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Leading with Empathy: Fostering Engaged Workforces

Much like the world we live in, the security business has changed, and the lessons gained serve as a powerful reminder that to be effective in our industry, we need to evolve as leaders to get the best out of our people. A developed and dedicated workforce is critical to our success, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when it is more important than ever to be resilient in our delivery of essential services. Building up a culture of professionalism, compassion, and connection is essential to ongoing success as a leader in this field.

As a U.S. Marine, I was a student of leadership—learning the ways and methods of how to lead men and women. This was a good starting point for the next 30 years of experience in law enforcement and being a security consultant for a global brand today. During my career, I oversaw recruitment and training program for more than 250 police officers, command of a SWAT team, and hiring and supervising of more than 500 security officers. My client base is diverse, consisting of entertainment, academics, hospitality, sports, and corporate. I credit the success of my team—then and now—to understanding the context of a situation, connecting with people who work for you, building relationships, and constantly evolving to position yourself for future successes.

Understanding the context is key. It is no secret that security officers are not highly paid. They often work shifts that people are not drawn to. They must work with clients and members of the public when they are most distressed. They are put in harm’s way. They are often treated as though they are invisible. All these factors present challenges when you are trying to recruit professional, smart, hard-working people.

This is why we have to be creative and active in attracting talent. Security services firms cannot expect excellent employees to find us. Even with all the technology and online hiring, personal care is still important. Wherever I go—a mall or a hotel—I’m always looking for my next hire. If I see a security officer looking and acting professional, I will talk to him or her and introduce myself. When I tell them about my company and how we are always looking for great people, they light up because they feel good that someone noticed them.

Money is important, but acknowledgment is fulfilling. I may not be able to offer them more money, but they become interested because they already feel appreciated. I encourage my employees to spread the word and help me with recruitment. This is empowering for them because they feel trusted to assist me in building our team.

When I interview candidates, I ask questions about them—not just the typical interview questions—because it allows me to better understand who they are, their potential, and any shortfalls. It’s about creating connection. It’s also a way to set expectations from the beginning and see how they react to what I expect. Candidates feel that you are interested in them and you want to set them up for success through clarity and communication.

Increasing the connection through understanding is a critical part of maintaining and growing a great workforce. Employers cannot get the best out of someone when they have no idea who the employee is. The time spent getting to know your employees and letting them get to know you forges a profound connection that pushes everyone to go the extra mile—not because they are doing it for your brand, but because they are doing it for you and their coworkers. Give someone a good reason, and he or she will rise to the occasion.

I didn’t always think this way. My military and paramilitary background set me up as a stern, no-nonsense, show-no-feeling kind of boss. I quickly realized when I got into the security business that I had to change. As a security consultant, I answer to clients, ensure peace of mind for their stakeholders, and always seek out new contracts. I could not accomplish any of these objectives by just telling people what to do; I had to convince them, which meant I had to adjust and customize my approach.

I had to modify how I communicated and conducted myself to be more effective. I needed to understand the client’s needs so I can hire the right people and develop the right solutions, which would lead to more contracts.

I encourage clients to talk to my officers so there is a connection. I let my employees know that they are not just standing post; they are doing an important job keeping people and properties safe. Feeling valued and purposeful is something most of us desire. Giving security personnel a chance to be understood and helping them see the larger picture makes them more capable at their job. It’s difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy takes a very conscious effort. It involves asking questions without jumping to conclusions and listening without judgment.

For example, when quickly hiring several officers to fill a contract, I couldn’t believe how applicants showed up to the interview—ungroomed and unprofessionally dressed. Many of us in the security industry can relate to this situation and the frustration when you are trying to hire the right people on a moment’s notice.

Over the years, I realized that many applicants did not have adult figures in their lives who taught them how to prepare for an interview. They get hired because companies need bodies to fill posts at low wages. I do not believe in lowering expectations or settling on issues of quality, so I had to mentor them and explain the importance of looking and acting professional. Some of them have gone on to be successful security directors.

