Leadership in a Time of Change
Print Issue: January 2004
“I try not to do anything in life unless I can learn from it and enjoy the experience,” says Shirley Pierini, CPP. The philosophy has served her well during a life of frequent change. As a U.S. Navy wife, Pierini faced the challenge of constantly adapting to new environments when her husband moved from post to post. Today, she faces a similar challenge as she deals with a security landscape undergoing radical changes since 9-11. But through it all, the ascent of both her career and education has not faltered.
On January 1, Pierini became ASIS International’s 49th president, and her hopes for her term are high. Her efforts will be aided by a strong Society Board of Directors. “I think I have the best team in the history of ASIS,” she says enthusiastically.
All of the five board incumbents won re-election last year, providing continuity Pierini does not believe any ASIS president previously enjoyed. And the board is not composed of the timid, says Pierini, but of those ready to speak their mind and make hard decisions, as evidenced in the 2002 decision to change the name of the Society to ASIS International. “We’ve already done things that have brought us under fire, but when that board walks out at the end of the day, they are in step,” the new president states.
Early days. Pierini was born in Spokane, Washington—the youngest of five children of a farming family. She married a local boy who joined the U.S. Navy. “Until the late 1960s, I worked at home and went to school part-time, took care of my three children, and was a Navy wife,” she says. The family was posted to Seattle, Minneapolis, then back to Seattle, San Francisco, and finally to San Diego.
During the family’s second stint in Seattle, Pierini joined the Bellevue, Washington, Police Department. “The only thing that women were allowed to do in those days was communications and to serve as clerk-matrons [handling female prisoners],” Pierini explains. She did both. Pierini says she fell in love with police work, “Once you experience it, it’s in your blood.”
In the early 1970s, when her husband’s orders took the family to San Diego, Pierini applied to the San Diego Police Department (SDPD), eventually becoming a communications officer. She also signed on as a reserve officer with the small Imperial Beach Police Department.
“With the SDPD, I was a dispatcher assigned to the command van that responded to critical incidents such as shootings, the Border Wars, and the strikes in Imperial Valley by farm workers led by Cesar Chavez,” recalls Pierini. She says that the van traveled to the closest possible safe location and established an emergency command post for the mutual-aid agency respondents. For example, during the Imperial Valley workers’ strike, there were agencies from five counties and municipalities called in to help handle the ensuing riots.
At Imperial Beach, the reserve officers had full-beat responsibility and were sworn, paid officers. In this capacity, Pierini was also called out for crises such as in late September 1978, when a Cessna 172 and a Pacific Southwest Airlines Boeing 727 collided in mid-air and crashed into a neighborhood below. One hundred and forty-four people died and more than 20 homes were destroyed. “I worked the command van [for the SDPD]. When I was relieved from that position, I worked as an Imperial Beach reserve officer in the morgue where they were bringing the bodies. Those images will forever be in my mind,” she says.
During her service with the SDPD, Pierini attended the police academy for post certification with the ambition of becoming a full-time SDPD officer. However, her husband was undergoing a series of health crises, including multiple heart attacks that led to complicated surgery. Pierini found herself trying to balance the needs of her critically ill spouse, her teenaged children, and her two jobs.
Private security. In 1979, Pierini’s husband was medically retired from the Navy, and the family moved to Reno, Nevada. “He needed a place to recover and recoup a little, and to enjoy life with his kids,” she says of her husband, who would later die from his illness. Pierini signed up as a part-time Washoe County Sheriff’s deputy reserve officer and joined the MGM Grand Casino as a security officer. The flexible hours allowed her to care for her family as well as bring in a salary.
At MGM, Pierini was promoted to sergeant, and later, to a house detective. Of the change in mindset that her move to private security prompted, Pierini comments that as a police officer “you want to make the arrest; you want to catch the perpetrator; you want to get that person in jail. In the private sector…you try to prevent the crime instead.”
She found casino security a perfect transitional vehicle from law enforcement to private security. “The casino officer looks for people stealing purses or who are cheating at gaming, or who are picking pockets. You’re still looking for crime, but you’re also trying to prevent it through crowd control, planning, and all the other proactive aspects of casino security,” she states.
Pierini remained with the casino for two years. “The clientele are there to have a good time,” she says, making her job more enjoyable. On the down side, Pierini found that casino security officers are frequently called on to aid guests who are having health crises. “You see a lot more people with medical problems than you do as a police officer. They don’t take their medications, they don’t get the rest they need, or they don’t eat properly,” she explains. In the quest for fun, “They’ll go into a diabetic coma or have a heart attack because they forgot to take care of themselves,” she says.
