Your Security Career May Not Follow the Path You Expect
George L. Vergolias, Psy.D., is a forensic psychologist. On TV, you see forensic psychologists in courtrooms offering expert testimony on the psychology of crimes and their perpetrators—and that was exactly where you would have seen Vergolias early in his career.
Exposure to teenagers who got into legal trouble sparked a related, but tertiary pursuit in trying to understand how these teens got into troubled situations. It’s this side pursuit that ultimately became the thrust of his career, how he became an expert on threat assessment and risk management, and why he was the subject of a Security Management and ASIS Mentoring Committee podcast, “What I’ve Learned: Turning Setbacks into Benefits,” where he reflects on leadership and offers insight on nurturing a successful career.
“This was around the time of Columbine, I stepped into evaluating a number of would-be school shooters. And very quickly, back in the late 90s-early 2000s, if you started doing any of that work, you kind of were the resident expert.”
School districts began soliciting his expertise and advice as they sought to take actions to take proactive measures to protect the safety and security of their students and staff. Still a forensic psychologist, Vergolias saw his focus shift from using his training and expertise in judicial prosecution and defense toward the world of physical security and risk management.
“Over the years it just evolved naturally into working in the corporate environment and applying behavioral threat principles in that setting.”
So one career lesson gleaned from Vergolias’s experience is to be open to opportunity from unexpected directions.
“The question often comes up: How do you plan out your career?” notes Vergolias. “For me, I realized fairly early on that anything I planned didn’t quite work out, but when I was open for opportunities as they presented themselves—that has always been my trajectory.”
The plan for his career was to work for the Bureau of Prisons, where he was a finalist for a job he ultimately did not get. “I felt like that was a big setback. At the time I wanted to do a lot of correctional work [and] work with the court system. And what it did was open me up to an opportunity to begin working with juvenile detention which led to schools which then led to corporate environments. So it was clearly a set back in my mind at that time, but I didn’t realize until much later that it opened up another trajectory for me which turned out quite well.”
A second career lesson gleaned from the interview with Vergolias is to look outside your own box or silo, and when you have an interest in something, pursue it. You cannot expect a career pathway to suddenly unfold before you in these situations, but if there is an opportunity there, you will only find it if you have allowed yourself to pursue it. Plus, even if the pursuit does not seem to have tangible benefits, knowledge gained from outside a particular career path can give you insights that will help you in the path you do follow. Clearly, Vergolias can point to the interest in and pursuit of understanding threat and risk posed to and from juveniles as a time he allowed himself to be open to new areas of study and critical analysis. But as his subsequent experience shows, it is not always so easy to step outside of your silo:
“Earlier on I wish I would have explored more areas of learning instead of being so pigeon-holed. I was fairly pigeon-holed in a very traditional forensic psychologist focus and it wasn’t until my mid- to late-30s that I began exploring more security, corporate security, working in security environments around threat and risk, and I wish that would have been something I would have been more open to early on.”
In summary, these two career lessons are obviously intertwined. You will only be able to see opportunity if you allow yourself to look outside your silo and when you see something of interest, explore it. “Just being open and flexible and following those things that seem of interest to me, doing my best to show value in those, and that has opened doors for me.”
Vergolias offers many more insights in the interview, including his take on being a good mentor and mentee, the relative importance of control versus influence, and what it means to be a leader.