As security practitioners, learning from our own mistakes can be costly. “We are all just one bad day away from termination,” is how a colleague once summarized our condition. The remark was an all-too-true reminder that security managers cannot make mistake after mistake and still hope to remain successful in the profession.
With that in mind, stepping up to lead a security operation can be a frightening experience, especially for a young professional making his or her debut as a leader. I certainly felt my share of anxiety when I assumed the role of contract security manager at a large community college in 2008.
At the time, the media seemed to feature a new story every week about a tragedy in a mall, workplace, school, or other public space where lives were lost or forever changed. Each time, I would follow the story and try to understand exactly what happened from a security point of view. Would my own program have fared any better—or would it have resulted in tragedy and my termination?
Fortunately for me, I was not alone. I had a mentor, who took the time to help me develop into a seasoned security professional. Through mentorship, a new security manager can experience professional situations and even make decisions that turn out to be wrong without suffering the consequences of on-the-job mistakes. Such an opportunity is invaluable, because having a safe space to fail is crucial for professional growth and skill development.
Mentorship is a symbiotic partnership between an expert and a novice in which knowledge and trust are equally shared. But finding a good mentor can be tricky; it requires finding a veteran manager with both significant expertise and a passion for sharing it.
Professional security organizations, such as ASIS International, are a great place to turn when looking for mentors within the industry. In addition, a security manager’s employing organization may have a formal mentorship program. However, formal permission from anyone outside yourself and the expert you wish to learn from should never be necessary to begin a mentorship relationship.
In my case, the expert was George, the security director of the community college where I was working as a contract security manager. The college hired George about a month before I was hired; in fact, my start date was delayed a bit so he could settle in first, and have a chance to interview me.
Prior to George’s arrival, one of the college’s vice presidents was charged with overseeing the security program at the college. But a security assessment conducted by an outside contractor led the college to hire a new security director—George—to build up a standalone security department. I was brought in as a permanent contract security manager for the account. The security firm made me an informal offer shortly before George arrived; the offer was conditional on a successful interview with George, which would constitute final approval.
As it happened, George and I used our initial interview to have a far-ranging and comfortable conversation about everything from work ethic to security knowledge. This interview was important, because the success of a mentor and mentee relationship depends on the compatibility of both individuals.
In general, the potential mentor and mentee should always have the opportunity to meet and determine individually if they are going to be able to work together—a concept that formal mentorship programs need to consider before matching up participants. If not, the relationship may be doomed to fail before it gets off the ground.
Do Your Research
In deciding on the right mentor, the mentee may want to consider a number of variables, including the mentor’s level of expertise, his or her willingness to share his or her knowledge, and the general alignment of the interests of both parties. Some expertise, credentials, and accomplishments can be ascertained through online research; records of high-profile failures can sometimes be discovered, too.
In George’s case, his online profile showed that he was a successful university police lieutenant who transitioned into the security industry by first heading up a multicampus hospital system, before coming to the security directorship at the community college. He was also a longtime member of ASIS and a Certified Protection Professional© (CPP); all in all, a veteran security professional.
Of course, the process of assessing a mentor’s expertise does not have to end once the selection process is complete. A mentee can continually assess the mentor’s expertise by conducting his or her own analysis through independent research. This is a great tool to see if the actions of the mentor are consistent with national best practices.
In my case, as I became more involved with ASIS and my own professional development progressed, I could see why George made the decisions and took the actions that he did.
For example, I remember creating a revised incident report template for the security department, which included a glossary of incident types with definitions. The idea was to make it easier for security officers to choose an incident type for a report and create more unified reporting between campuses and individual officers.
I used FBI Unified Crime Reporting categories as a basis for the incident types. When George reviewed the incident types, he made a number of edits that combined categories or renamed them, and crimes like burglary, arson, and nonnegligent homicide were added to the list.
George had revamped the list of incident types to follow U.S. Clery Act categories, which made more sense given that our workplace was a higher education facility. (The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to report information about crime on and near their campuses.) I was familiar with Clery at that point, but it didn’t hit home for me until I started researching why we changed the names and found that Clery actually specified what incidents should be named.
This became a recurrent pattern: The more I learned, the deeper I could research; the deeper my research, the more my own findings validated George’s expertise. But the process of assessing expertise independently has another benefit—it can sometimes reveal that the knowledge gap between mentor and mentee is too large, and cannot be bridged.
For example, if a mentee is barely able to use email, he or she will need a mentor who uses email daily, not a software developer who wrote the code that makes email work. An overly large knowledge gap can lead to a breakdown in communication between the mentor and mentee, in which the mentee cannot fully grasp concepts that the mentor believes are common sense. It’s almost as if they are speaking different languages.
That is not true in every case, of course; some highly accomplished professionals are also gifted communicators and teachers who can bridge a wide skills gap. But sometimes the gap leads to so much frustration that both parties give up. In a worst-case scenario, this bad experience can preclude both parties from trying again with a more suitable partner in the future, thus missing out on the mutual benefits of mentoring.
If either party feels that the match is untenable, they should amicably end the partnership and try again with another person. The industry needs experts and novices to seek each other out and work together, so neither party should allow a relationship to deteriorate.
Independent research can be valuable in another way—as a great educational tool for mentors. They may use it to develop exercises that allow mentees to analyze situations on their own and select appropriate actions based on the conditions faced.
Exercises like these illustrate that mentorship is not just hand-holding; the mentees must be willing and able to act and think for themselves. Practicing these skills in an exercise setting is an excellent way to learn.
Finally, a mentor-mentee relationship may not work if both are considered competitors for the same job. The modern workplace can be territorial, and being mentored by someone who is concerned that you will ultimately take his or her job (rather than succeed him or her when he or she voluntarily moves on or retires) will be problematic. It is likely that concerns about employment will erode the trust of one or both parties, causing the relationship to fail.