Shortly after hiring the officers, I was doing a spot check over the weekend when I saw one of the officers asleep. I was upset and immediately corrected him. But I also talked with him to see why he would be so irresponsible. My old self would have just fired him without question. I found out that his mom was in the hospital and he had stayed up all night with her before his day watch shift, but he still showed up for work. So, I gave him a chance and continued to counsel him about how to better balance his personal life with his work. Treating this officer with dignity and compassion while firmly explaining the expectations made him feel that he was a valued member of his team and—most importantly—that I cared.

A week passed, and we noticed him showing up for work 30 minutes early, taking the initiative on some procedures, and immaculately cleaning the command center. His demeanor and attitude changed. He got a haircut and was offering ideas on how to make the post run more efficiently. He told me that he felt valued, respected, and while he had worked for many security companies in the past, this was the first time someone sat down and talked to him and asked him if he was okay or if he needed anything and to just talk. He felt at ease and comfortable, and he enjoyed coming into work. He felt that we cared and wanted him to succeed.

No matter how long you have been in the security contract business, people are still people—treat them right, give them a voice, listen, and help if you can.

To be clear, just as much as I advocate understanding and working with your employees, it is critical to hold everyone accountable. Without accountability, there is no consistency and clarity of what is expected of your people. I have disciplined and terminated many people in my career. Deep down, hard-working people want to be a part of a high-performance team. You coach and mentor them, as long as you see progress and willingness on their end to improve. Recognizing good work and addressing deficiency builds trust—resulting in a work environment where there is a sense of pride.

To remain effective and relevant, we all have to evolve as people. To evolve, we need self-awareness. It is a very valuable trait that not everyone has, but self-aware people often make excellent leaders. Putting ego aside and recognizing your vulnerabilities, flaws, and tendencies are all part of the journey to a better you.

I often hear people complaining about the younger generation—how they lack work ethic, have a sense of entitlement, and demand instant gratification. I thought that way at times, so I decided to check myself. In talking with younger employees, I realized that it is not that they lack work ethic, it’s that they work differently. Instead of a sense of entitlement, they are confident because their parents, like me, told them they can be anything they want to be. They expect immediacy because with technology and modernization of communication, it’s the norm. Taking a hard look at myself, facing my own biases, and forcing myself to think differently wasn’t easy, but I am glad I did. I have employees of all backgrounds, beliefs, preferences, and ages. I have learned a lot about them and about myself in working with them. Changing with the times has made me more effective at my job.

A dedicated, engaged workforce is critical to the success of any organization. Our value is defined by our employees and how well they meet the client’s needs in providing a sense of safety and confidence. Our employees’ performance and attitude are direct reflections of our leadership. Cultivating a strong workforce requires understanding, commitment, and accountability by those who are in leadership positions. As times change, we need to evolve and remain relevant, effective, and adaptive. This is what allows our business to grow and succeed.

After all, we’re not just in the security business, we’re in the people business. Nothing works without people, and if you can build a culture of excellence based on trust, you will see success that you’ve never imagined.

For example, one of my officers didn’t get paid on a Friday because of a system failure. He was counting on that check to pay for his daughter’s birthday party that weekend. So, his fellow officers and I pooled our money and gave it to him. The next Monday, he and his family came to thank all of us. In that moment, our team became stronger. These relationships continue long after people move on to different jobs.

Many of us feel disconnected during these difficult times, so it’s more important than ever to foster and value these relationships—both inside and outside your current team. I always believe that when your employees feel you care, they care.

Consider the maxim from Remember the Titans: “Attitude reflects leadership.” Rather than complaining about how we are not getting what we want from our workforce, we might want to consider a moment of self-reflection to see what we can do better as leaders.

Carlos Lopez, CPP, is a senior security consultant with Bogaard Group International with more than 30 years of experience. He has 15 years of prior law enforcement experience, working as a gang specialist, SWAT commander, and homicide/robbery detective. During this time, he received the department’s highest honor for bravery. Lopez is a former U.S. Marine who served overseas.