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sarah d_scalet
Senior Editor

Interview with Gavin de Becker

Jul 01, 200415 mins
IT JobsIT Leadership

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.

And how about the final C, certainty?

Those experiencing anxiety always seek the antidote, which is certainty. We can’t always give certainty on the big questions. (For example, will everything be all right? Is there danger on my trip to the Dominican Republic?) But we can express things we do know with certainty. We can describe the actions we will take; we can set forth “rules of engagement” for [what to do] if an unwanted pursuer calls again; we can offer with great certainty details of how to respond to an emergency. If you don’t tell people what’s going to happen (when you’ll get back to them, what steps you’ll take) and establish their expectations, their expectations will be established by television shows. What is routine for you and me, dear peer CSO, is not routine for the person who is perhaps a victim of crime for the first time in their lives. They are highly stressed, and they will wonder why you didn’t put a 10-man surveillance team on the stalker; why you haven’t arrested anybody yet; why the FBI hasn’t taken action yet. When a person is anxious, any certainty will hit the spot. And any lack of certainty will worsen matters. So express whatever you can with reassuring certainty.

There’s a beautiful quote from Nelson Mandela: “When we are liberated from our fears, that automatically liberates others around us.” So you simply are a person of confidence, and you communicate things with confidence, and you take the lead in the situation, knowing that you (and not the person that you’re assisting) have the most experience in this field. You need to know it; that’s the only way they’ll come to know it.

The gist of all this is that the very energy that frustrates you—that victim of fear who is calling you all the time, or that person who’s disappointed by the speed with which the case is being resolved, or that CEO who doesn’t like the information you’re giving him—the same energy that frustrates you will ultimately benefit you if your relationship stays good.

In what way?

All that emotion eventually will be channeled into relief and praise if your relationship stays good. We have 1,400 clients, and they tend to call during times of crisis and anxiety—not typically when they’re at their best. That emotion, that anxiety—we look at it as an opportunity. Most people run from it. We encourage people to move toward it and embrace it and understand that the emotional person is trying to invest his or her confidence in you.

How do you keep a client’s anxiety from rubbing off on you?

People naturally want you to get as excited about things as they are; likewise, they want you to be as anxious as they are. “Don’t you see how serious this is?” they ask. “Don’t you see the urgency?” They want to see our anxiety. In truth, they are better served by not seeing it. You don’t show people the light by going into the dark with them. If you stay outside the well, you can become the arm reaching down to help.

They say you have the slowest pulse in Hollywood. Do you think that’s true?

I’ve seen a great deal in my life, and it takes a lot to get me off-center. But I don’t think that the universe puts in front of us things that we can’t manage. Where we suffer is when we want a specific outcome. Where we thrive is when we accept our ability to flexibly meet the challenges of life.

For example, America’s ability to respond to crisis is far stronger than our ability to prevent crisis. Throughout our lives, we’ve seen our government respond with remarkable effectiveness to unusual and unpredictable occurrencesearthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires, bombings, workplace violence incidents, school shootings. And if we’ve learned anything from these emergencies, it’s that our infrastructure is strong and resilient.

You can take that philosophy and apply it to yourself—you, the CSO, in your own corporation. You can cultivate the knowledge that the issue is not how well you’ll predict what’s coming but rather how well you manage what does come. The confidence that you can manage what comes down the pike is what people will see when you sit down in a meeting. Nothing’s going to come at me in this meeting or in this lifetime that will destabilize me or that will persuade me that I can’t meet the challenge. There’s a beautiful way of saying this: The anticipated may never occur, but the unexpected will always occur. Our product is to calmly manage change because change is coming.

Your book The Gift of Fear explores the role of intuition in protecting one’s personal safety. What do you think the role of intuition is for the CSO?

I believe that intuition is the single greatest resource that we bring to our work. Experience without intuition is like knowledge without wisdom. Someone who’s very experienced has many memories. You’ve heard the expression “collect your thoughts.” To collect those memories and turn them into wisdom, that requires intuition, because intuition will draw on everything you ever saw, learned or experienced. And it will produce a reaction that even can be felt in the body about what feels right.

Interestingly for security professionals, the root of the word intuition, intere, means to guard and to protect. I think that is exactly what it can do for us when we listen. Every reader of your magazine can identify developments in their lives where intuition was a key playerwhere they knew something before they knew why they knew it. That’s what intuition is. It’s knowing without consciously knowing why. It is getting from A to Z without stopping at all the letters on the way.

Intuition is useful, but is it dangerous in business?

It can be, but remember that having an intuition and exploring it does not mean that you base your decisions solely on intuition. It means you follow your intuition to its logical destination. There’s a lovely quote from the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. He says, “I throw a spear into the jungle. That is my intuition. Then I go and find it. That is my intellect.” Well, I recommend precisely that. You have the intuitive feeling. Don’t discount it. Explore it. If it doesn’t take you to a destination you’re comfortable with, you don’t have to proceed.

Do you think most CSOs have gotten where they are by intuition or by logic?

Absolutely by intuition. Most great investigators in law enforcement and in the military, where a lot of our CSOs come from, had an intuition time and again in their careers that said, I think I’ll make that phone call again; I think I’ll double-check on such and such; I’m going to look back over those records. They don’t know why.

People who are closed to their intuition are disabling a massive component of who they are. I tell my employees to bring their entire self to work. I want their intuition. That said, I believe that America as a culture tends to prefer logic. We actually will praise someone for a bad decision if they can show us the logical route that got them there, and we will criticize someone for a good decision if they claim it was entirely made on intuition.

Our readers come from both the corporate security and the IT security worlds, and they are often at odds with each other. Do you think that may be because people with a technical background tend to have a more logical approach to their jobs?

Yes! Technically oriented people tend to expect the world to work like a machine: You put this in and you get this out. Being open to intuition places one more in tune with the natural ways of life (living beings as opposed to mechanical things). Paradoxically, intuition is, in the natural order of things, completely logical.

Can you cultivate intuition in other people, or can you only encourage it?

Everybody has it. The question is: Do you listen to it? If you think of a mind as a large cast of players all wrestling for attention, intuition is one of the easier ones to silence because it’s quiet. It’s not like fear (which is a very loud voice) or logic (which is a very arrogant and sort of demagogic voice). It is subtle.

And the outside voices? Whether it’s a Hollywood star or a high-powered CEO, how do you handle a big ego?

One thing I strongly recommend is to present a menu of options to your corporations or your clients, and then let them choose. You can be an advocate for one option if you wantthat’s finebut ultimately you’re bringing the client into the decision-making process.

In the corporate world, senior executives will often scurry to avoid making decisions; they want the CSO to make the decisions. But I don’t give them that luxury. Americans tend to look for someone to blame later on, and I am saying to my brothers and sisters in security, don’t make it you. Don’t volunteer for that job. In order to do that, we need to subdue our egos adequately to accept their choice. I have seen many people fail in the CSO position by getting married to a particular option and not presenting alternatives. Thus, when that option does not yield the fruit that was expected, there’s no question about whose baby it was.

I imagine this method also helps the egos of people you’re dealing with, because you’re not telling them what to do.

That’s true. They’re less resistant. You don’t feel like you have to sell quite as strongly when they participate in the process.