EXCLUSIVE: Executive protection for the reluctant principal

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Harry Arruda, CEO of Cooke & Associates explores how to transform even the most hesitant and unsure principals into supporters of executive protection.

Close protection

A protection agent working with San Antonio Spurs player Victor Wembanyama allegedly backhanded Britney Spears in the face while the basketball player was dining in a Las Vegas casino this past summer.

The bodyguard for French President Emmanuel Macron was fired after video depicting him attacking protesters scandalized his former employer.

Tabloids regularly publish revelations from bodyguards that disclose closely held secrets about their bosses.

Close protection agents hovering too close by sometimes make business discussions uncomfortable, discretion unobtainable and logistics burdensome.

These are among the many reasons executives and other principals resist executive protection (EP) services. It’s almost hard to blame them.

Such unprofessionalism should be extremely rare for credible executive protection firms. Yet they must often combat a poor perception of executive protection that exists in the mind of a potential client.

That perception persists because of deleterious personal experiences or horror stories told by colleagues or circulating in the media.

The good news is that these perceptions and objections can be overcome. Initially reluctant principals often become the most vocal supporters of executive protection.

Overcoming the stigma

Let’s face it. There’s a lot of bad security out there. Unlicensed, uninsured and untrained “bodyguards” abound.

Inexperienced clients often favor muscle mass over brains, experience and ability, and the market follows.

Secret Service wannabes intimidate potential clients. Some executive protection specialists know more about burnishing their own images on social media than they do about furnishing assistance to principals.

In one egregious example, a school hired an executive protection agent whose sole credentials were having downloaded a few templates from the internet and watched a video on how Secret Service agents operate.

The first step to overcoming the stigma of buffoonery that clouds our profession is an open and honest discussion with the client.

That’s the time to dispel stereotypes and set expectations. We need to demonstrate to potential clients our education, training, protection philosophy, experience, demeanor and ethics.

It’s good practice to share documentation and examples that highlight the provider’s standards, culture, methodology, principles and routines.

Not every agent can work with every client due to the client’s style, expectations or culture.

For example, dotcom clients in Silicon Valley typically require the agent to dress in casual attire, not wear an earpiece and remain a great distance away from them when at an event.

Executives at traditional businesses such as banks expect agents to wear suits, use an earpiece and always remain close by. 

That discussion should be a give and take. Organizations or individuals averse to executive protection may well have specific concerns about how protection professionals will mesh with their culture, personal style or environment.

This is your opportunity to ensure that the protection firm and the potential client are compatible.

Will your agents be able to vigorously defend a business or a principal who occupy an ideological extreme opposite to their own?

Making gradual adjustments

Today it’s not uncommon for firms to protect executives whose lifestyles and beliefs attract a higher level of risk; that might include outspoken political views, out-of-the-mainstream religious beliefs, certain views on gender, development of controversial therapies with animal testing or prominent visibility promoting social causes.

In one case, our firm protected an executive who checked many of these boxes and landed in the crosshairs of various activist groups.

The executive’s original experience with executive protection, however, left them cold. Previously agents hovered too closely, violating their cardinal rule: stay close enough to provide protection, but not so close that the principal has to introduce you.

The assigned agents also looked like they had come out of central casting, complete with black suits, sunglasses and earpieces.

Turned off by the experience, the executive demanded the company scrap their protection program and for the next five years made the risky decision to rely on an outsourced car service and ride share programs while having inhouse staff coordinate all logistics.

When a threat arose, our firm was selected because of our thoughtful approach to protection.

We quickly realized that convincing the executive to restore bona fide protection was going to be a gradual process.

First, our firm researched the company, the executive and their various threats and risks.

We scoured the dark web and reported what was being said about them, prompting the company to hire us to perform cyber-social monitoring.

As we continued to work with the executive, we learned that they would routinely attend events in public spaces such as hotels and convention centers where anyone had access.

As a result, the executive would be bombarded with pitches, introductions and job requests. This was an opportunity to show our value by providing the client with time and space.

To gain their trust, we moved gradually. The executive wanted to retain the outsourced car service, so we didn’t insist on using our own.

While we strongly believed in the conveniences of retrieving the executive planeside, we deferred to their wishes to use the car service with a regular airport pickup.

