March 2022 / Insight
Insights from a Hart Overseas Security Manager
Penny Derham’s posts have taken her to locations such as China, Australia and Russia.
She has 16 years of experience as an Overseas Security Manager in locations around the world. Here, Penny Derham shares her insights into the type of person suited to the job, the key to developing an effective security culture, and why this is a role she believes women can excel in.
Tell us about your job?
The great thing about the job is that rarely are two days the same. I could be conducting a recce for a VVIP visit one day then interviewing an employee about their vetting status the next, or managing an incident – and of course all of those could come on the same day too!
My role means I’m responsible for providing security advice as well as Travel Risk and Country Threat & Risk Assessments for regional posts. I ensure that the physical and technical integrity of the organisation is maintained; so that includes buildings, personnel, staff accommodation and information.
For example, my day job can see me being involved in planning, executing and overseeing the security portfolio for high profile special events or conducting investigations relating to breaches of security or losses of property and information. As a member of various committees that offer comprehensive threat and risk analysis of impactive situations and incidents I also have the opportunity to influence policy.
The job is a great place for developing your own line management skills and working and liaising collaboratively with governmental agencies, diplomatic security specialists’ commercial partners to help get business done.
How and why did you get into this line of work?
I followed through the traditional military and police (civil role) before going into the world of corporate security. However, today it’s much easier for those without military and police backgrounds to enjoy the same career paths. For me, a must is obtaining experience in any security discipline and obtaining academic qualifications to complement your experience. I did a distance learning degree in Risk and Security Management and it really was the key that opened up many options.
Any career highlights so far?
So many! I can’t talk about the career highlights but some of the personal highlights are the travel – seeing my children running up and down the Great Wall of China and spending my silver wedding anniversary in Sydney to name a few.
You’ve spoken about the importance of a culture of security awareness. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Developing and sustaining an effective security culture is essential. If you can get people on board and understanding the constraints of any security procedures they are much more likely to comply with them and you, if they understand why the rules are there. Staff need to be able to challenge outdated rules so they feel part of the process. Far too often security is seen as an obstacle when it should be an enabler. By ensuring staff realise that security is everyone’s responsibility and getting their buy-in they will often report issues before they become problems and work with us to find solutions that don’t compromise security but allow them to get business done safely.
Why is flexibility important when it comes to keeping people safe?
I have never dealt with an incident that is just like you’ve planned for in exercises. They always occur at the most inconvenient times, when the ‘right’ staff aren’t available so you need to be able to think on your feet and not be afraid to make decisions based on the information you have in front of you. As a ROSM, staff are looking to you to remain calm and guide them through whatever the scenario is so being flexible is key as sometimes the best thought-out plans don’t work out because of a number of factors such as the time of day, staff available, location of the incident, lack of communications (mobile networks shut down) etc
What would you say are the most important characteristics in someone for a role like yours?
Calmness is key and a good sense of humour used appropriately. After these two I’d say flexibility, pragmatism and a proactive/creative approach to solving problems. You need to be a highly effective communicator and someone who isn’t afraid to make decisions based on the information you have to hand.
What are you currently looking forward to?
It was retirement, but the lure of the job has pulled me back! But I am looking forward to spending more time with family and friends and travelling in the UK and taking life at a slower pace between contracts.
Has the security industry changed with regards to female representation in roles, during the course of your career?
Yes dramatically. Over my working life things have improved [for women] more than I ever dared hope for. During my army service in the 80s, it was commonplace to be groped or be the subject of sexual innuendos and be subjected to ridicule because of our gender – to the point I no longer noticed it but kept my head down and got on with things.
When I worked in the police force, in a job that I loved as a Civilian Scenes of Crime officer, I decided to resign due to being stalked by a married man, who wasn’t ever held accountable. Not that it’s just the military or police force where gender bias was rife – I have some horror stories from my time working for a shipping company, too.
When I started working in the commercial security sector, I was as welcome to some as a wasp in an astronaut’s suit. Some of my colleagues never spoke to me, as I was seen as a ‘token’ because there were so few women on the team. This was due to a largely held view that women simply didn’t have the necessary physical attributes – missing the point that the role was that of a security manager, not bodyguard. There was a worry I’d be emotional in a crisis and a burden because I might need protecting. But then it started to change. Younger, more informed men joined and I could see positive changes and the feeling that I was accepted for the things I brought to the table – they no longer feared ‘difference’. I also felt that there was a more modern management structure better able to challenge inappropriate behaviours. I am a very optimistic person. I look back and regret very little.
Any advice for others inspired by your story?
Go for it! The fear of trying new things robs us of the opportunity to live fully. There is so much to see and experience in life if you’re open to trying new things. There are many people like me who would love to mentor other women who want to try and smash through that glass ceiling. This is a role where women have so much to offer – we can be great at problem-solving and remaining calm in a crisis – so think outside the box and go for a career that has much to offer the bold.