IMF security director discusses his transition from the Secret Service
WASHINGTON—Making the transition from law enforcement to private sector security can be challenging because skills obtained in the public sector don’t necessarily translate to the corporate world.
Like many security professionals, Vincent O’Neill, chief of HQ security operations for the International Monetary Fund, began his career in the public sector, spending 20 years as an agent with the U.S. Secret Service. While he is an expert at protecting presidents and high-ranking officials, and conducting criminal investigations, O’Neill told Security Director News he had a lot to learn when he joined the IMF eight years ago.
For example, one of his primary responsibilities at IMF is to manage contracts for the organization’s electronic security systems including video surveillance, access control and data storage. He is also charged with managing the contract for the organization’s third-party guard force. Contract management was not a skill he learned in the Secret Service, he said.
“I was put in this position and expected to know everything or learn everything quickly. It was sink or swim,” he said. “One thing that I did in the Secret Service was work long hours, so working hard was not something I was unaccustomed to.”
O’Neill said one of the best decisions he made early on was not to pretend he knew it all. “Don’t try to fake that you know everything,” he said. “This was one of those times when you have to swallow your ego.” He credits other staff members with being very patient with him and helping him build his knowledge base, particularly when it came to technology. He also said a strong professional network of security practitioners and law enforcement officers has been an incredible resource for him throughout his career.
Another strategy that worked well for O’Neill was simply sitting back and listening to the needs of the organization, something that also runs counter to the training of most law enforcement officers. “Law enforcement wants to immediately take charge, they’re reactive,” he said. “But the best thing you can do as manager of security is listen first and not take charge.” Fortunately, security managers often have the luxury of a little time and are able to absorb things before taking action. “That can be a big adjustment for most guys when they come into private security, to just relax and listen and evaluate and then start making some recommendations,” he said.
Looking back, O’Neill said he would have been more involved in the technical aspect of the Secret Service and tried to learn more about IT and technical skills. He said individuals with a business or an IT background are often better prepared for positions in the private sector than those with law enforcement or military experience. “Someone who has a business degree can be just as successful as someone with a law enforcement background,” he said. Especially individuals with an IT background would be “way ahead of the game,” he said.
But his law enforcement background has been beneficial to him, especially when it comes to relating to people, he said. Especially at the IMF, which has 187 member countries representing many different cultures, O’Neill said he often has to deal with domestic issues. As a matter of fact, workplace violence is one of his biggest daily concerns. “It’s terrifying because we screen visitors and they’re escorted by our staff, but staff members have badges and they can just walk into the building and they aren’t searched,” he said. There’s little stopping an upset employee from entering the building and O’Neill said he works hard to educate employees to recognize and report individuals who demonstrate unstable behavior.