1. After a successful career in protection, you decided to change fields of study and became a psychologist. Was it difficult to make the transition, and how do you think being a former Secret Service agent helps you in your current work?
It was and it wasn’t an easy transition when I changed fields and became a psychologist. I had left the field of protection once before, at the end of 1997. That’s when I entered into a two-year Forensic Psychology master’s program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC (January 1998).
I thought I had left the field of protection for good back then. However, approximately two years after completing my master’s degree, 9/11 happened. I felt a pullback and wanted to do my patriotic duty. I dove back into the field as an instructor in the U.S. State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program, as a VIP Protection instructor, one month after that tragic event.
My decision to pursue a Doctorate came when I merged my life with my now-husband in 2008. This took me from San Diego to a town north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Due to the move east, I gave up my position as COO in the security firm I was working for, as well as my (small percentage of) ownership. Hence, I decided to do something (big) for myself and, 25 years out of undergraduate, I became a Clinical Psychologist.
The biggest facet of that transition was being a student again at that level. It was A LOT of work. To be honest, those five years were very challenging. While many of the younger students were out partying over the weekend, I was reading and studying. Of course, it was worth it in the end. I love the field of psychology and the overlap in the fields of psychology and security always amazes me.
Being a former Secret Service agent definitely helps me in my current work. It opens doors to opportunities like teaching a course I created at the George Washington University called the Psychology of Crime and Violence.
It is a really great course and a lot of fun to teach – it combines several of my skill sets. In addition, being a protection agent and investigator for over 25 years gave me a broad knowledge and understanding of people.
Hence, teaching, doing training, consulting, and continuing to keep connected to the world of security makes it fairly easy for me to work with so many different types of people and varied human behavior because I now have a much deeper understanding of what makes people tick and why.
2. Your goal is to become the support most women in security, high positions, or high-level risk jobs need. How do you do that, and what’s your advice for those wanting to pursue atypical careers, but are afraid of failure?
I feel like my superpower is helping women on various levels and that I have been doing it for much of my life, sometimes without knowing it. My dissertation, when getting my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, was based on increasing self-esteem in young women. I created a 13-session Cognitive Behavioral Therapy protocol to do just that.
Currently, I still use many Cognitive Behavioral techniques in my counseling, teaching, webinars, and training. I found these to be incredibly helpful for women (and, really, anyone). The goal is to be (more) empowered, to shift their thinking and behavior, and live a more joyful and fulfilling life.
Self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience, and empowerment are all the areas I focus on in my path to help women. It could be women in security, corporate executives, students, a niece, and/or the daughter of a friend.
My advice is, “What do you have to lose?” For years, I have talked with and mentored young people who are considering careers in Federal law enforcement. Many have said to me, “I don’t know if that’s what I really want.” I often took that as them expressing their fear of not getting in.
My reply to them was, “Well, it’s a long process. Apply and, when they knock on your door to offer you a job, you can decide whether you “yes” or not.” Even if you are afraid, do it scared. I had my own doubts and fears every time I was offered and accepted a new mission. In addition, when you read my book, you will know how I handled what I thought at the time was the biggest failure of my life. That only fueled me to move forward. Don’t give up on YOU!
3. The stories in your book “The Protector: A Woman’s Journey from the Secret Service to Protecting VIPs in the World’s Most Dangerous Place” resemble something you’d find in a Dan Brown novel. Following great critiques for it, do you have plans to write more books in the future?
Great question. When I finally sat down to write the book, my intention was to write my WHOLE story. It would have included my years as both a protector and an investigator. I actually think the many investigations I worked on were far more interesting than my protective missions.
However, I wrote so many pages solely on my life as a protection agent that it became its own book. So, it is quite possible that I will write a second book. And if I do, I’ll call it ‘The Investigator’ with some descriptive subtitles to keep things consistent.
4. How did you start your career in protection, and what inspired you to go down that path? Also, what advice would you give other women in security starting their careers?
Although it has become a bit of a joke, I always say, “I applied” when people ask me how I became a federal agent. The process, especially in 1990, was even more onerous because we filled out applications by hand. We did not have computers so, if you made an error on a page, you started that page all over again.
