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Illustration by Steve McCracken

Going Global? Think Local.

U.S. Major General (Ret.) James “Spider” Marks is quite familiar with the ins and outs of international security. In his 30-year tenure in the U.S. Army, Marks held high posts around the world, including in Iraq, South Korea, and the Balkans, regions where the U.S. military tried to increase stability and security.

Security, Marks has found, is a universal. The standard of success—the successful protection of people and assets—is a concept that translates around the globe. “The standards for the application of security are inviolate, regardless of where you are in the world,” Marks says.

But it is “increasingly difficult” to deliver security services that achieve this universal standard in a world that grows ever more culturally and ethnically diverse, as well as demographically eclectic, Marks adds. Success in doing this, he explains, requires “a very intense and focused effort on part of the leadership to ensure you can meet the standard.”

Marks is also familiar with the leader’s role. In the military, he held every command position from infantry platoon leader to commanding general. Now retired, he continues to share his leadership perspective as a national security analyst on CNN. In the business world, Marks led, as president and CEO, Global Linguist Solutions, a linguistics company that was the largest employer of native Iraqis. He is now executive dean of the College of Security and Criminal Justice at the University of Phoenix. 

Being a leader—such as a security manager—and leading a workforce in the increasingly complex international arena can be tricky, Marks explains. “In international markets, you can blow it in a heartbeat,” he says. “And you can’t unring the bell if you mess it up initially.” Given this, Security Management asked Marks, as well as a few ASIS members with significant international experience, to offer some best practice guidance on how to lead a global workforce and be a successful global manager. 

These best practices hold true regardless of country of origin. Whether your firm is based in North America, Latin America, Europe, or Asia, if you are attempting to operate in a different country or a different region of the world, you will face a similar set of challenges.

Take, for example, Latin America. Many of the countries in that region share the same language, but a security executive with a company from one country may encounter challenges in leading a workforce in another county because of the cultural differences, says Martin Barye-Garcia, the regional security director of Latin America for Mars, Inc., who has extensive experience as a manager in several different countries in the region. 

“Although the majority in Latin America share the same language, every country has specific idiosyncrasies and cultural ways of recognizing hierarchy and deference,” he says. “Security professionals should be able to recognize those and find the best solution to enforce the security standard without compromise, and to maintain harmony with the general employee population.”

Moreover, experienced internationalists say that leading a workforce in another county requires a delicate balance, in which leadership and learning happen simultaneously. The security executive must be able to manage the department, while continuing to familiarize himself or herself with the host culture, and make adjustments accordingly. 

“Never assume that you cannot learn positive practices from your local national security professionals. Always strive to understand, learn and adapt to the local environment,” Barye-Garcia says.  ​

The Local Angle

Seasoned international managers often cite a key requirement—virtually a golden rule—for international success: work with a trusted local partner. In Marks’ view, the right local partner is, in military parlance, the “long pole in the tent,” without which the entire enterprise runs the risk of collapsing. 

In leading an international workforce, the security manager’s first task is to “ensure that your entire team can operate and function in the environment,” so that it can assist the organization in achieving its business objectives of success, growth, and expansion. “What’s essential as a precondition for doing that is to find a local partner with a very strong reputation in the region for doing business in that region,” Marks says. 

“In some places in the world, corruption is a part of the business fabric,” Marks explains. This will affect business decisions and profit margins, and can possibly mean that part of the original investment will “disappear in some crack or corner in the room,” but often this is not an easily measurable or predictable factor. “There’s no way you would be able to audit and evaluate it,” Marks explains. In those situations, it’s crucial to have a partner who can anticipate which parts of the local market are corrupt and help managers avoid them. 

Indeed, Jay Martin, the Mexico-based regional security manager for Goldcorp Latin America and chair of the ASIS Petrochemical, Chemical, and Extractive Industries Security Council, says that local partners are critical to his organization’s operations in Mexico.

Martin says that his organization, like many companies in the extractives industry, always forms local partnerships at the outset of exploration activities. “There is a heavy reliance on local experts to assist with both legal and technical matters to get the company started on the right path,” he says. 

These partnerships are not temporary fly-by-night arrangements: for many mine sites, the process averages 10 years or longer from exploration to the start of production. 

