By Jared Van Driessche & Christian West
Everybody slips up sometimes. We’re only human after all. And as Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden pointed out, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”
The wisdom of this statement is of course not to encourage inaction to avoid mistakes, but to learn from them.
So in the spirit of helping everyone working in executive protection get a little smarter – and thereby making the whole industry a little sharper at our game – here’s a list of the 10 mistakes we have seen executive protection agents make too many times – and can learn from.
1. Thinking it’s about you
We’re sorry if we’re the ones that have to break this to you, but executive protection is a service industry. It’s never about you. It’s always about the client.
It’s about providing clients with knowhow, activities and circumstances that keep them safe, happy and productive. That’s what the client needs, and that’s why they pay us. Everyone has personal stuff to deal with, so deal with it personally, and don’t bring it to your client.
They don’t need to hear about your day, your life or whatever else might be eating you. Even if some monumental, life-changing event just occurred on your way to work or while you’re on coverage. Actually, they shouldn’t hear about it. Why? Because the relationship is professional, not personal. Although the client might at times spend more time with you than they do with their spouse, it’s still not about you. It’s never about you or your needs. Ouch. Deal with it or find another job.
This can be hard, we know. Life happens when you’re on coverage. Maybe a family member has just died, or you received some horrible news like your parent’s house burned to the ground. Still, when you’re on the job, you’re on the job. The friendly “How are you?” gets answered with a “Good, and you?” rather than an open sharing of what’s also running through your head. Because that could disturb the client’s mind. And it’s not about you.
2. Wanting to be friends with the client
This can be another hard one. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to be friends with the people we spend time and work with, but in the case of executive protection, it’s not a good idea for either the client or you. And certainly not for your career.
First, let’s all understand that being friendly is not the same as being friends. Maintaining a positive and polite tone is one thing. Trying to establish a personal relationship with a client is something else. It’s important that you don’t move out of the lane of your role as protector. Your job description does not include asking clients for favors or business advice, or trying to get family employed. Don’t involve yourself in business that isn’t related to your business.
Agents who do this are overstepping their bounds and trying to cross a five-lane highway. Even though our clients can at times be lonely and insulated, and might themselves make friendly overtures to protective agents, it’s important to maintain a professional distance. Because sooner or later the agent is going to get hit, despite what seemed to be a good level of comfort and rapport. They are taking advantage of the client, not helping him or her.
Another problem some immature agents have is trying to get noticed and get facetime with the client. They might be a little star struck, and they would like to see the feeling reciprocated. They might try to insert themselves into the client’s life, getting too close to them or to their staff.
But folks who are public figures see this all the time, and they’re seldom enamored with people trying play the game of “I want to get close to you”. They’d rather be far away from people like that. Guess which side of this budding personal relationship is going to get nipped, and be looking for work elsewhere?
3. Not respecting others who work around the client
Some people need to feel more important than others and end up making trouble for themselves. Don’t be one of those guys.
This problem arises when an executive protection agent thinks the job is more significant than the work of the client’s executive assistant, estate manager, nanny, chef, house cleaner or other staff. While the agent might be good with the client, he or she isn’t necessarily so with everyone else – and treats them differently, with varying levels of respect.
What our unfortunate agent doesn’t understand is this: the woman who cleans the toilet might have a very close relationship to the family that has lasted for years. They would much rather keep the loyal cleaner than the new EP agent who acts like a jerk to her.
Don’t think you’re your irreplaceable. Anyone can be replaced, starting with ill-mannered executive protection agents. So be respectful of the role others have in the client’s staff and life – that’s a great way to earn their respect, too.
4. Not blending in to client’s lifestyle, company culture or personal preferences
It’s not our job to force our culture or personalities on our clients. It’s our job to fit in.
If you come off as too militaristic, you’re going to make the clients feel like prisoners in their own home. If you act like Robocop around the spouse and children, they’re unlikely to feel comfortable even though they might be safe. And even Mr. Personality might need to take a chill pill, because his perky greetings and chattiness start getting on people’s nerves.
You don’t want to come off like that weird uncle who always manages to show up at the summer garden party in a three-piece suit or the funeral in his favorite Hawaii shirt. You want to blend in, so the client never has to think “who is this guy?!”
Check out Jared’s recent blog on being a social chameleon for way more perspective on this point.
5. Having a big ego does not make you many amigos on the protective team
So let’s get this straight. The client is a big shot, and that makes you one, too. You’re basking in the strong light of the principal’s halo, as the detail leader no less, and your power gives you license to treat other team members poorly.
We’ve seen it happen more than once. A guy who is a capable operator rises through the ranks to assume some management responsibility. He’s very aware of his role and perceived power, and he wields it to his own advantage without worrying about how that impacts other members of the protective team. The principal doesn’t know half the story, and likes him. Until he doesn’t.
One day, the guy rubs the principal’s spouse the wrong way, and he’s on his way off the detail. The next day, he’s looking for work and everyone he treated poorly remembers him exactly for that: being a jerk. And who wants to work with a jerk?
Don’t let your career turn to toast because you let your ego do the driving when you got a bit of influence. Instead, pay it forward. Someone just starting out in the industry might be a strong player in a few years, so be sure not to burn bridges you might need later.
6. Playing favorites
This is another pitfall that too many agents dive right into. It’s understandable because it’s human nature to want to be liked. And it’s yet another a good example of “seemed like a good idea at the time”.
