Becoming A Trusted Advisor. What Does It Take?

by David L. Johnson

I had the honor of speaking at a Protective Security Council conference during which I heard an oft-repeated question among other executive protection practitioners in attendance, and incorporated into a number of other conference seminars and presentations: “What does it take to become a trusted advisor to protectees on matters of personal security?”

What the term trusted advisor means is that our protectees recognize that our specialized education, training, and experience in providing personal protection equips us to provide them with sound advice on applying our skills to keep them safe.

Trusted advisor sounds good but it is not a goal easily achieved. Like respect, it is not casually given; we earn it. To achieve it, we must earn a position of special faith, trust, and confidence.  Only then, in my experience, will we occupy that position of being the trusted advisor.  Having enjoyed that special status on a few occasions, perhaps my experience will be instructive to others with similar aspiration.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want – Or Even The Opportunity

First, accept that you will not always get there. Much of the time, the very nature of our work in the private sector does not include the time on the job and opportunity needed to develop special faith, trust, and confidence with our protectee.  For example, a good friend and colleague won the protective security contract for a star-studded special event, red carpet and all.  There were a number of protectees at the venue; at least an equal number of protection professionals, and the event lasted only about 72 hours.  I was there in a support function; to manage the command post.  Not one of the celebrities ever saw me, so I never had the opportunity to give them sage advice about their protection.  To this day, none of them would know my name nor recognize me.  That’s ok, it’s a part of this profession, but just because I did not get to be the trusted advisor to a well-known entertainer, it doesn’t mean I did not enjoy that status.  In fact, I did.  If not to protectee, then who did value my contribution?

My boss. As he went about his planning and coordination work, occasionally, he would bounce an idea or a concept off me and ask for my opinion and advice.  He gave me authority to make decisions, allocate resources, provide direction, coordinate activities between protective teams, and lead other behind the scene operations.  During this event, the new and young agents asked me for guidance, suggestions, and opinions on options they were weighing.  Even some of the seasoned agents sought my counsel.  That’s not a bad thing, because sometimes two heads are better than one and to them, at those times, I was their trusted advisor.

This phenomenon is not limited to the private sector. This same situation occurred during my US Army career.  I was Chief of Investigative Support for the US Army’s Protective Services Unit and we had many well-known names on our list of protectees.  General Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The Honorable Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense.  The list goes on and includes civilian leaders and distinguished General Officers.  Though my job title sounds lofty, not one of those high-ups would recognize my name.  A couple might remember my face, but my job did not involve day-to-day contact with them.  There were Team Chiefs and Personal Security Officers (PSO) that directly supported them who earned the trusted advisor role with those protectees.  Again, I was the behind the scenes trusted advisor to those trusted advisors.  It is an honor to be in that position whenever you can be.  When the primary contact between your organization and protectees seeks advice and counsel from you, you help empower them to be successful in their job, and achieve the goals of the organization!

There may be a time when you will be the primary contact with the protectee and have the opportunity to develop the trusted advisor relationship. You earn the protectee’s confidence the same way you earn trusted advisor status among others in our profession.  How do you do that?

Be Tactically and Technically Proficient – Not Necessarily in That Order

The foundation for trusted advisor is knowledge and skill proficiency. We live in a world a bit different from other professions.  If you are a carpenter, you spend a lot of time becoming proficient with the tools of your trade: hammer, saw, tape measure, etc.  A carpenter uses those tools every day.  In our world we spend a lot of time, or should, learning how to use the tactical tools of our trade: evasive driving, Attack on Principal drills, firearms, etc., but if you are doing your job well, you don’t get to use those skills every day.  That is a good thing but it creates a challenge that carpenters don’t have.  The carpenter’s boss can watch the carpenter work and knows immediately if it is a quality job.  Most of your protectees will never experience your ability to spin a car around on a dime or watch you do a weapons take away.

What they do see is whether you are technically proficient to can get them to their destination on time without getting lost. Can you tell them whom they will be sitting next to at the upcoming event?  Do you have sound answers to the daily questions they might ask?  Do you appear to have good cordons of security set up?  Are the cars in good shape, clean, and full of fuel when it’s time to go?  Since they are more likely to evaluate you on your technical ability, to gain their trust, you must shine at those skills.