And in the security sector, the right local partner may be able to offer valuable business intelligence that can be used to help guide security operations, Marks says. For example, the security department of an American organization, working abroad, may form a partnership with a local law enforcement agency, national government representatives, or an experienced local business that has developed excellent contacts over the years and has “deep and vibrant sinews” in the local culture, Marks says. 

That lay-of-the-land perspective that locals bring to the table is immensely valuable, Barye-Garcia says.  “Most salient local security professionals can bring a keen understanding of the threat and risk landscape,” he says. “They can understand how the localized threats operate and how capable local law enforcement is in dealing with these threats.”


Besides local partnerships, another important issue involve staffing the security department. Here, too, the experts advise making full use of local resources. 

“One of our core strategies is to hire from the local population,” Martin says. “We have very few expatriates assigned to our overseas locations, although some outside expertise is needed in certain functional areas.” But even with outside experts, “the long-term goal is to transition these positions to local hires in order to benefit the local communities and the company to the fullest extent possible,” he adds. 

For Martin’s organization, the local hiring strategy makes sense in large part because much of the workforce in Latin America is highly educated and possesses intimate local knowledge developed over years of experience. “That would take an outsider a very long time to develop,” he says. 

Barye-Garcia has also found candidates impressive in both education and expertise. “In all of the countries that I have operated in Latin America, I have been able to select and employ local nationals who have the level of expertise, education, and training that is needed,” he says. 

To Marks, local staffing is especially critical if the organization is delivering goods or services to the local population. In the security field—as with most companies operating abroad in general—“a fully integrated organization is what you are trying to achieve.” Having local staffers at all levels will be critical in gaining this integration. “They’re helping to translate what you are trying to achieve into operating principles,” he says.

Moreover, there could be some regulations on hiring that a foreign company would have to follow. Marks offered the example of Germany, which requires foreign companies doing business there to offer jobs to qualified German citizens before they can be filled by a foreign national. “Every position must go through that filter,” he explains. Other countries may require a certain percentage of a foreign company’s workforce to be local nationals.

On the flip side, if an American company working abroad is providing services to Americans—such as an American security firm based in Berlin that provides services to U.S. military bases in Western Europe—there will likely be American requirements that the company will have to follow, such as Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulatory requirements.

Of course, making use of local workforce resources during the staffing process does not mean that every slot in a security department should be filled with a local. Sometimes, Martin says, some local employees have never worked for an international company with global reach, and so the organization may decide that an expatriate should be chosen as the security manager, at least initially. In these cases, “the answer is to have an expat with a global vision, and then ensure that the majority of his or her team has local expertise, which is a perfect mix,” Martin explains. “Over time, local personnel can be exposed to the company culture, mentored, and developed to fill the role successfully.”

Whichever staffing direction a company doing business decides to go, the process requires analysis and due diligence, says Linda Florence, vice president and dean of specialized programs at the University of Phoenix and president of the ASIS Foundation Board of Trustees. “The search for candidates in a given region should be approached in a manner similar to the risk assessment process, with all the mitigating factors and variables given an appropriate degree of consideration,” Florence says. 

“Regardless of location, the environmental factors and local norms must be taken into consideration and the organization must decide the most appropriate approach,” Florence explains. Since each country has its own customs and idiosyncrasies, the use of professional staffing agencies with international recruitment experience can be helpful, she adds.

Barye-Garcia echoes this, saying that Western European or American companies may find the candidate selection process to be more difficult in Latin America. “The process of vetting and verifying experience, education, and background may not be as easy or reliable,” he says. 

Florence also agrees with Martin that, for some firms, a transitional approach can be effective. “In some cases, a temporary, matrixed organizational model can be successful to help get the operation up and running to establish training protocols and develop policies and procedures,” she says. “Then, transition the authority to a local supervisor.”   

There can also be cases where a U.S. organization finds that the best option for a certain security position abroad is neither an American nor a local, but a third-country national. Marks offers the example of a project he worked on in which he needed to hire security for multiple locations in Iraq. The candidates with the most appropriate skill sets were from Uganda, and turned out to be excellent staffers. 