Some agents who don’t get the bigger picture think they are special, and that the client really cares for them. They don’t see anyone else with such a close relationship with the client, and this illusion soon becomes a dangerous pseudo-reality. For one thing, it probably was never true in the first place. But even if it did seem to be, it clouds your judgement and leads to nothing good. Ultimately, it will cost you your job.
Cultivating a culture of favoritism damages team readiness. It’s unhealthy for the wellbeing of the program and the principal. And it’s not a sustainable foundation for anything. The simple fact of the matter is that if you’re the favorite today, someday you won’t be. And where do you go from there? Avoid being the favorite at all costs. With our history of developing and managing EP programs we see people fall into “the favorites trap” all too often.
Favoritism starts out innocently enough and often with the best intentions. The client really likes Tim, and Tim has to do everything. That’s a win-win for a short while, but it soon turns counterproductive.
The detail rapidly becomes a logistical nightmare. Tim will burn out – he’s too close to the client and working too many hours. The rest of the team will suffer – they come off like second-class citizens. The solution is to build everyone up to Tim’s level, not to turn Tim into a fast-flaming fave.
7. Being a control freak
We’re all for being sticklers when it comes to security and following the SOPs designed to safeguard our principals. But we also recognize that even the best of plans sometimes get broadsided by the client, and all for good reason: whatever the client says it is.
Or doesn’t say. You see, it’s the client’s business, not ours. Business opportunities arise suddenly; someone else’s plans changed suddenly. It doesn’t matter. When we’re on the clock, we’re on client time, not ours.
This can be tough for the pack of alpha males and females who often end up in our industry. We’re used to being in control, and we plan carefully. But when you can’t control it, just embrace it. You’ll end up being less stressed, and you won’t stress the client with unnecessary interruptions designed to satisfy your schedule, not the client’s priorities.
8. Trying to take advantage of the client financially
You know this is wrong without us telling you, right? We hope so. And yet, the point deserves a little clarification.
Working with C-suite executives, celebrities and other high net worth clients means moving about in some very different environments than most of us are used to. One day you’re bunking at the Motel 6, the next day you’re staying at the Four Seasons. You’re used to figuring out the cost per ounce when you compare hot dogs at the supermarket, and now you’re figuring out a menu that doesn’t have prices on it, trying to decide what to have for dinner.
It’s easy to think that because the client is wealthy, money doesn’t matter and you might as well try that caviar with gold leaf. It’s also wrongheaded. Money does matter – both in terms of how others will view your judgement and integrity – and to program success.
There’s always a budget for everything. Even if you don’t know what it is, assume someone does and is ready to check your expense reports. Go ahead and order a good meal, but don’t feel sanctioned to order the absolute most expensive item on the menu. Keep a clean path. Pay for your personal items yourself. Agents who go far in this industry respect the client’s wallet and work to save their money.
9. Clogging up information transparency – a.k.a. lying or being selectively honest
It’s true now and it’s been true for thousands of years: Information is power, and asymmetrical access to information can give a competitive advantage or disadvantage. That’s great if you’re fighting a war, but it’s really not good if you’re working on a team together.
We’re not saying that everyone needs to know everything. But the executive protection agent who deliberately resists sharing information, reduces information transparency or spreads false information is on his or her way to career suicide.
Some inexperienced agents might have the erroneous belief that hoarding information will further their interests. They’re making a fundamental mistake. They haven’t understood that what’s good for the team is good for the principal and for themselves. We’ve seen agents try to keep executive assistants in the dark to make them look incompetent. We’ve heard of agents who say the principal’s spouse prefers this or that driver – even when that wasn’t the case – to play favorites or gain personal advantage.
People like this are worse than dishonest. If they’re willing to hijack parts of the program for their own reasons, what else are they willing to do? Their reasons are never good, and manipulating the healthy flow of useful information will always hit them in the back of the head like a boomerang.
10. Getting the balance wrong between tactical discipline and friendly service
Being a good executive protection agent means juggling multiple roles seamlessly and imperceptibly. We’re the tactical tough guy when we need to be. We’re the friendly concierge if that’s what’s called for. We know not to overplay either hand. And we know when to switch immediately.
There are often multiple ways to accomplish the same objective. Use your situational and social awareness to find the ideal path, striking a middle way between the many possible extremes. You want to make sure the room you’re leading the principal to is safe? Great, but you don’t need to act as if you’re clearing a house in Ramadi. Find another way that works, and doesn’t make the principal wonder what’s going on and what movie you’re in.
Similarly, it’s great to be service-minded, but not excessively friendly in all circumstances. We’re here to facilitate the principal’s smooth flow through the day and night, but we’re willing to stand up and disrupt the good vibes if that means maintaining security.
Like so many other things, it’s a balance. We wish you luck and skill in finding yours!
Let’s learn from our mistakes
The good thing about mistakes is that they’re learning opportunities: they help us to discover better ways of doing things. Once you get over the initial pain of having put your hand too close to the fire, you know better the next time and can avoid a lifetime of burnt fingers. At least you could know better.
It’s only when we continue to make the same mistakes over and over that people start calling us names. Similarly, not learning from others’ mistakes is rarely an indication of a sharp mind.
We admit that we’ve learned some of them the hard way – by putting our own hands in the flames, so to speak. Other lessons came easier, by observing colleagues and staff get burned themselves. But they’re all things we need to be aware of and get better at.