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Karen Connell Interview: Handling VIP Protection

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1. One of your roles in Hunter Protection is interviewing CPOs to see if they are right for the company. What is it that you’re looking for in individuals who are going to be doing high-level, VIP protection?

Hunter Protection as an entity is relatively young, but our experience in security is long and unusually personal. I have 30 years of history working for or consulting with some of the most high-profile companies in the world. So by association when I’ve been too volatile or third-world markets, I’ve had both security and personal protection. Although I am alive to tell the stories, having my safety placed in the wrong hands indelibly influences how I recruit now.

Individuals hoping to be part of the Hunter network need to understand that a license from the SIA (or from whatever country they operate in) is a ticket of entry. It is not necessarily an indicator of suitability or capability to work with high-level or VIP protection clients. At Hunter, we’re looking for people who can demonstrate that they are serious about their craft. They also need to be presentable, adaptable, and want to provide an elevated service to the client.

Soft and Hard Skills in VIP Protection

It is important that CPOs look to upskill as much as possible in their qualifications, especially when doing VIP protection. This includes pediatric medical qualifications, self-defence, advanced driving, and cyber training, which are all very helpful in today’s market.

Also, having operators with differentiating expertise such as languages, aviation, lifeguard, skiing, horse riding, or even mountaineering means we can provide optimal protection wherever the clients go, or whatever they want to do.

Hard skills and exceptional qualifications are just one-half of the Hunter recruitment equation. We are looking for people with both emotional and social intelligence and it’s important people recognise the difference.

Emotional intelligence is how the person conducts themselves and this is where many operators need help. What’s more, discretion and manners are paramount in this sector. For instance, how someone has curated their online image speaks volumes as to how they will conduct themselves offline.

The other soft skill I mentioned is social intelligence. That tells us how effectively a person deals with challenging social interactions or contexts. This means how well a person can connect with others, build relationships, influence colleagues, and get people to cooperate.

Social intelligence is critical in creating an environment of trust, psychological, and physical comfort. In short, exactly what anyone who works in the high-pressure UHNW and VIP protection service industries needs to do.

I personally train our elite operators’ social intelligence skills, especially communication. First of all, that helps us in the client matching process. But it also gives the operator an immediate advantage in building an effective relationship with their principal and entourage.

2. Even though your professional focus is on the rare and extraordinary, you also often share messages designed to help women and keep them safe. Is there a universal knowledge that you believe every female CPO and woman should know?

I appreciate the question because being safe is a universal right for everyone. Access to good security advice should not be the exclusive domain of the world’s rich and famous and VIP protection.

I think it is important to acknowledge that a service or product can never solve the security question. You can have all the cameras, alarms, and bodyguards in the world, but that doesn’t help if the threat appears to be a friend. And sadly, most crimes or unwanted attention against women are committed by someone they know.

Violence or harassment have deep roots in control. Criminals and creeps will consciously, or subconsciously interview and select women who they think they can manipulate. Of course, no woman deliberately invites these creeps to become a feature in their lives. However, issues can arise when a woman ignores bad behaviour or fails to act early and/or decisively.

My universal advice to women is that they must stop qualifying or discounting their objections. The word “No” isn’t negotiable. It does not need to be explained. “No” is not rude or inappropriate. “No” does not need to be wrapped up in a pretty bow and delivered in a gentle voice.

The woman who says “No” is not entitled, she is not stuck up, she is not aggressive, and she is not a “psycho.” “No” is a complete sentence because for a criminal or creep who does not want to hear “No”, every word after is just more signals of hope and acknowledgement that they can continue their behaviour.

3. What is the biggest difference when it comes to protecting dignitaries and heads of state compared to UHNWIs? Do your CPOs require specific training to deal with one or the other?

I’d like to give you a definitive difference between protecting a Head of State vs UHNWI but everyone is unique. A visiting dignitary might not be immediately recognisable but that doesn’t mean the threats aren’t there. In fact, there might be a greater risk from unknown or invisible sources.

Our approach always starts from a baseline that all our clients need protection and respect, no matter who they are or where they live. Money or status does not figure in our calculations of who, what, and how CPOs operate. However, the client’s lifestyle, entourage, and activity will naturally influence the threat analysis and risk assessment.

In most instances, the CPOs are adept at switching between client types and we’re confident that our people will rise to any occasion. Of course, the client’s security detail is a reflection of themselves. That is why we make a great effort to understand any special requirements or procedures that should be observed and included in the CPO’s briefing pack so they can prepare.

Where we might provide additional training is in cultural awareness or helping them with understanding special protocols. The last thing we want to do is to embarrass the client or put our CPO in a situation that they’re not confident in.

Karen Connell vip protection

4. Your clientele includes people in the public eye, what are the most common risks or threats that CPOs need to watch out for in those situations?

Visibility is always a factor for someone in the public eye and unfortunately, their level of visibility is now not only immense but often incalculable. Traditionally, CPOs would look outward for threats such as the person trying to get too close, but the reality is that many threats now come from within.

Our online-dependent lifestyles and tracking technology are so pervasive that it is possible for even the most security-conscious individual to be compromised.

A common risk and frustration for security teams is the client publicising their own security vulnerabilities. One recent heart-stopping moment occurred during lockdown when a UHNWI published a selfie on Instagram that also included some very private information that should never be disclosed. It was a genuine mistake, but it could have been catastrophic had the security team not picked up on it and advised appropriately.

5. Match-making clients with CPOs is a delicate and sometimes complex process. How do you go about it, and what goes into matching the security personnel with the right people?

In an industry that is full of variable standards, we often see poor staff engagement and high turnover. That suggests to me that not enough security companies take the client CPO matchmaking process seriously.

I have extensive experience as a human behaviour and communication consultant. I work around the world helping teams large and small learn how to build effective and trusting relationships quickly.

As part of our onboarding process, we conduct a personal interview. That’s when we start to get to know our CPOs personally and prior to working for an elite client and doing VIP protection, we profile their behaviour in detail. This helps give us more context in how they will relate with the client, as well as others that the CPO will need to work with and influence.

It’s not always possible but we do try to meet the principal in person. Given my experience, I can broadly establish their behavioural preferences, and then find someone that will complement the client. Of course, misunderstandings happen but going this extra mile helps the CPO identify and adapt his communication style. That way, they may build rapport and trust with clients and other staff.

6. Privacy is, as you say, the ultimate luxury, especially for VIPs and UHNWIs. In addition to locking down social media, what are some of the things CPOs can do to protect their client’s privacy?

Knowing when to safely step away and keep a respectful distance is important, but a CPO will always distinguish themselves by the level of planning and preparation that helps their client’s journey and experience.

Visiting hotels and restaurants in advance to learn the private entry and exit routes is routine. However, it can be difficult to control the movement of other guests. It is surprising how many times we have heard from hotel managers about visiting CPOs not making the effort to introduce themselves. Apart from being impolite, it also means the hotel has limitations in how well they can support the CPO in securing the privacy the client requires.

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