Vance Toler: Finding Common Ground in Different Perceptions of Security
Director of Corporate Security,Southwest Airlines
At the heart of our mission at Southwest Airlines is an unrelenting dedication to deliver the highest quality of customer service in the industry. After all, we’re in the service and hospitality industry. Our purpose is to connect people to what’s important to them in their daily lives. In order for the security team to make a meaningful contribution to the success of the company, we can’t deviate from those core beliefs.” This is the mission statement of Vance Toler, the Director of Corporate Security for Southwest Airlines.
Toler, who has been with the company for nearly 20 years, refuses for security to be a roadblock to Southwest’s growth or to hinder its excellent customer service for more than 100 million passengers who fly Southwest annually. Having the reputation of being a department of denial can be “a common albatross hung around security’s neck,” he says. And he and his team work hard to avoid that reputation in the enterprise.
“One of the most important attributes of a successful security organization is you have to be first and foremost viewed as a trusted business partner. We have achieved that over a period of time by consistently demonstrating that we know our business; we know the company’s direction; we know each business unit’s operation. You can’t make recommendations for security programs or provide council or guidance that has any value unless you understand not only what problem needs to be solved, but how it fits within that organization.”
“We align our goals to the company’s,” Toler says. “And then at the end of the day, we have to deliver meaningful and measurable results and produce effective security strategies. We have to walk the walk and talk the talk. For security organizations to demonstrate true value, you also have to be proactive.
“Proactivity comes in many forms,” he continues, “whether it’s getting out in front of your employees and developing meaningful education and awareness programs, or developing risk assessment protocol and processes aimed at mitigating known or evolving threats across the system, or partnering with leaders and employees to solve unique problems. You have to achieve those things before you’ll be looked at as anything more than a reactionary department.”
As Southwest Airlines expands to international service, especially, proactive security strategies are key to assuring the business, Toler says. New routes to the Caribbean and Mexico bring opportunities for business expansion, as well as some additional risk, but the prospect is not an unwelcome one for Toler.
“We focus our resources on areas we determine pose the greatest potential for loss, or brand impact. Right now, international security is top on our list, which includes developing an effective travel risk management program for our employees who are going to these new international destinations. We’re learning along the way, and it’s obviously exciting from an operational standpoint, a revenue standpoint, and, believe it or not, a security standpoint.”
One key is to keep stringent security, often put in place in an effort to stamp out risk, from bogging down agile business practices: “Anyone – any security leader or security department – can stop theft,” Toler says. “But if we shut down the operation to do so, obviously that approach is ineffective and unreasonable. So we do our best avoid the strategy of ‘no.’ We approach the table with the attitude of how can we make this happen within the organization’s business units’ needs, and develop an effective and sustainable solution that will still address the threat or risk. It has to be a balance. Departments lose credibility when they don’t keep that balanced approach in mind.”
Safety is the airline’s number-one priority, and Southwest looks at risk management as an enterprise-wide initiative, so assessments are coordinated with other business units. Under Toler’s leadership, security at Southwest Airlines has positioned itself as a collaborator and an enabler of business, not a blocker, which in turn has opened many doors for the security team to succeed.
“Everyone at the table has a different perspective of security and risk, and they often apply a different level of importance to what you’re recommending based on how they perceive the risk. If the objective is perceived as unnecessary, it will be viewed as having high risk, low returns. Others who perceive it to be needed will view it to have both high returns and lower risk. We have to understand what is being asked, and when possible, try to meet in the middle.
“I think our biggest contribution, of which there are many from my great team, is day in and day out coming in with the approach of ‘We are here to help,’ to enable the operation to move forward while mitigating the identified risk.”
Toler joined Southwest Airlines in 1995 as a Fraud Investigator to create and implement the Finance Investigation unit. He lives in Keller, Texas, with his wife, Debbie, and daughter, Sydney.
- Annual Revenue: $17.7 billion
- Security Budget: $3.5 million
- Enterprise Risk Management Enhancement
- Employee Travel/Kidnapping & Ransom
- Maintaining Awareness
- Supply Chain
- Supporting Business Growth
- Asset Protection/Theft
- Enterprise Resilience