestions and my opinion on options they were weighing.  Some of the seasoned agents on the team did the same thing.  You know what?  That’s not a bad thing as sometimes two heads are better than one and to them, at those select times, I was the trusted advisor.

This aspect is not limited to the private sector; I sometimes found the same kind of circumstances during my US Army career.  As the Chief of Investigative Support for the US Army’s Protective Services Unit, we had some pretty well known names listed amongst our protectees.  General Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The Honorable Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense and the list goes on to include other civilian leaders and outstanding and distinguished General Officers.  Though my job title sounds lofty, not a one of them would recognize my name.  A couple might remember my face but my job did not involve day-to-day contact with them.  There were Team Chiefs and Personal Security Officers (PSO) that directly supported them who earned the trusted advisor role with those protectees.  But I was a behind the scenes trusted advisor to those trusted advisors from time to time.  It is an honor to be in that position whenever one can be.  When the primary interface between your organization and its Principals seeks advice and counsel from you, you help empower those people to be successful in their endeavors and to achieve the overall goals of the organization you support at the time!

Now, at times, we will be that primary interface with the protectee and will strive to develop that special relationship that is defined by being the “trusted advisor” and earning that kind of confidence is done the same way as you earn the “trusted advisor” status to others in our profession.  How can that be done?

Be Tactically and Technically Proficient – Not Necessarily in That Order

I believe that one of the things a person needs to be in order to be that “trusted advisor” is to be proficient in the skill and knowledge base.  We live in a world that is a bit different than other professions.  If you are a carpenter then you spend a lot of time becoming proficient with the tools of your trade: hammer, saw, tape measure, etc.  A carpenter uses those tools every day of his profession.  In our world we spend a lot of time, or should be, learning how to use the tools of our trade on the tactical side of the house:  evasive driving skills, Attack on Principal drills, guns, etc. but if we are doing our job well, we don’t get to use those skills every day.  Which is a good thing but it leads to a challenge that carpenters don’t have.  When a carpenter’s boss watches the carpenter work, he or she can tell the quality of the carpenter’s work by looking at it.  Most of our Principals don’t know we can spin a car around on a dime and, hopefully, never get to watch us do a weapons take away technique. 

What they do get to look at is whether or not we are technically proficient and whether or not we get them to the appointed place at the appointed time without getting lost.  Do we know who they are sitting with at the next event?  Do we have sound answers to the daily questions they may ask us?  Do we appear to have good cordons of security set up?  Do we have the cars in good shape, clean and full of gas when they are ready to go?

Since they are more likely to evaluate us on the technical side of our house, we have to shine in that arena to begin developing their trust.  However, we must be tactically proficient as well.  If we ever encounter that one situation where we must do what it is we get paid to do when things go bad, we only have one chance to get that right.  There are two aspects to this when it comes to seeking that trusted advisor status: 

  1. Unless we are tactically proficient the others who ply this trade who evaluate us will not select us as their trusted advisor and we will not earn their respect if we cannot pass the tactical common sense test, and;
  2. If you ever have to display your tactical proficiency in front of a Principal (hoping that is a successful endeavor at that time), you will be there – that single incident will put you in that status.

Therefore, if my hypothesis of how we get evaluated by our Principals is correct, we must be on top of the technical proficiency thing on a daily basis and in the process of becoming the trusted advisor, we will more often than not get there this way than by demonstrating tactical proficiency.

Maintain a Professional Distance

When we get assigned the position of sitting in the right front seat of our Principal’s car, we are occupying a position where we really want to develop that sense of special faith, trust and confidence and be that “trusted advisor.”  That person is the interface between the protectee and the protective detail.  One of the challenges is presented by basic human dynamics.  Very often we are working for people we can inherently respect and admire.  Sometimes we may even desire to emulate the success they have had in their careers in either achieving some kind of status or amassing wealth.  On the other hand, we often work long hours, facilitate their activities, support their efforts and make sacrifices they recognize as burdens on our families such as long separations from our home life while we escort them through their family vacations. 

