Executive Protection – My Evolution from Bodyguard to the C-Suite

5 quick questions for Jerry Heying
October 5, 2016
November 1, 2016
mike howard microsoft chief security officer

By Mike Howard, Microsoft Chief Security Officer

I believe I was born with the DNA to protect people. Ever since I was a boy I wanted to be a cop in the military – or something in the protective services. I began my career as a Police Officer in Oakland, California, fulfilling my childhood dream. But my first real experience in the fine art of protection came when I joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the early 80’s.

I spent most of my 22 years at the CIA with the Directorate of Operations (DO), the clandestine side of the house, as an Operations Officer. However, my first 6 years were spent in CIA’s Office of Security. That was where I had my first taste of Executive Protection (EP). I had assignments to protect defectors (this was during the Cold War, of course), run Counter-Surveillance operations and I eventually ended up doing two years as a member of the Director of Central Intelligence’s (DCI) Security Staff. We were armed and had the remit to protect the Director and Deputy Director domestically and abroad.

William J. Casey, the DCI at that time, was a cabinet official in the Reagan Administration, which required those on his security detail to routinely deal with the Secret Service, State Diplomatic Security (DS), Capitol Hill Police and other federal, state, local and international law enforcement, intelligence, and military personnel in the performance of our duties. It was a great assignment and. of course, we received training in protection, defensive tactics, driving, first aid, firearms (yes, those were the S&W Model 19 and Uzi days for you younger EP types) and other martial and protective skills.

For a large part of my life, the “martial” aspects of security – shooting, driving, defensive tactics, etc. took center stage, along with becoming proficient in the art of executive protection. I have been involved in martial arts since I was 14, eventually earning a Black Belt in Aikido in the Philippines and I received my firearms instructor certification in the 80’s after going through two weeks of training at the Smith and Wesson Academy in Massachusetts (the old wheel gun days!). Researching various kinds of weaponry and martial arts tools were commonplace for me and my teammates and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I still enjoy shooting and, on occasion, doing some martial arts. Those skills, those passions, will always be a part of me.

But as I started moving up the chain-of-command, first at CIA, and now here at Microsoft, my perspective changed – by necessity and design. At CIA, I became an Operations Officer and my work no longer concentrated on those skills I utilized in the art of protection. I had new skills to learn, including espionage, and, as I started leading teams in various parts of CIA my concentration was on honing my leadership skills and taking care of the troops. There was also a conscious effort on my part to adapt to new circumstances, to culturally adjust to a new organization and mindset.

My daily thought patterns involved managing budgets, personnel issues, messaging to the higher-ups, running my organization, developing my people, and growing in the discipline of management. Firearms and martial arts were personal avocations at that time, and relevant to my Agency in general, but less relevant to my day-to-day work, and not something I spent a lot of time talking about. Nor did I have the inclination or opportunity to talk about these kinds of things to my managers as this was not their optic either. I was in another business and to be relevant, I had to adapt accordingly to the business imperatives of whatever office I was assigned.

Ironically, at Microsoft my first position was running our Executive Protection Unit or EPU – the group responsible for the protection of Microsoft’s top executives. I was back in the firearms and defensive tactics arena – training with the team and making sure I could do the work of a protection specialist. But even though I loved talking the martial aspects of the job with my team, this was not something I spoke of routinely with my management. Their lens was IT management, Corporate Services, Finance, etc. They were business people speaking the language of business. And for me to be thought of as a player in that environment, I had to adapt again, and learn the language of business, along with the rest of my team. As I progressed in Microsoft, I had more and more interaction with the senior leaders of the company – “the C-suite.”

Now my approach had to be, and is, what I preach all the time to audiences (and my team) globally – “We are business people first, our business happens to be security.” Understanding Profits and Losses, company strategy, budgets, and more, are of most importance to me as I lead Microsoft Global Security. If you want to be considered relevant to the C-suite and your company, they must perceive you as being integral to the business and, just as importantly, someone who understands the business of the company. How you are perceived by the C-suite will make all the difference in the world as to whether they look at you and your team as trusted advisors to the business, or as a nuisance they can do without. It is not about shooting, driving, counter-surveillance, protective training and defensive tactics (though these will always be essential skills for a protection specialist). The business acumen that you bring to a business environment and how you position yourself as a business professional will determine your success or failure in the long run, and whether you progress as a leader.

Some folks in the protection business may never aspire to be a leader and therefore can have a rich and fulfilling career just doing protection. But for those who want to move up the chain of command, your evolution from Bodyguard to the C-suite will undoubtedly take a similar path as my journey. This has to be a conscious decision to be that business person first – whose business happens to be security.

If this is the road you choose, enjoy the ride. I still talk about guns and martial arts – just not to the C-suite!