6 things you don’t know about executive protection: An interview with CSO Ray Musser

September 11, 2020 | 8 min read
Executive protection Ray Musser

While most people are familiar with the concept of bodyguards and executive protection, even seasoned security professionals might not know exactly how to implement an executive protection strategy if they haven’t worked in that specific field.

For example, when does a CEO need executive protection? What should you look for when you hire a bodyguard? What should you avoid?

Ray Musser, former CSO for General Dynamics, is the executive protection lead for The CSO Risk Council and answered these questions and others during an extensive discussion of executive protection.

Introducing The CSO Risk Council: A Think Tank for Security Professionals

First, what is Executive Protection?

Executive Protection, or EP, might be defined in different ways among clients. For the purposes of this post, and in general, EP refers to a team of highly trained, professional bodyguards who are assigned to a high-value principal or a family.

So, while some organizations may consider good security practices and technology that helps security monitor an asset’s home or vehicle to be executive protection, this article is about a security team dedicated to guarding a high-profile person.

This doesn’t mean all EP teams are set up in the same way. EP teams integrate with an organization’s larger security structure, while some private families hire their teams, said Musser. It all depends on how the organization is set up.

When should a company consider EP?

Before a team is assigned, your organization needs to understand the risks.

“The first primary thing that needs to take place is a proper risk assessment, indicating what the requirements are,” said Musser.

Those risks might involve any current or recent incidents, such as threats made against company leaders, or the principal, or a family. If the principal is high-profile — if they’re a public figure, for example, they may need protection. The risks might also be geographical — if the principal is traveling to a specific area, where there might be more threats than usual, they may need protection, or their current protection might need to change.

“These are all factors to look at when considering executive protection,” he said.

Ask the expert: When should I consider executive protection?

How should you go about building your team?

A good risk assessment is the first piece of putting together a successful EP strategy. The second piece is finding a qualified team.

There are three things Musser looks for in a team:

  1. Proper background and training
  2. The willingness to meet the demanding requirements of the job
  3. Good rapport with the principal or family

“Really the one thing you have to look for is the proper experience and background, especially if it’s a very high profile family, where guards may have to be in the public eye with the principal,” says Musser.

Proper training means that your team should have a background in executive protection rather than simply being a bodyguard for hire. Some EP teams, he said, particularly for celebrities, look and act like bouncers. That sort of team tends to call attention to itself, which is not what most executives want. Other teams might consider hiring people that were in law enforcement, or the military, but police and military training alone doesn’t make for quality EP.

Guards in EP need specific skills; they should be able to provide protection while remaining discreet. They shouldn’t stand out in a crowd, but they should always be there. They should also know how to handle specific situations, like the preparations that need to be made for international travel. For example, say the principal is traveling to Paris. A good EP team manager knows that they’ll need to make arrangements with local security organizations to make sure the stay is as smooth as possible. The team will need local drivers and local guards. They’ll need to know where the best medical facilities are so that there’s a plan for which hospital the principal should be taken to if there’s an incident.

“If you travel to some of the more complex places in the world, you'll find those indigenous resources invaluable for you,” said Musser. A good EP team has a network they can tap to find the best local resources in each area the principal is traveling to.

The other thing, said Musser, is that each guard needs to have the right personality for the job; they should be mature, they should be able to think on their feet, have good judgment and every member of the team should have good chemistry with the principal. After all, these guards will be part of the principal’s daily life from now on.

How much does it cost to hire a bodyguard?

All of those qualifications cost money, says Musser. The average salary for a good bodyguard is $150,000 a year. It’s a reasonable price to pay for a trained professional who is working nights, weekends and holidays, traveling on a moment’s notice, and prepared to take bodily harm for a client.

It’s important that the head of an EP team communicates clearly with the client about what the team is for, and why the guards are there. One of the most common mistakes Musser has seen in EP has been misused guards; principals will use their executive protection team as drivers or valets rather than letting them do their jobs.

“You can find chauffeur and valets for better pricing,” he said.

If a client is misusing their guard force, it’s important that the head of the team speaks to the principal and reminds them that the EP team is there to protect them, not do any other job.

Ask the Expert: What Security Concerns Should I Have if I Marry Into a Wealthy or Famous Family?

What to do if a principal doesn’t want protection

Not all executives are going to be thrilled with the idea of a security team. Some may actively argue against it. How can you counter a principal who doesn’t want protection?

It all comes back to the risk assessment, says Musser. If the risk assessment was done properly and has enough data, it can be used as a tool to convince an executive that they actually need protection.

“We’ve done this before; actually showed the person what the risks are,” he said. “And then they have to face the fact that there may be things online that they've never seen before that would cause them concern for their safety.”

Boards of directors can also help compel a reluctant executive to accept protection. Some may even require EP for their top leaders because of insurance policies or internal policies. In these cases, the executive’s personal feelings about accepting protection come second to the company’s interests.

“A lot of these industry leaders are a primary asset for the company, and harm to them could affect the bottom line, and brand reputation,” said Musser.

That doesn’t mean that a principal should be beholden to an EP program they find invasive. A good EP team leader can tailor a program to fit the principal’s lifestyle and needs. This is part of the reason a security leader needs to have good chemistry with the person or family they’re guarding, says Musser.

“We've seen times where principals have said, ‘I don't want cameras in my house’,” said Musser. While limiting cameras may seem to work against an EP program, there are ways to work around that limitation that might be more comfortable for the principal, he said. Musser’s client didn’t want cameras in the home, but didn’t mind them outside. Other technologies, like sensors, can also be used to make up for areas where cameras aren’t.

“It just boils down to that trust between you and the principal to make the best recommendations that you are comfortable with that they can live with,” he said. “You've been hired to advise this person, to keep their best interests in mind and they need to be able to trust you.”

But what if someone who needs protection still refuses it? In that case, says Musser, reality sometimes has to set in on its own.

“A lot of times I've seen where a person didn't want security or protection, and then an event occurs, and hopefully nobody gets hurt. And then their whole philosophy changes overnight,” he said.

That’s the one of the worst-case scenarios, one that Musser feels is on the decline in today’s environment, where people tend to be more savvy about the risks they’re actually facing, possibly because it’s easier to see threats made against you online.

But browsing, he warns, isn’t a substitute for a risk assessment and a proper response to the risks that are discovered during the assessment.

Can technology enhance your EP program?

Executive protection teams can certainly benefit from technology, says Musser. Secure tracking systems for the team, principals, and vehicles can help keep everyone safe. So can TV systems, monitors, and cameras.

But EP teams can also benefit from software that monitors threats on social media, as well as other mentions of a principal, so that the team can see how the principal is being portrayed online. The EP team will also want to monitor family accounts, so that a younger family member, for example, isn’t accidentally revealing information that might be a security concern — like the location of a family vacation.

EP teams can also be assisted by a tool that provides risk assessments, so they can assess each scenario and threat.

“If you don't have the proper risk assessment to start this whole process, you're not going to understand the risks you’ve got to prepare for,” said Musser. “ If you’re unaware of a threat, you’re at a disadvantage right from the start.”

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