Interview with Gavin de Becker

Called the Slowest Pulse in Hollywood, Gavin de Becker has a cool style that has gained him the trust of Hollywood stars, CEOs and even U.S. presidents. De Becker talks with Sarah D. Scalet about how CSOs can inspire that kind of confidence too.

No one had any particular reason to trust Gavin de Becker with anything, least of all their lives. He was just another poor kid at the tony Beverly Hills High School, one whose life had gotten off to a particularly violent start. At age 10, he watched his mother shoot his stepfather while his 2-year-old sister napped in her bedroom. When he was 16, his mother, a heroin addict, killed herself. It was not an auspicious way to come into adulthood.

But somehow, the charismatic de Becker used his innate understanding of why people turn violent—as well as a few well-placed connections, such as Rosemary Clooney (who took him under her wing when his mother died) and childhood friends Shaun Cassidy and Carrie Fisher—to become not just another Hollywood bodyguard, but the security guru to the stars.

More quietly, however, de Becker has built his company, Gavin de Becker & Associates, by consulting to everyone from President Ronald Reagan to the CIA to Fortune 500 companies to prosecutors on both O.J. Simpson cases about how to prevent and manage violence. Most controversially, he developed Mosaic—a threat assessment tool used by the Supreme Court as well as police departments and schools across the country—to predict whether someone will turn violent.

Now 49, de Becker spends as much time as he can at a sprawling retreat in Fiji where he is raising seven adopted children. He does much of the management of his 100-person firm in Los Angeles by phone and e-mail, and he is also at work on a new book about how protectors can best use the average of five seconds that it takes for an assassination attempt to occur—what he describes as "a very Zen book about staying in the present."

Ever an elusive interview subject, de Becker took some time to talk with Senior Editor Sarah D. Scalet about executive protection and methods for promoting confidence in security.

CSO: Hollywood stars, CEOs and U.S. presidents have all put their security in your hands. What advice do you have for CSOs about gaining people's trust?

Gavin de Becker: The product of the CSO's work is not reports and proposals and procedures and methods. The core product is peace of mind. We run an Advanced Threat Assessment and Management Academy twice a year at the UCLA Conference Center, where CSOs and senior government security officials gather for four days. One of the classes that I give there is called "Managing Victim Fear," and the core question is: What can the CSO do to impart more confidence? I call it the four C's: care, confidence, communication and certainty.As in...?Well, first is care. The [client] wants to know, Do you care about me? Am I special, or am I just another case? Do you think I'm crazy? It might be your CEO, or it might be a woman who is victimized by a violent ex-husband, but this is one of the questions they will ask themselves.

Next is confidence. People are asking, in effect, of the CSO: Are you a vessel for my confidence? In general, we want to invest our confidence. When we see the pilot of a 747 walking down the aisle, we're looking to see how cool he is. [So to promote confidence,] I recommend that before you meet someone for the first time, you send them a bio. You say, "I look forward to our meeting tomorrow afternoon, and so that you'll be more familiar with my background, I'm sending you some general information." When you arrive, they say, "Oh, that's what a security expert looks like." That way, they fit you into their projection instead of the alternative. If a guy shows up and says, "I'm the bomb detection expert," and you judge him based on what he's wearing, how old he is, how tall he is, how he looks, how he speaks—he now doesn't fit your central casting idea. But if a person is sent a bio first, we will fit [the subject of the bio] into our projection.

Once you're hired, the CEO already knows your background. Is there a way to do this on a more ongoing basis?

If you know you're going to a meeting about a particular topic, it's great to send a memo that says, "I look forward to our meeting on Tuesday. I have some experience and insight on this topic because of my background in..." and you list the three ways in which you have relevant experience.

Might someone misinterpret that as arrogance?

Confidence and arrogance are often confused. I don't think you seem arrogant unless you behave in a way that imparts arrogance.

So, if you can back up what you say...

That's the key. Each of my colleagues in security has the responsibility to be his or her own corporationhis or her own CEO, marketing division, financial division and service-providing division. The marketing component is one where people are often shy. You need to put your head above the crowd and say, "Hey, I'm the best person for this job. You made a really good choice by inviting me to comment on this, because you may not be aware that I served five years in the Coast Guard, and so I have a lot to say about maritime security." Or, "When I was with the FBI, I used to advise the airlines on profiling, and so I have some insights that I am enthusiastic about offering." If I got that from a member of my firm, I would be nothing but pleased. I would feel that my decision was a wise one inviting that person to that meeting.

OK. So back to your four C's.

The third one is communication—which invests in people the knowledge that you care about them. I have a policy in my company to always call clients before they call us, even if we don't yet have the information they're waiting for. I look for excuses to call my clients, whereas most people look for ways to avoid taking calls because we don't yet have the "answer." If I meet with someone, let's say they had a threat problem, later I'll force myself to call them and ask one follow-up question at least. I used to wonder if it was a manipulation on my part. But what I learned is that every time I tasked my mind to come up with a question, it had value. If I called the client back at 7 o'clock at night and said I'd just been thinking about their case (which is true, I had been thinking about their case) and I had an additional question, that area of inquiry would invariably lead me to important information. At the same time, it demonstrates clearly that I care about this matter—that it's not just another case to me.

Because they see that you're thinking about it after hours.

Right. Another thing to always do after a meeting is say to people, "Is there a number I can reach you at after hours, because we may want to call you." That's music to someone's ears when they're afraid. It's a gift when they're afraid. One of the worst things you can do is not return someone's calls, because no matter how great your work has been, failing to return a call absolutely invalidates the work.

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