We worked with the transportation contractor to elevate their level of security – we requested the driver’s information the night before any engagement and vetted them and we asked them to arrive at locations an hour before they were scheduled to be there so the principal wouldn’t be left waiting and our agents could brief them.

We also provided better routes and arranged underground drop-off points at hotels and convention centers where the executive could avoid interlopers and hangers-on.

Instead of going through a gauntlet of guests, we escorted the executive through the back kitchen into the elevator, then through back hallways to their appointments or speaking engagements.

The executive was blown away by the speed and efficiency of the new arrival procedure. Better yet, no one was buttonholing them in the hallway anymore.

The key to winning over the executive was deferring to their wishes but introducing small changes that they would come to appreciate and even expect over time. Today we pick up the executive planeside and enter every venue from a back, side or underground entrance.

Dealing with risky lifestyles

Sometimes executives reject protection to hide their vices. They may want to shield their activities – such as club hopping, trysts, gambling or heavy drinking – from their employer, family or friends.

This activity tends to be common among the younger venture-capital set. However, this attitude can be ironic; executive protection is needed most when a principal is vulnerable, be it impaired, desperate, frightened, open to extortion, blackmail or otherwise.

Cash App founder Bob Lee could have used close protection in early April 2023. He was allegedly stabbed to death by a tech consultant and his autopsied body revealed evidence of alcohol, cocaine and ketamine consumption.

It has been widely reported that Lee had been involved with a woman in an underground sex and drug scene known as “The Lifestyle”. That woman’s brother allegedly confronted him later in a dispute and killed him.

While protection professionals aren’t in the business of condoning bad behavior, they can protect principals from themselves.

Reputable firms will be discreet and help prevent principals from harming themselves and the corporate reputation.

Many years ago, as a young agent protecting a prominent executive, I received a last-minute request to accompany the principal to an underground fetish club.

The trust level between the executive and me had grown over the years and was strong enough that they could “let their hair down” without feeling humiliated in my presence.

As the executive protection agent, I witnessed the client in vulnerable and compromising situations – ones that required both extreme discretion and a calm demeanor – allowing the executive to have a good time without endangering himself or breaking any laws.

Obviously, such a level of comfort and trust doesn’t develop overnight.

Temporarily reducing protection

When protection gets to be routine, clients can take it for granted. Sometimes that means they suspend services during vacation or idle time.

That’s a mistake, given that adversaries often target executives or high-wealth individuals at second homes or vacation spots where their guard is down.

Locations such as Ibiza, Monte Carlo and Mallorca have long been popular for getaways because of their night life and relative safety, but criminals now focus on those target-rich environments.

In July, Spanish ecoterrorists sabotaged a Walmart heiress’ superyacht in Ibiza, though she was not injured.

Kim Kardashian was famously robbed at knifepoint at a luxury Paris hotel in 2016, unprotected when her executive protection agent left to guard Kardashian’s sister.

Executives may not be the target, simply collateral damage. This August, a former Twitter executive was in an Uber in Cancún when angry cab drivers surrounded the vehicle and pummeled the driver, though the executive escaped injury.

It may help to show the reluctant principal news accounts of incidents or threats. If the client is an oil company executive, it would be relevant to mention recent local acts of climate activism, for example.

Protection may need to be more nuanced when business mixes with personal time or vacation.

On non-business time, protection may be scaled back or less obvious, but nonetheless present.

This might mean deploying executive protection agents posted outside of the house rather than inside, perhaps in a vehicle and/or accompanying principals when they are out. They may require less than the full executive protection team.

For the most part, reluctant principals have nothing innately against security professionals. They have perceptions based on personal experience, the media, word of mouth and so on.

Changing their mind is a gradual and delicate process. While every event or moment in a protection assignment is important, an executive protection professional or firm should also focus on the long term: changing the client’s view of executive protection agents, identifying the benefits of advances/close protection/drivers and demonstrating how we can make their lives easier.

That might mean finding them a 24-hour pharmacy, early-morning gym class, accessible copy center or an on-call tailor.

Over time, resistant or obstinate principals may become your most satisfied clients.

About the author

Harry Arruda is the CEO of Cooke & Associates, Inc., a firm specializing in executive protection. He previously held senior global security positions with a life sciences company and a financial institution. 

This article on executive protection was originally published in the December edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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