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Selecting Security Managers and Executives – A Primer for Candidates and Hiring Managers

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Three tips to ensure you have the right fit for your organization

This brief article is based on my own recent observations and may seem rudimentary to even the newest HR scout or budding security candidate. However, they merit reinforcement in that the same issues continue to get in the way of effective progress in hiring. So please indulge me as I present these tips for hiring security managers and candidates. I do it from the perspective of one who has hired and sought to be hired in the security arena.

A cursory search for “Security Managers” or “Security Executives” on search engines or LinkedIn results in thousands of people listings. But dig a little deeper and you will find that not only does security mean different things to different people, the interpretation of manager, executive, and director also varies greatly from one organization to another.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that when companies seek a security professional they often fall short of their expectations. They might even come up empty-handed altogether.

The current job climate is such that there are thousands of applicants for a scant few positions. That’s why many feel compelled to apply for roles they are simply not qualified for.

Nowadays, many human resources professionals have little or no understanding of the security field and artificial intelligence machine algorithms. That’s why they often emphasize keywords rather than the real qualities or skill sets required of security managers. Also, that leads to a situation where we have the best qualified and most suited candidates falling through the cracks.

Tip 1. Know what you are looking for.

Hiring Managers: Perhaps the very first priority should be to conduct an honest needs assessment. It requires looking internally and determining exactly what the organization requires. (Hint: It may not be the same flavor of person that is currently occupying the position.)

Are you seeking someone who understands security requirements for facilities or supply chains? Is it more of a protective operations or investigative role? Will it require an understanding of global threats and the ability to brief or provide training in these?

Some positions will require an amalgam of skill sets and may require physical as well as mental aptitude. The organization should seek to highlight exactly what the job really is, what is expected, and which functional areas will be emphasized.

Human Resources and talent acquisition managers should strive to benchmark with similar organizations. They should also gain an understanding of the daily remit under similar conditions.

Speaking with the gaining business unit should lend some perspective and will assist in discerning between the need to haves versus the nice-to-haves.

In some cases education, perhaps graduate-level study will be a differentiator while in others emphasis on operational experience in a corporate environment will be key. For a global organization or an international position, knowledge of the political situation in areas of operation and strong cultural awareness along with language skills will be integral.

Some postings include desired knowledge, skills, and abilities such as LEOSA firearms carry and security clearances without truly understanding what those mean. Why exactly do security managers in food production companies (not government-contracted firms) need security clearance? Is carrying firearms required for the position, and how will you determine standards for qualification and use of force?

Candidates: Study and learn all you can about the organization, the position, and similar roles in other companies. What has been successful, what has not? What are the skills and abilities required that may translate from where you are? If you are law enforcement or military and this is your first foray into applying for a private sector role, you may want to tailor your resume, eliminate any unnecessary jargon or acronyms, and emphasize your skills.

Read whatever you can on corporate security and if possible, participate in professional organizations such as ASIS. Bone up on current trends or concerns for the industry you are seeking to join. I am fascinated by the number of transitioning folks I have spoken with who don’t research the companies they are applying to or don’t know that there are certifications or training opportunities, many of which are free of charge.

You need to do some prep work and understand some of the industry best practices and evolving trends ASIS and ISO standards are a great start. Managing and deploying a guard force has a far different meaning in a corporate setting than in a military environment. Being an LEO does not mean that you know how to establish access control processes or CCTV systems.

You need to get smart on a myriad of subjects. Anti-Terrorism-Force Protection measures do translate decently but the resources applied will certainly not be the same.

If possible, see if you can visit or spend time shadowing other security managers or executives. You’ll soon learn that the job has a lot less to do with strong arms and tactical warrior skills. In fact, it has more to do with what’s between your ears and how effectively you communicate. By the way, please, do yourself a favor; avoid the arms crossed, dark shades, and deployment beard “badass” look in your LinkedIn profile.

This is an immediate turn-off even if you are only applying as a security supervisor or tactical instructor. Avoid embellishing your resume. No offense folks, if you state you are a “senior leader” but you’ve only worked on patrol or never advanced beyond squad leader this will get culled right away.

Hiring managers will ask you “how many ‘directs’ (as in, direct reports or subordinates) you had. If you answer four or five, you are not a senior leader. Applicants will also often highlight that they have an “active Top Secret” clearance though they have been out of the military for several years. Unfortunately, this can be misleading as clearances do not stay active and require re-application. Stick to facts and summarize your qualifications.

security managers

Tip 2. Understand what experience is crucial for the role.

Hiring Managers: Experience levels will vary. Do you need a hands-on tactically oriented person with experience in dynamic environments? Do you need a person with gravitas and presence to interact with Board members and C-suite leaders or more of a “ground pounder” who exudes an air of protection?

Operators are not always good security managers and vice-versa. Several job postings express a preference for prior law enforcement and in many cases federal law enforcement experience. They stress that that kind of background receives higher merit than state or local experience.

Yet a thorough review would, in many cases, reveal that a federal agent may have spent their entire career working fraud cases or white-collar crime. They might have little or nothing in the way of public safety calls for service nor for that matter response to burglaries, theft, domestic violence, or accidents.