By 1981, Pierini’s children were grown, and she had moved to San Francisco and remarried to a retired police officer who had also made the transition to private security as a bank fraud investigator. She then became an armored car driver for Brinks, Inc., security transport service, and thereafter, a messenger whose job entailed bank deliveries.
After assisting the road manager in charge of tactical planning at Brinks, Pierini wanted to remain in management. To help her do so, she attended community college to earn the 120 credits needed to enter a bachelor’s degree program.
In the bank. In 1984, Pierini moved into the field of executive protection at Bank of America (BoA), working on the executive floor of the company’s world headquarters in downtown San Francisco.
At BoA, she worked for three company executives who found to their delight that she could easily travel incognito in her role as armed protector. “I did not look like a bodyguard. I looked like a bank secretary or a personal secretary or another female executive,” she says.
In 1988, when she had finished her bachelor’s degree (graduating as class valedictorian) and had begun work on an M.B.A. in business administration, Pierini was promoted to manager of executive protection with responsibility for the board of directors and senior staff in the workplace as well as in their homes. Pierini coordinated security for board meetings held in places such as Hawaii, New York City, and London, as well as for shareholders meetings of 5,000 to 6,000 attendees. While she was manager, the executive protection department was placed in charge of the chauffeur fleet and security training for the drivers was initiated.
In 1989, Pierini was also on the team developing a disaster management and business continuity plan for BoA headquarters. She was tasked with training 10 percent of the company’s 60,000 employees in CPR and first aid, coordinating a first-responder plan, and stockpiling food, water, and medical supplies to sustain the staffers who would run BoA during a crisis.
“When we came to the end of it, I was talking to the CEO…. I said, ‘Now, sir, if we could just test the plan,’” she recalls. But the CEO demurred because of the cost and inconvenience. About ten days later, on October 17, the 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake struck the region, causing massive structural damage and fires. Pierini was on the approach to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge when the quake caused a section of the bridge to collapse.
Fortunately unhurt, Pierini was able to turn around. She headed for BoA headquarters after a car-radio call yielded no response from the security communication center. When she arrived, she found that the officer on duty was traumatized by the quake. “He was in a totally enclosed space and could not look out. The building had been shaking and then there were aftershocks still occurring…. I relieved him and called someone else in. The two of us sat there doing what we had planned to do,” she states. She remained in place for two days.
They reached all of the company executives on their pagers—most of whom were attending the third game of baseball’s World Series at Candlestick Park. The director of security was traveling out of the state, so Pierini phoned him and kept the line open to feed him reports. She says that the untested plan worked well. Among the lessons learned was a more careful consideration of the age and health of BoA’s executives. Most were aged 60 plus, and they all worked on the 40th floor. “It’s not a good idea for them to walk down that many stairs, no matter how much they want to, as some of them did the next day because the elevators went out in a power disruption,” she says.
Afterward, the CEO commended Pierini with an award, commenting, Pierini recalls, “I knew you had power, but I had no idea you could create an earthquake to test the disaster plan.”
Enter ASIS. It was during Pierini’s years with BoA that she was first introduced to ASIS. Other security personnel were involved in the Society, and her manager prodded her to attend a meeting of the then-struggling Golden Gate Chapter. Pierini became the chapter chair in 1986.
Afterward, her volunteer leadership progression led her to assistant regional vice president and then to joining the Professional Certification Board that oversees the Certified Protection Professional (CPP) designation program, after which she went on to an appointment as chair of the ASIS Council on Telecommunications Security. In 1997, she ran for and won a seat on the Society’s Board of Directors—where she has since served as treasurer, secretary, vice president, and now president.
Pierini says that camaraderie kept her active in ASIS, as did networking and educational opportunities. “I went to my first ASIS Annual Seminar and Exhibits in Boston in 1988, and I have not missed one since,” she says. The Society’s educational programs, both national and local, provided her the ability “to stay sharp and state of the art.”
Because of her demanding role on the Board, Pierini is not able to spend as much time with her current chapter, Greater Los Angeles, as she’d like. “I only get there about once a year because I visit so many other chapters.”
Brainpower. It was also during her years with BoA that Pierini first heard of the CPP designation. “The director of corporate security encouraged CPP certification…. He knew it was the premier certification for security specialists,” she says. The bank sent her to a CPP Review Program, and after six months of home study, she took and passed the examination. Pierini also earned her M.B.A. in 1990 from the University of Phoenix as valedictorian of a graduating class of more than 3,000.
For security managers, education can be a powerful salary lifter. Since earning her CPP and M.A., she says that her salary has tripled. “It’s valuable,” Pierini stresses, adding that she is confident the two new ASIS-sponsored designations, Physical Security Professional (PSP) and Professional Certified Investigator (PCI), will do as much for the industry as the CPP has done.