We can end up liking each other but be very wary of letting this go too far.  If we become a surrogate son or daughter, it has gone too far.  You can actually loose respect, not only from your fellow agents but from your protectee as well.  Why?  Because you lose objectivity.  If you become too close in that interpersonal relationship and it comes time for you to make recommendations there is a tendency to lose perspective and objectivity.  All of your recommendations should be weighed against threat conditions, environmental factors, availability of resources and be objective when evaluating the security concerns.  If you  get too close, or your Principal gets too close to you objectivity is lost.  “Aw come on, nothing is going to happen anyway…”  It’s a trap that should be avoided.

Provide Sound Advice – No Fear Sales Allowed

We will have two occasions, generally speaking, when it becomes our turn to provide advice and counsel:

  1. When something develops in our world that compels us to speak up and offer unsolicited advice, and;
  2. When we get asked for input

Sometimes things develop in our world that causes some kind of security concern and we become aware of it.  When that happens, we need to evaluate it and figure out what to do about it.  Make sure you think it through.  Think out the alternative courses of action and attempt to anticipate the consequences of a) doing nothing about it and b) the logical consequences of each alternative course of action you develop.  Do not make a habit of simply piping up and saying this thing is happening! If you have no suggested course of action when passing the item of concern to your protectee, then you are not providing advice and counsel; you are leaving it up to them to decide your fate (as well as theirs) and you abdicate the position of trusted advisor.  Not to mention: those who do just that build a reputation of Chicken Little – always hollering about the sky falling.

Whether you develop the input that needs to be moved up the ladder or the person at the top of the ladder asks you for input on a security related concern, think it through and be prepared to justify your position.  Why is it better to do what you are recommending and not chose an alternate solution?  If you can defend your position and pass the Principal’s common sense test, you are enhancing your professional relationship and building the foundation for being that trusted advisor.

Respect Chains of Command

Sometimes that person in the right front seat of the car has other bosses besides the Principal.  Other key stakeholders in the Principal’s organization have authority over things we may want or need.  If you are working for a Chief Security Officer (CSO) in a corporate environment while providing protective services to the CEO, then that CSO is among the people you want to become a trusted advisor to.  If you circumvent that relationship, you will suborn and undermine the relationship the CSO has with the CEO.  “Face Time”, in the world of some important people is term used by some to determine who is more important in the overall scheme of things.  The internal pecking order of the organization can be defined by this term.  It means who has more time in front of the boss sometimes ranks higher because they get more “face time” than someone else does.  It can become very petty but it is a real dynamic in some organizations.  By our mere position as a PSO, we often get more “face time” with our Principals than the CSO might.  If one attempts to exploit that relationship in an inappropriate manner, one can not only undermine their own reputation, they run the risk of having their Principal, who will likely as not recognize the inappropriate behavior, think ill of them.  One may well also be undermining the CSO and the organizational goals.  Normally, this is not a wise career choice.

As PSOs we may get either one of those two chances we previously discussed to provide substantial input on the security issue concerned but if you have a chain of command, make sure you keep them advised, up to date and that you develop that special faith, trust and confidence with them as well. 

Do Not Be A Fair Weather Friend

Providing protection is kind of like being married:  there will be both good and bad times in the deal.  Though we don’t take the same oath (for better or worse) when we sign up to be a protection agent as we do when we sign up to be a spouse, it is the same experience.  Or should be. 

We can go weeks, months and even years in the good times.  Making good money just kind of facilitating movements and escorting our charges through life while nothing really serious happens.  Then one day the phone will ring, some protective intelligence item will arise or we will observe something that indicates the weather may be turning foul on us.  If you have taken the pay during all of the good times, all the while espousing yourself as a hardened, seasoned protector and then start demonstrating lack of confidence when the rough patches in the road start making your car bounce, you have lost this war.  If you start making statements within the team context such as “I didn’t sign up for this” and start making excuses on why you shouldn’t be a part of this or that activity, well then that will speak for itself.  You’re out of the running as “trusted advisor” for the long term and will lose the respect of all of those who are professional.  

No matter whether you are in the public or private sectors, you cost a lot of money and a lot of resources are devoted to a protective program that could be used elsewhere.  It is for the bad times, the worst case scenario and to solve those problems that they keep folks like us around for.

Solve just one of those and you’re in!