They may have had an exemplary career working as a Federal Agent or Senior Executive in major field office. Also,  their contacts may be great, they may know how to run an investigation or lead a task force. But are they suitable for a global security management role? Do they understand the threat or risk situation for the organization beyond its headquarters city?

Are they knowledgeable about the principal risks for corporations today? How do they operate under stress or in a crisis? What have they done lately that makes them current doctrinally?

My brothers and sisters in the federal service know what I am referring to. There is a great difference between those who have served in operational assignments and external liaison roles and those who have ridden a chair in a field office for most of their career. This is especially true for directors or CSO-level positions.

In my world, we seek candidates who can operate and manage with flexibility, a healthy blend of operational and strategic. Additionally, don’t immediately discount a candidate who is a military veteran for not having corporate or law enforcement experience.

Many military roles, especially those in Anti-Terrorism-Force Protection or law enforcement, base and unit security translate quite well. Consider the candidate as an individual because a military officer who managed a base security element may have more on the ball than that senior executive candidate who has been a career law enforcement officer. Inquire as to their experience in a real-world crisis situation.

On the other hand, don’t be overly enchanted by military titles. As a former military special operations officer, I had the pleasure of completing numerous courses and qualifications. I have also served in a number of joint operations roles and deployments in a variety of assignments, kinetic and administrative. But I would resist onboarding a person based solely on a Ranger or SF Tab or SEAL Trident.

The fact an individual has received these qualifications or served in such assignments does not ensure that they will be successful in any security role. It is painful to see that some well-known, high-profile organizations select security managers based solely on a military qualification without fully understanding what those qualifications even mean.

Sure, having a well-trained, physically fit “operator” is an asset for protective operations and optics. However, you need to ensure that the individual has the common sense, maturity, and flexibility to interact well with others. They also need to understand the legal implications of the use of force, and how and when to de-escalate. That same protective operations expert may not be the one you want when it comes to developing and implementing policies, briefing threats to C-suite executives, nor providing training to employees.

Determine how prepared they really are for the more mundane parts of the job. Some simple screening questions about GDPR concerns, how best to place access control systems at an external event for maximum throughput, CCTV camera coverage, or conducting a CPTED assessment and you will likely have the individual looking at you like a dog that heard a strange sound.

Candidates: The companies you are applying to will what to know if you are inquisitive, and a lifelong learner. Are you eager to gain an understanding of physical security, cyber concerns? Do you know how to mitigate threats in a corporate environment?

What is your track record as a collaborator, promotor of diversity, and can you apply crisis management principles without expecting government resources at your beck and call? Are you the by the book, apply the SOP at all costs person? Or do you exercise sound judgment and independent thinking? Have you taken the initiative to participate in organizations such as ASIS, DSAC, or OSAC?

Know your stuff. Do not rest on your laurels. Yes, military experience is valued, but you need to have much more.

Tip 3. Ensure a cultural fit.

Hiring Managers: It is not sufficient to seek out a candidate that fits your organization’s culture, you need to ensure that they will be a strong addition to the team they are joining. Many selectees pass the first round with HR screeners only to find that they are not really suitable for the unit they are joining.

Progressive, more avantgarde firms particularly tech start-ups will often balk at military veterans believing that they may be too aggressive, hardcore, or hawkish. Don’t overlook military folks. Many have experience working in small teams or units in austere environments. They have had to liaise with difficult conditions, unruly local citizens, and exercise diplomacy and tact.

They are, in fact, experts at “working and playing well with others.” You’ll find that military veterans are often more adaptable and flexible. They’re also more skilled at rapid planning and crisis management than their civilian counterparts.

Candidates: Before applying to any organization do some research on their company profile. Look at their leadership philosophy, cultural ethos, and any information on what they are doing in terms of advancement, diversity, philanthropy, and sustainability.

Are they truly promoting employee growth and professional development? Are they supportive of employees or do they have a track record of lawsuits or labor issues? Will you fit into their environment or work structure?

If you are a Senior Manager or Executive coming from a place where you had a staff and corner office, are you able to adapt to an open bay workstation and a small team of two or three? Are you willing to roll up your shirtsleeves and get in there or do you need a staff to delegate to? The cultural fit is perhaps the most important part of all.

You may be the brightest thinker with the best strategies and operational experience, but if you cannot fit in, you certainly won’t go far.

Bottom Line

There is no 100% in selecting security managers or executive candidates. Emphasis should be on the whole person, their experience as a collaborator and leader. It should be on their ability to impart knowledge, develop others and ensure forward momentum of the organization.

Human Resources representatives, hiring managers, and candidates should seek to learn as much as possible from firms that have successfully hired security managers and executives. Having a bunch of badges, qualifications, or abbreviations after one’s name is no guarantee that your candidate will be successful in a given role.

Look at performance, history of evaluations, 180 assessments, and reputation. Informal inquiries can be revealing. Ask peers in counterpart companies or organizations to weigh in on the subject. If you have any doubts or questions, invest in a contract recruitment or placement firm.

“Headhunters” who specialize in security placements will be far more agile and able to interpret experience. They can cull through resumes than a corporate HR rep or resume screening program alone.

Candidates, don’t be discouraged. Even the very best may apply to dozens of roles and get only a handful of callbacks. Eventually, those lead to an offer. You just need to keep the faith and stay on it!

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