Therefore, if my hypothesis of how you are evaluated by your protectee is correct, exhibiting your technical proficiency on a daily basis is far more likely to influence your becoming a trusted advisor than is a demonstration of your tactical proficiency.

However, you must also be tactically proficient.  If you ever encounter that dreaded situation where you must do what it is you really are paid to do – respond when things go bad – you only have one chance to get that right.  On that point, there are two paths to gaining the mantle of trusted advisor:

  1. You must be able to demonstrate that you are tactically proficient and pass the tactical common sense test to others who ply this trade. Your peers will observe you and know if you are capable.  If you are, you will earn their faith, confidence, trust, and respect.
  2. If the situation demands that you display your tactical proficiency in the presence of your protectee, and I hope you are successful, you will be there instantly. A single incident will earn you that status.  However, this is the rare occurrence, and is exactly what you seek to avoid and prevent using all your other skills. If you do the entire job well, you will never need to demonstrate your tactical skills.

 Maintain a Professional Distance

When you are in the right front seat of your protectee’s car, you are occupying a position where you want to develop that special faith, trust, and confidence, and be that trusted advisor. You are the key link between the protectee and the protective detail.  Among the challenges you face in this position is one of basic human dynamics.

You may work long hours with your protectee, facilitate their activities, support their efforts, and make sacrifices they may not realize create a burden on your family, such as long separations from your home life while you escort them through their family vacations. You may become very close.

You may end up liking each other, but be very wary of letting this go too far. If you become a surrogate son or daughter, it has gone too far.  You can actually lose respect, not only from your fellow agents but from your protectee as well.  Why?  Because you lose objectivity.

If you become too close in your interpersonal relationship, when you must make recommendations, there is a tendency to lose perspective and objectivity. Always weigh security recommendations objectively against threat conditions, environmental factors, and availability of resources.  When you and your protectee get too close, objectivity is lost.  “Aw come on, nothing is going to happen anyway,” is a trap you must avoid.

Finally, you may come to greatly respect and admire your protectee, so much so that you might be tempted to emulate their success in achieving status or amassing wealth of your own. That will distract you from your job, and will hinder your ability.  When influenced by your own aspiration for fame and fortune, your judgement and decision-making about protecting someone else will not be objective.  You must always maintain a professional detachment from your protectee…and your ego.  There can be only one celebrity in this arrangement.

Provide Sound Advice – “Fear Sales” Are Not Allowed

In general, there are two occasions when it is necessary to provide advice and counsel:

  1. When something develops that compels you to speak up.
  2. When asked.

Often in this line of work, an unexpected security concern will arise. When that happens, you need to evaluate it and figure out what to do about it.  Make sure you think it through.  List all the alternative courses of action and consider the consequences of a) doing nothing, and b) the logical consequences of each alternative course of action.  Do not simply pipe up and say that something is happening! If you have no suggested course of action when passing the item of concern to your protectee, then you are not providing advice and counsel, you are leaving it up to them to decide their fate – and yours – and have abdicated your position of trusted advisor.

Whether you develop input that goes up ladder, or comes down from the top to you, analyze it, formulate a solution, and be prepared to justify your position. “Why is it better to do what you are recommending and not choose an alternate solution?” If you can defend your position and pass the common sense test, you are enhancing your professional relationship and building a foundation of trust.

Never, ever, try to leverage fear factors to motivate your protectee in one direction or another. Keep in mind, in most instances, the protectee knows what they are getting into when they sign up and have accepted the risk that comes with their position.  Phases such as, “This is a bad idea,” We’re out gunned,” We’re understaffed,” We’ll get annihilated,” or even, “We’ve got a problem here,” will not instill confidence and trust in your protectee of your ability or suitability to do the job.

If you run around in circles hollering that the sky is falling, you will rightly earn the reputation of “Chicken Little,” the prophet of doom. Once this happens, your chances of being considered a trusted advisor are nonexistent.