Communicate Well – Both Oral and Written Communications Matter

There is another aspect to earning this “trusted advisor” status:  you need to be able to communicate well, in both oral and written formats.  Our protectees have other “trusted advisors” in their world and more often than not, you will need to rise to their level in this realm.  Most of the Principals I have ever heard about have staffs.  Executive Assistants, General Counsels, Chief Financial Officers, Agents all abound in our world and sometimes these folks even have staffs of their own.  We need to be able to speak to them in terms they understand, so we often have to develop an enhanced vocabulary.  Being a retired US Army Non-Commissioned Officer, profanity laced my functional vocabulary and it was sometimes very effective at motivating younger soldiers!  However, that vocabulary does not go over well when trying to convince a CFO to get behind some initiative that I am advocating.  Remember, he or she has to figure out where they are going to cut funds from to provide me with what I want.  Those funds often come from somewhere else in an already approved budget.  You can bet big money on the fact that the manager of the area about to experience fund cuts will voice concerns up their chain as well! 

So we sometimes need to learn to speak to the audience concerned and remember to be ready to justify our position based upon credible information whenever possible.  Sometimes we have to write things down, prepare cost estimates and/or provide briefings.  This is where the written format comes into play.  If I, as the trusted advisor on matters of personal security, want an armored car for some reason, then I need to understand others will get to weigh in on that decision.  The trusted advisor for all things related to money will get to pitch in two cents (forgive the pun) on the issue.  If I can’t justify why we need to spend $180K on a car with a certain level of ballistic protection over the same kind of car, that rides smoother and is just a pretty and possesses all of the same amenities and only costs $120K, then the CFO may well become an internal adversary.  Not because he or she doesn’t like me or doesn’t care about the bosses’ safety but because it is their charge to look after the finances. 

If I can’t provide justification, specifications and cost data in terms they understand, they may forward a position within the organization that says something like: “That Dave is a great guy and a good security dude, but he just doesn’t understand finances at all…”  That undermines my effort to become that trusted advisor and it is my fault for not advocating my position well.  If I am given a petty cash fund to manage and I’m always going back into the finance guys for more money without being able to show a clear audit trail, then I’m not only subject to having disparaging comments thrown my way but can become suspect of wrong doing, fund diversion or worse.  That won’t help, will it?

If my written reports, threat assessments, fund requests, or other documents are not well written, all done in the same font, well formatted, in the same style then I’m not at the level of professional communications that the other “trusted advisors” are in.  You can bet their assistants all know Microsoft Office suite of programs well enough to format photographs, develop charts and tables, create forms and spread sheets, manipulate Excel formulas and create written communications that are effective.  One of the things that I think agents sometimes overlook is that the written document can often be the first impression other key stakeholders may get of us.  If we can win them there, then they can become active supporters in our quest to become that “trusted advisor.”  

Can you provide a briefing that is succinct and to the point?  Can you support it with a PowerPoint presentation that is well done, actively supports your efforts and contains elements of style, formatting, text wrapping and animation?  The other trusted advisors can and if we can then we are walking on the same platform as they do and subtlety building our credibility.

Conclusion

As one considers this role of “trusted advisor” and whether or not one has achieved that status somewhere or how one gets there, I would submit that the concept is broader than just defining the relationship between the protectee and their senior protective agents.  The scope of that status should extend to all of those around you in this endeavor.  If you’re not the one with your name on the blame line or sitting in the right front seat of the car but the person who occupies those positions comes to you for advice, you’re there and can make significant contributions.  If you have developed the professional reputation necessary for other seasoned protective agents to feel comfortable in seeking advice and counsel from you on issues they are weighing, you’re there.  If entry level practitioners seek your advice and counsel on issues they are evaluating or trying to learn, not only are you a “trusted advisor” you also have the opportunity to become a mentor and the intangible rewards of that relationship can be great.

If you haven’t gotten there yet, likely as not, it is only a matter of gaining more experience in the field.  Seek assignments that vary in size, scope, configuration, threat condition and environment.  Make your experience base as broad as you can.  Maintain professional distance and objectivity.  Always have a well thought out solution for problems you are going to raise and be able to justify your positions.  Communicate well.  Learn to “compete” with the other “trusted advisor” peer group in the written communication context.  Avoid the fear sales and weather the storms.  Recognize that you must be tactically proficient to be confident and competent in your job but that it is the technical proficiency that you will likely to be judged by.  If you can do all of that, you are either already there or will be shortly!

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