By Martin Nielsen and Mac Segal
No one said that life is supposed to be fair. Spending a lot of time with idiots can indeed make you an idiot. But as EP professionals (should) know, spending a lot of time with billionaires does not make you a billionaire. Go figure.
A career in executive protection has a lot of perks. We get to see the world without joining the Navy. We get to do what we love and put a unique set of hard and soft skills into practice every day. And we even get paid for it.
But while a career in EP can pay the bills and much more, it’s never going to make any of us as rich as most of the people we protect. Many private sector principals are what economists call “ultra-high net worth” (UHNW) individuals, folks who have at least $30 M sitting around and ready to use. More than a few are billionaires. None of these principals needs to worry about where to find milk on sale.
The sweet intoxication of living like a high roller
There’s steak, and then there’s Kobe beef. There’s wine, and then there’s Château Lafitte. There’s your old Kia, and then there’s that new Bugatti. As many young agents discover, until you try the really good stuff, you have no idea of what you’re missing. And once they try the new stuff, some young agents start missing it when they have to go back to the old stuff, and even pretend they can afford all the good stuff that their principals can. They can’t. Yeah, life’s not fair.
Experienced EP agents who work closely with UHNW individuals know that there’s life on the clock and off it. One day, you’re deciding between mains at a restaurant that doesn’t put prices in the menu. The next, you’re weighing the relative advantages of cornflake brands at the Dollar Store. One day, you’re hanging out in the kitchen with a couple of Michelin-grade chefs, trying out things you can’t even pronounce. The next, you’re eating grilled cheeses with your family, and your kids get ketchup in their hair.
Money won’t buy you happiness, but it will buy you the lifestyle of a high roller. And when you’re starting out as an EP agent, being treated like a high roller (even if it’s just because you’re working for the real high roller) is fun, flattering, and even intoxicating. The first time you were in Vegas, it was Southwest Airlines and the all-you-can-eat buffet. The last time, you flew into the FBO and ate only at the best places. Guess what you’d prefer to do next time?
Although it’s like living on another planet for 99% of us, it’s surprisingly easy to get used to having the best of practically anything that money can buy. Thing is, young agents, it’s not your money that’s buying it, and those things are only at your disposal because you’re on the job. If you get a taste for the really good single malts and drop a few hundred bucks for a duty-free bottle on your way home, that’s on your card, not the client’s. Ditto for the nice watches, cool clothes and fast cars that are easily affordable for principals but might be out of your league. We’re not saying EP agents can’t afford the good life. We can. But we’ve seen too many young agents spend all the good money they made on a trip even before they made it home.
Power by proxy. Working stiff by bank account.
When an EP agent needs to get an extremely prominent UHNW principal into a fully booked and very exclusive restaurant, it usually works. Why? Because it’s our job to be clever problem solvers who are good with people and all of that, right? Yes, that does matter. To be honest, however, it’s primarily because we’re acting on behalf of our principals.
When doors open like magic for us, it’s not because we’re wizards. It’s because we’re proxies for principals. They’re the ones who have money, power and prominence – not us. As we do our jobs keeping the principal safe, happy and productive, we sometimes represent the principal and get to wield, for a vicarious moment, the magic wand of prominence. Restaurant tables appear out of nowhere. Heads of state and A-list celebs treat us with charmed respect. Hermetically sealed buildings open as if enchanted.
Then we get home. Our significant others think we’re anything but clever, and we still have to wait in line to get a table. No doors open magically, we have to push and pull our way through life just like all the other working people.
Embrace it all – and let the lessons you learn in one environment help you in others
We think a lot of EP agents can relate to the sometimes-jarring contrasts we outline above. And as our careers progress, we know that most of us get through this, too. Because you have to if you don’t want to go crazy, broke, or both. Experience teaches us to take all the different environments in which we work and live in turn. Chateau Lafitte is great, but so is water when you’re thirsty. Embrace it all, because it’s all as good as you make it.
While there’s no sense in imitation, principals can be huge source of inspiration. Working alongside these successful people can motivate you and remind you what hard work can bring. But don’t let wishful thinking be your guide. It’s okay to say to yourself, “One day, I want to be able to buy that $10,000 bottle of scotch at duty-free like my client did.” But it’s not okay to try to impress your friends by maxing out five credit cards to buy something you can’t afford.
We can learn to transfer some of the good things we do in one environment into the others. Agents with super-organized go-bags can apply some of that organizational talent to their mess of a garage. Pros who successfully negotiate their way through armed roadblocks in the African bush can also figure out how to get through dinner with their three-year-olds, ketchup in their hair and all.
One important lesson learned is that rich or poor, time is our most valuable resource. A lot of what we do as EP agents is about maximizing the productivity of our principals. Watching how many of our super-successful principals use their time – and helping them make the best use of their time – whether it’s to do more meetings, calls, emails or a quick nap – is an education in itself. Lines can be avoided. Instead of waiting to eat in one place, eating in the place next door with no line, whether it’s Kobe beef or a burger, frees up time and reduces stress.