Respect Chain of Command

The person in the right front seat of the car likely has other bosses besides the protectee. Other key stakeholders in the protectee’s organization have authority over things you may want or need.  If you are working for a Chief Security Officer (CSO) in a corporate environment while providing protective security to the CEO, then you want that CSO to view you as a trusted advisor.  If you circumvent that relationship, you will suborn and undermine the relationship the CSO has with the CEO.  “Face Time,” in the world of important people, is a term used to determine who is more important in the scheme of things, and can denote an organization’s pecking order.  Those with the most time in front of the boss often rank higher by virtue of simply getting the most “face time.”  It can become very petty, but it is a real dynamic in some organizations.  The PSO will often get more “face time” with a protectee than the CSO.  The PSO who inappropriately exploits the CEO relationship risks making a very bad career decision; behavior viewed as undermining the CSO and organizational goals.  CEOs are adept at spotting power plays.

As discussed earlier, a PSO may need to contribute substantially about a security concern: speak up, or answer a question. In either case, if you have a chain of command, respect it, and adhere to it.  Make sure you keep everyone advised and up to date.  That is how you develop trust and confidence with others.

 Do Not Be A Fair Weather Friend

Providing protection is akin to being married: there will be good and bad times in the relationship. Although you don’t take the same oath, for better or worse, signing up to be a protection agent is the same as signing up to be a spouse, it is the same experience.

You might go weeks, months, and even years enjoying the good times. Making good money just cruising through facilitating movements and escorting your protectee through life while nothing serious happens.  Then one day the phone rings.  You get some disturbing protective intelligence or you observe something that indicates the weather may be turning foul.  If you have taken the pay during all of the good times, all the while proclaiming you are a hardened, seasoned protector and then demonstrate a lack of confidence when a rough patch in the road makes your car bounce, you have lost the war.  If you start making remarks to the team such as, “I didn’t sign up for this,” and making excuses for why you shouldn’t be a part of this or that activity, well then that will speak for itself.  You are now out of the running as trusted advisor for the long term, and will lose the respect of all the true professionals.

Whether you are in the public or private sector, you and the other resources consumed by a protective program cost a lot of money the organization could use elsewhere. It is for the bad times, the worst-case scenarios, and solving those problems that they keep folks like us onboard.

Solve just one of those and you’re in!

Communicate Well – Both Verbal and Written Communication Skills Matter

You must to be able to communicate well, speaking and writing; and you cannot fake it. Your protectee has other trusted advisors: Executive Assistants, General Counsel, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Human Resources Officer, and others abound in our world and some of them have their own staff. These other advisors are slick, sharp, and sophisticated.  Don’t let that intimidate you, but to seriously be considered on par with them as a trusted advisor, you must communicate at their level of literacy.  That means communicating with them in terms they use and understand, so you must command a business vocabulary.

As a US Army Non-Commissioned Officer, profanity laced my functional vocabulary and it was usually very effective at motivating young soldiers! I recommend that you not use that vocabulary to convince a CFO to get behind some initiative that you are advocating is not recommended.  Remember, he or she has to figure out from where they will get the money that you want.  It will come from somewhere else in an already approved budget.  You can bet big money that the manager who is losing to me, will strenuously voice objections up their chain.

You must be able to speak to the audience coherently and effectively, and present credible information to justify your position. Depending on the situation, you must be able to write concise and convincing narratives, prepare cost estimates, and provide briefings.  If, as the trusted advisor on matters of personal security, you want an armored car, understand that others will get to weigh in on that decision.  The trusted advisor for all things related to money will get to pitch in his two cents (forgive the pun) on the issue.  If I can’t justify spending $180K on a car with ballistic protection instead of the same kind of car that rides smoother, is just as pretty, and has the same comfort amenities, yet costs only $120K, then the CFO may well become an internal adversary.  Not because he or she didn’t like me or didn’t care about the boss’s safety, their job is to look after the finances, and I didn’t make the case.

If I can’t provide justification, specifications, and cost data in terms they understand, my reputation in the organization might sound something like, “That Dave is a great guy and a good security dude, but he just doesn’t understand finances at all.” That failure undermines both the security operation and trusted advisor status, and it is my fault.  Here is another example.  If I am given a petty cash fund, and go back to the finance people for more money without being able to show a clear audit trail, then I’m not only subject to having disparaging comments thrown my way, but may be suspected of wrong doing, fund diversion, or worse.  That won’t help either, will it?