Pierini says she wanted to help create the PSP and PCI designations but learned that anyone who wanted to be among the first to take the exam was not allowed to participate. “I want to be one of the first. I’m planning on taking both examinations in the very near future,” she states.
Shortly after Pierini earned her M.B.A., a Sparks, Nevada, police chief whom she had met through ASIS offered her a nonsworn command position as bureau chief. There she found many of the officers had not been post certified. The police chief wanted to upgrade the department by requiring certification and encouraging education (Pierini says that most officers had only a high school degree). The following three years were “an uphill battle,” and when a new chief was appointed, he chose to replace her with a sworn, uniformed officer.
After leaving Sparks, Pierini returned to Seattle to create a start-up security department for MacCaw Cellular Communications, a telecommunications company. When the company was subsequently purchased by AT&T, Pierini was told “‘We like the structure; we like the people; we just don’t need a [security] director.’”
AT&T asked Pierini to go to Los Angeles to create a security department for another partially owned AT&T company, LA Cellular. Two years later, she was once again told that her work was exemplary but the company did not need a security director.
In 1999, Pierini was hired by Guardsmark as vice president and manager-in-charge. “I had been a client of Guardsmark. I’d used them both in Seattle and in Los Angeles at the telecom company. I felt like they were top of the line…and I admired the service they provided,” she says.
Her new position required her to relocate again to Seattle to set up and coordinate a new large account that required 6,000 guard hours per week. Six months later, the company asked her to go to Denver to establish a market in Colorado and Wyoming as vice president and manager of business development.
Pierini was more than willing to take on the task, but the thin air at Denver’s high elevation made breathing difficult for her husband because of a related health condition. Once again, she says, “It was time to reassess the priorities.”
The year 2000 saw Pierini back in Los Angeles, in the position of director of executive protection for Kroll, Inc.’s Los Angeles office. “I told them that if I took this on, I didn’t intend to move. I wanted to stay in place and stay with a company for a long time. But that division of Kroll fell on hard times after September 11 because the focus shifted from executive protection to threat assessment, site surveys, and so on,” Pierini states. The company made cuts, and Pierini’s position was eliminated. She worked briefly for Sako and Associates, but left that company in August 2003. In November, she became vice president of corporate security and safety for Ameriquest Mortgage Corporation of Orange, California.
Reflecting on her varied career, Pierini says that each position exposed her to new aspects of security management, making her aware of the industry’s scope and needs.
Tackling the issues. Pierini has highlighted multiple issues that she plans to focus on during her year as ASIS president. The first is refining and strengthening the Society’s relationship with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The ties between the department and ASIS have already grown. For example, as Hurricane Isabelle bore down on the U.S. East Coast, the DHS wanted ASIS to arrange a phone conference with some members to get their advice about how terrorists might try to take advantage of the disruption caused by the natural catastrophe, such as considering where they were likely to strike.
This event was unfolding during the ASIS 49th Annual Seminar and Exhibits in New Orleans. Michael Stack, the Society’s executive director, and ASIS 2003 President Daniel Kropp, CPP, collaborated to arrange a conference call with the experts who were on site together in one room. The impromptu briefing was a great success. Pierini says that this kind of cooperation has made the department look at ASIS as the premier source of security information.
Another goal of Pierini’s tenure will be to increase the Society’s expertise on computer and information technology security. “In my opinion, we are very far behind on that, lacking the resources and the bodies of knowledge we need. Computer security has to be brought to the forefront so we’re not depending on other organizations to bring forth the experts to address these issues,” she states.
Another area Pierini has highlighted is empowering the volunteer leaders of ASIS. “Of course, we all have to play by guidelines, and we all have to do what the Society needs, but we need to empower these people who we are putting in place as leaders. If they have the reins, they can make a difference,” she says.
Development of the non-U.S. membership is also important to Pierini. “We’ll be doing offshore seminars such as the one in Madrid in February as long as they make sense to the Society as a whole in terms of relationship building,” she says, adding that she intends to personally visit several non-U.S. regions during the year.
One final issue is diversity. The board has voted the ad hoc ASIS Council on Diversity into permanency, and Pierini believes that the issue can best be addressed educationally at broad-topic events such as the Emerging Trends Conference or the annual seminar and exhibits. “I think if we bring good speakers into an existing program, people will come to hear them,” she says.
When Pierini first entered the field, a woman’s opportunities for participation in law enforcement, in security, and in higher education were extremely limited. Now a grandmother of 10 and a beneficiary of three decades of diversity movements, Pierini is ASIS’s fifth female president and is planning to complete a Ph.D. when her term-of-office is complete.
Ann Longmore-Etheridge is associate editor of Security Management and editor of Dynamics.