As an adjunct professor for American Public University System’s Center for Applied Learning, Dr. Robert Pittman imparts wisdom to next-generation loss prevention leaders, for whom he has the following warning—you can never “complete” your education. The world, risks, and business are always changing and loss prevention practitioners, and the loss prevention industry as a whole, must continually adapt. If not, individuals will find their career paths limited and the industry itself—just now gaining a seat at the management table—could be pushed to the background.
Today’s major retail operations are driven by technology, and entire supply chains rely on how effectively it is managed. Loss prevention practitioners need to have the skills to effectively navigate this tech-based environment if they want to advance their careers and help the LP industry thrive, Pittman believes. “Loss prevention used to be about focusing on the shoplifter in the store, but that’s completely changed. Those strictly physical security guys are quickly becoming extinct,” he said.
The traditional security knowledge that experienced practitioners have attained remains valuable, he noted, but advancing a loss prevention career in the future will require practitioners “to be more diverse in the application of the security concepts they’ve mastered.” For many of us, that may require going back to school to get better educated about cyber security. Some LP professionals will find they take to the subject easily, but even those who are uncomfortable with 1s and 0s will find the security-related terrain familiar and will benefit professionally by expanding their knowledge base. “The domains [of information and physical security] are similar. It’s the exact same concept, just applied to the virtual world,” said Pittman. “You don’t have to be an IT guy to understand cyber security, and it’s critical that you have enough of an understanding to know what questions to ask.”
As an industry, loss prevention must get collectively smarter about information technology. He can easily see a future in which LP departments are divisions within the IT department. The change we’re undergoing is that significant. When individuals can penetrate organizations without going near the front door, and do more harm than intruders ever could before, it marks a paradigm shift to which the loss prevention industry needs to adapt. The LP pros who will thrive in this new environment are individuals who have a firm grasp of both technology and traditional security, according to Pittman.
Not surprisingly, for someone with a doctorate and several master’s degrees—his latest in the area of homeland security—Pittman believes formal education provides an important foundation for a successful loss prevention career. Master’s programs, in particular, can provide helpful exposure to individuals “who are a cut above” and “can take your career to the next level,” he said. But continuing education is just as vital, he added. Conferences, certificates, degree and training programs, and other educational opportunities put forth by professional associations such as the Loss Prevention Foundation’s certifications LPQ and LPC can keep mid-career professionals exposed to trends, new solutions, and a variety of perspectives.
“One of the things we talk about in class is that we, as a security profession, are trying to elevate the position of the CSO, so that he or she can be sitting right next to the CFO and has a chance to be heard.” Your job is to be ready to seize that chance when you get it, explained Pittman. “You must be able to articulate the need for loss prevention, to show how you’re saving the company money, to be able to quantify why you’re making changes or recommending changes.”
One career secret he suggests is to approach loss prevention as a business owner and to recommend strategies from that perspective. Too often, loss prevention practitioners reflexively suggest protecting assets by “putting them in a closet,” rather than designing protection with sales in mind. “We need to come in with solutions, but they must be cost-effective solutions,” said Pittman. “We have to get out of the mindset that the world is trying to eat us because it’s not. We need to focus on finding practical solutions that don’t cost a lot of money.” Often, he said, a small change in a policy or practice can be just as effective as a dozen new CCTV cameras, which require even more money to maintain or monitor. While risk reduction will underlie most security goals, business impact should be a consideration in every security proposal. Rather than making narrow choices through a security-only prism (“Which security investment will most reduce the risk of X?”), LP pros should prioritize investments or programs that serve the greater business good.
Perhaps one complicating factor is the type of people that the industry attracts. “It’s often Type A personalities who can find it difficult to bend or compromise, and who take any level of loss personally,” said Pittman. “But we have to be willing to compromise, take into account the goals of other departments, and examine how our ideas affect IT, sales, and other departments.” Only by understanding and reflecting on how the entire company works can an LP executive see how security can provide value to the company.
Pittman also advises loss prevention executives to enhance their ability to communicate on business matters. “You have to speak their language, or you may as well be speaking Greek. Theirs is the language of dollars and cents.” The best career options belong to LP executives who keep up with business trends and continually rethink their organization and how security can provide value to it.
Attaining a comfort level with cyber security, technology, and business management is increasingly important, but a successful loss prevention career also demands cultivation of softer skills, according to Pittman. For a loss prevention executive to effectively join the executive management team, he or she needs to look like the individuals already there. That places greater emphasis on non-security “soft” skills, such as making effective presentations, expert verbal communication and public speaking, and strong leadership and strategic thinking abilities. At the very top career level, these skills become nearly as critical as security expertise. LP pros with an eye on top jobs should embrace opportunities to hone these skills.
Being an effective team player has become one of those critical soft skills. “We don’t have all the answers, and we have to work with others and work holistically to find the most appropriate solutions,” said Pittman. “We tend to be security-minded but not enough business- or profit-minded.”
The ability to write cogently and deliver effective presentations can also boost a career, skills that many aspiring LP professionals lack, according to Pittman. Salespeople, whose jobs (and commissions) often live or die with their sales presentations, are constantly trying new tricks, learning new tools, and developing new strategies for communicating in ways that are both persuasive and concise. LP practitioners should adopt a similar mindset and resist the temptation of thinking their presentations are “good enough” to get the security point across. Dr. Pittman suggested loss prevention practitioners should exploit resources for improving speaking skills, such as by joining Toastmasters International.
Preparing for the Future
Complex new relationships are being forged around issues of security, information security, investigations, data management, and technology. Loss prevention executives who stay abreast of this curve will continue to evolve in their careers. Five years from now, loss prevention practitioners will be expected to be more tech savvy and knowledgeable about cyber security than many are today, Pittman predicts. Individuals who can combine traditional and cyber security knowledge with a level of business acumen, political savvy, and the ability to build relationships and consensus—and exhibit polish, skillful communication, and flexibility—will be most in demand.