If my written reports, threat assessments, fund requests, or other documents are not well written, using the same type font, well formatted, in the same style, then I’m not at the level of professional communication as other trusted advisors. You can bet their assistants all know Microsoft Office suite of programs well enough to format photographs, develop charts and tables, create forms and spread sheets, manipulate Excel formulas, and create written documents that are effective.  Make note that the first impression you have on other key stakeholders is the written document you submit.  If you can win them over with that, you have a better chance of converting them to active supporters in your quest to become trusted advisor.

Can you provide a briefing that is succinct and to the point? Can you support it with a PowerPoint presentation that communicates your message, contains the proper elements of style, formatting, text wrapping, and animation?  The other trusted advisors can do that, and if you can, then you are equals on that stage, building your credibility.


As you consider the role of trusted advisor, I submit that the concept is broader than just defining the relationship between the protectee and their senior protective agents. The scope of that status should extend to all of those around you.  If you’re not the one with your name on the blame line or sitting in the right front seat of the car, and the people who occupy those positions come to you for advice, you’re there and can make significant contributions.  If you have developed the professional reputation necessary for other seasoned protective agents to feel comfortable in seeking advice and counsel from you on issues before them, you’re there.  If entry level practitioners seek your advice and counsel on issues they are evaluating or trying to learn, not only are you a trusted advisor, you can also be a mentor and the intangible rewards of that status are many and great.

If you have not gotten there yet, do not despair. If you put in the time and effort, it is only a matter of gaining more experience in the field.  Seek assignments that vary in size, scope, configuration, threat condition, and environment.  Seek to expand your experience base as broadly as you can.  Maintain professional distance and objectivity.  Always have a well thought out solution for problems you are going to encounter and be able to justify your positions.  Communicate well.  Learn to compete with the other trusted advisor peer group at writing and speaking.  Avoid “Fear Sales” and weather the storms.  Recognize that you must be tactically proficient to be confident and competent in your job, but that your protectee and your peers will likely judge you by your technical proficiency. If you can do all that, you are already there, or will be soon!


David L. Johnson has nearly 40 years direct experience providing dignitary and executive protection in military, public, and private sectors.  He has coordinated and lead operations at the presidential, cabinet, ambassador, and senior executive level in threat environments ranging from negligible to that of imminent assassination, Coup D’état, and ultra-nationalism.  He has conducted multiple high threat assignments in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and contract management in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Johnson retired from the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command after 20 years of service. He was Chief, Investigative Support for the U.S. Army’s Protective Services Unit, which provides worldwide protective responsibilities for the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their foreign counterparts when visiting the United States. He was one of the original architects of the U.S. Military’s Executive Protection School, and responsible for training and equipping the first protective organization within the U.S. Army. He led high-risk security operations such as then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell’s advance security element to Mogadishu, Somalia, the security assessment for the United Nations Special Representative to Somalia, and training the U.N. protective team for that official.

Mr. Johnson was one of the first Americans selected for training at the British Army’s Close Protection Training Course, and remains one of only a few Americans certified to serve on the British Royal Family protection detail.

Mr. Johnson led a 20-month protection operation for Haitian Presidents Jean Bertrand Aristide and Rene Preval, and designed and implemented the security program for the Office of the President and family.  He led a 17-month high-threat protective operation for the U.S. Ambassador coordinating the electoral process in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After military service, Mr. Johnson founded ITG Consultants and continued to provide protective security services and training for private sector clients around the world. He retired from ITG in 2016.

He is the author of several distinguished training programs, numerous articles, and the highly acclaimed book, ADVANCE: The Guide For Conducting A Protective Security Advance.

He was the founding Chairman of the American Board for Certification in Dignitary and Executive Protection that developed the first independent certification in dignitary and executive protection.   He currently serves a member of the Protective Security Council Advisory Council.  He is a Pine Township, Clearfield County, Pennsylvania Supervisor and Emergency Management Coordinator.  Contact him at [email protected]


Photo Credit
Advisor- Magnusson
Typewriter-Jill Wellington
Chart-Gerd Altman

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