I was inspired to pursue becoming a federal law enforcement agent my junior year of high school. That’s when I took an elective called “Criminal Law.” One day I was in class, and I remember thinking, “OH MY GOD, this is it! I found my career.”
That inspired me to major in Criminal Justice at Indiana University (Bloomington) in my undergraduate studies. I also earned a minor degree in the Spanish language.
I would (and do) tell other women in security, “YOU BELONG! You deserve to be there as much as any of the men. In fact, you are more unique and more valuable because you can do everything they can and more.” Yes, it’s still very much a man’s world so don’t forget that. Use that to your advantage – not as fuel to get angry about or bitch about but, rather, to empower and motivate you.
5. You’re currently working as an Adjunct Professor of Abnormal and Criminal Psychology, and Senior Executive Director, training EPAs. What is the most important thing to consider when teaching and that all teachers/trainers should know?
The most important thing to consider when teaching and training people is that it is about them. They are learning, and they should feel like they can ask any questions they want. Also, the students should be walking away more knowledgeable and more enthusiastic about the topic.
If you are not getting through to them, it is YOU that needs to shift tactics and mentality, not them. You need to leave your ego at the door and focus on your students, your audience, and remember why you are there.
6. In the predominantly male-dominated executive protection industry, female EPAs tend to give a new, unique perspective. Do you believe this to be true, and if so, which skills do you think women in security bring to the table?
I believe women in security add so much to the industry – perspective, diplomacy, different skills, access, the element of surprise, and, sometimes, a softness that is needed and often welcome.
- Perspective – Women think differently than men. My experience has been that having a woman on an EP team typically establishes a more thorough and well-thought-out mission.
- Diplomacy – My gosh, (most) women in security are so much more diplomatic than men. In EP, that means a woman can typically get much more done, say, as an advance agent. That is because she knows finesse and diplomacy vs. demand and presumption.
- Different skills – Thankfully, men and women often have different skillsets. From having worked on many teams, bringing different skills to an EP team makes the team stronger. It also makes it more diverse and creates more of a teamwork mentality.
- Access – Women have access to and blend in many places men do not – women’s bathrooms, department stores, salons, etc. This matters, especially when the client is a female, particularly a younger female.
- Surprise – This is one of my favorite aspects of women in security. We are still a surprise on many teams. When I worked in Peru, protecting the Ambassador for the Organization of American States during two election observation missions, NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE, even considered that I was the person carrying a 9mm, protecting the Ambassador. That mentality was a HUGE advantage. The element of surprise can buy you those few seconds needed if things go wrong and possibly save your protectee’s life, and your own.
- Softness – From my experience in the field of EP, having a woman on a team shifts the dynamic, for the better. The men tend to not be so raunchy, they appreciate a woman’s perspective on a variety of issues. Also, they confide in women more than men, and, often, they are kinder to women, which I appreciate.
7. While working in Colombia, you were tasked with creating an executive protection training academy. In your opinion, what makes an academy successful, and which methods ensure that trainees are ready for the field?
Any executive protection or related academy, training program, and/or school is where individuals learn the foundation of their profession. They study techniques, tactics, and procedures of the field. These are vital skills to have and to build throughout one’s career as an EP agent.
Equally as important, or maybe even more important, is ensuring that trainees are ready for the field. We can accomplish that by creating structure, discipline, a teamwork mentality, and a physical fitness mindset in every training course.
You also must lead by example. This is what we did in Colombia. Yes, we taught motorcade operations, firearms, self-defense, walking formations, advances, and so on. However, it was the other skills that created a more competent agent. What’s more, they fostered teamwork and encouraged physical fitness as part of the job.
Dr. Mary Beth Wilkas Janke is a former United States Secret Service Agent and current consultant in the fields of forensic and clinical psychology. She is a professor at George Washington University, where she teaches Abnormal Psychology and the Psychology of Crime and Violence. Mary Beth holds a Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology, a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology, and a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. She is also the author of ” The Protector: A Woman’s Journey from the Secret Service to Guarding VIPs and Working in Some of the World’s Most Dangerous Places”