Sometimes, successful local or third-country staffers can be put on an accelerated growth path to higher levels of management. But this too, varies, Marks says. “People have different levels in terms of their potential,” he explains. Some are more aspirational than others; when promotion opportunities open up, some promising local employees are “really not ready for that position.”

Leading from Afar

Once the international security department is staffed, there is the matter of day-to-day operations. Whether the office is led by an expatriate, a third-country national, or a local, it is wise to ensure that the office respects the local culture. 

“As the outsider, it is best to observe and acculturate as much as possible to the local office rather than trying to change everyone to fit what you might think is normal,” Martin says. “You can earn, or lose, respect very quickly. Know that you are in the spotlight. Basic common courtesies go a long way in dealing with differences, such as active listening and engaging others calmly, candidly, and with respect.”

And always lead by example, Barye-Garcia adds. “Always be transparent and honest. Strive to do the right thing always and encourage your local national professionals to do the same,” he says. 

In Mexico, the local culture affects things like workers’ office schedules, and simple day-to-day factors such as when to take breaks, Martin says. “Many Latin cultures tend to start later and finish later, including later meals. If I am eating lunch by myself, noon is fine, but if I’m eating with my colleagues, 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. is the norm,” he says. And having dinner with colleagues can be a late-night affair, with the meal starting around nine in the evening, he adds.  

Another example of the effect of culture in Mexico is the sense of respect for the hierarchy. While this may not be a bad thing in and of itself, it can mean that employees will be reluctant to point out potential negative consequences of decisions made by management. Thus, it can take great effort to ensure that valuable feedback from workers still comes through.   

“One has to build a level of rapport and trust. It takes time for your subordinates to challenge or question what you say. I have to continually reinforce this to get honest feedback, suggestions or advice,” Martin says.

In Florence’s view, these day-to-day operations “must strike an appropriate balance between the organization’s values and ethics and respecting geographical norms, cultures, and the prevailing law.” Thus, an organization that values work-life balance for its employees can maintain those policies abroad, such as casual dress, telecommuting options, and strong vacation policies. “Benefits need to be appropriate and addressed strategically to ensure employees are engaged,” she says. 

It’s also important for the executive who is charged with overseeing the foreign office to maintain strong leadership practices, even when he or she is not physically with the local team. “Physical absence is no excuse for leaders to abandon sound leadership principles,” Florence says.  Leaders can do this by creatively using technology, while keeping in mind that the employees’ comfort and convenience is more important than their own, she explains.  

“If that means having a Skype call with a team member working in another time zone at 2:00 a.m. U.S. time because that is what works best for the employee, then that is what you need to do, rather than inconvenience the team,” Florence says. 

Through Skype, regular one-on-one meetings can be held with direct reports on site, who can then drive the agenda. Successes can be celebrated, and regular feedback given without micromanaging every local move. “Processes are managed while people need leadership; managers should not attempt to ‘manage’ people,” Florence says.

Finally, successful international leadership in the security sector requires a nuanced awareness of how the profession is perceived in the host country, Barye-Garcia explains.

In Latin America, for example, security as a profession is virtually just coming of age. “Local security managers may be perceived as lower-ranking employees by local national leadership, and not given the access and voice needed to bring security needs to the forefront of the business agenda,” he says. In some countries, local security practitioners have been former members of the police or armed forces, groups that traditionally may not have enjoyed a positive reputation throughout society, he adds. 

To illustrate, Barye-Garcia tells the story of a recent meeting he attended, in which the executive leadership of his company met with the leaders of another enterprise. As introductions were made around the large oval table, Barye-Garcia stated his name and function. The leaders of the other firm were surprised to see a member of the security team attending the high-level meeting. 

“As the meeting ended, I made it a point to find the head of security for this very large company,” he says. “I was finally able to find his office and make contact with him. I immediately asked him about his level of interaction with the leadership of his company. He stated that he did not meet with the CEO of the company, and that he had never taken part in any business meetings.”

And so, therein lies another role for the international security leader—to advocate for security’s seat at the business executives’ table. “It is up to us, as security professionals, to break the stereotypes and cultural perceptions of the profession, and find the best vehicle to empower our function,” Barye-Garcia says.


Read more about global workforce challenges in Regional Guidance.