Given this, many of the best mentors are those who are nearing the end of their professional career, are experts in the niche of the security industry that the mentee wants to excel in, and are eager to pass on their knowledge to promising young professionals.
Once you have identified a mentor, and you firmly believe that the mentor’s expertise is genuine and there is mutual trust and a desire to work together, you should commit to the partnership in full.
When George and I began working together, there was no real separation between our jobs and learning. We didn’t set aside one day a week for mentorship activities, with the other four taken up by operational assignments or disciplinary meetings. Instead, the opposite occurred: traditional work and mentorship blended together seamlessly. Every activity became a potential lesson, and every interaction a potential opportunity for the transfer of information.
George and I met about twice a week to discuss the general operations of the security guard force. In those meetings, I would often be assigned tasks—anything from drafting a policy on a particular topic to developing a plan for special event coverage. I would return to my office to work on the project, and then bring a working draft to our next meeting.
George would bring out the red pen and, quite unapologetically, bleed it all over my drafts. He would explain the errors made on the drafts and then send me back to correct and resubmit them.
Perhaps the most important gift I received from George was his patient, steady refusal to accept substandard or poorly researched work. I have since realized how tempting it can be when we get busy to simply fix documents and reports that are submitted with errors and send them on, just to keep them moving. But ultimately, that guarantees that you will continue to review submitted documents with mistakes. It takes patience, and a desire to instruct, to take the time to explain what is wrong with a document and hand it back to the mentee to fix it.
Mentorship doesn’t have to be one dimensional nor exclusive. From time to time, I would draw on the advice of others when the situation warranted. The owners of the security firm I worked for had extensive expertise in contract security, so they were the go-to source for me when I needed expertise specific to that subfield. There is no shortage of good mentors, so there is no reason to limit yourself to only one when seeking counsel.
As we continued working together, the complexity of the tasks that I was assigned naturally grew. The more I learned, the more I was able to do, and the more projects I was involved in.
George and I coauthored articles and developed training programs for campus security officers and for people transitioning to security from other industries. I learned that there is no better way to reinforce knowledge of a subject then to teach it. This is doubly true if your students are adults. Whenever you think you have become knowledgeable about a subject, try standing in front of a class of adult learners who think they are, too, and take on their questions.
This stage is a time of professional transition: the mentee is no longer a novice, but certainly not yet an expert. Moving away from the basics to more advanced concepts can be exciting and rewarding, and there can be a dangerous temptation for the mentee to believe that the mentorship is over. It certainly crossed my mind on occasion, especially during difficult, busy days at the office, when the last thing I wanted was for George to point out what I had just done wrong.
However, I realized that my mentorship was still too valuable to discontinue. It did need to change, however. When the mentorship reaches an advanced stage, an emphasis on strategic learning and career development should gradually replace basic job-specific knowledge.
Operational skills, such as making schedules, interviewing candidates, and developing policies and SOPs, have all been learned. Now, both mentor and mentee can focus on cultivating higher-level skills, such as knowing how to predict where and when a new policy may be needed, and analyzing current trends in crime prevention or campus safety.
Much like traditional leadership, a mentorship style can also be altered and adjusted over time, as the relationship deepens.
In the later stages of my mentorship, George pushed me outward to take advantage of more and more development opportunities, such as professional education, online U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency classes, conferences with the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, and many other training classes and seminars, including the 2011 ASIS International Seminar and Exhibits in Orlando, Florida.
The ASIS seminar was an eye-opening experience that allowed a relatively new security manager like myself to explore the full depth of the profession. In one week, I discovered that as much as I thought I had learned in my three years working with George, I had barely scratched the surface.
Nonetheless, my first ASIS seminar served as the perfect catalyst for George to push me into pursuing my CPP designation, which I eventually obtained.
Two years after I earned my CPP, a colleague in ASIS forwarded me a note about a job opportunity as the security administrator for the city in which I lived. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, and, amazingly enough, the job post specifically sought a CPP with multisite security management experience.
I got the job, and became security administrator for the City of Newport News, Virginia. George transitioned to mentoring a physical security manager who was hired before I left.
Mentee Becomes Mentor
George and I still keep in touch, catching up for an occasional lunch to compare strategies on similar issues. As I moved into my new position, I found new mentors with extensive public sector expertise to help me navigate the landmines that exist in local government.
I have found that the pace of operations is even faster at this higher level, and there is less patience for sharing entry-level knowledge because expectations reflect the added responsibilities of the new job. However, the mentorship dynamic remains the same—I work for an individual with tremendous knowledge of municipal administration, and his counsel in that segment of my job is invaluable.
I have tried to share knowledge with the people around me in much the same way that George helped me, by patiently pushing the people around me to learn more about the industry and their functions within it. My approach, however, has been somewhat different from George’s. While George dedicated a significant length of time to mentoring one person, I have tried to influence everyone I come into contact with.
Looking back, there was no cue-the-swelling-music moment where I could say, “I was mentored to achieve exactly this.” Mentorship doesn’t work like that, in my experience. It is a gradual process that requires constant work and endless patience from both sides.
It is also a partnership that helps develop both individuals, and potentially instills in them a career-long appreciation for learning and teaching. This appreciation leads us to continue to move forward in our profession, seek out new mentors, and mentor those coming behind us, elevating the entire profession, one apprentice at a time.
William Cottringer, Ph.D., Certified Homeland Security (CHS) level III, is executive vice-president for employee relations for Puget Sound Security Patrol, Inc., in Bellevue, Washington, and adjunct professor OF criminal justice at Northwest University.