Though Heather O’Brien says that nepotism played a role in getting her that unpaid document-shredding job at the age of 10 (her father was a security guard company executive), as well as the one where she coordinated the company e-newsletter at 12 for which she recruited her friends’ help and had her first foray in leadership — there’s no mistake that her hard work, career trajectory and impressive resume within security are all her own.
O’Brien has become well versed and well sought after for her insights into optimizing contract security forces and proving their worth. The contract security force is frequently a large ticket item on any company’s security P&Ls, making it a common target for budget reductions. O’Brien’s work in developing methods of security officer force optimization has set standards that have benefitted the organizations she has worked for, as well as many others beyond her own through her involvement in the Security Executive Council, ASIS and other organizations.
“Utilizing the right quantifiable key performance indicator metrics can illustrate the effectiveness of your security program and demonstrate your return on investment of every security dollar spent,” she says. “The results can be powerful in the C-suite when defending your security budget.”
Earlier in her career, O’Brien became President of the Southeast Region of Universal Protection Service (now Allied Universal), running a rapidly growing region with 14,000 security professionals operating in 13 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Throughout her career, O’Brien has made a concerted effort to educate both buyer and seller of services to level set expectations regarding contract security forces and provide full transparency during a negotiation. Part of that effort involves educating stakeholders across departments to enhance the understanding of what is included in an hourly bill rate of service and what value the money spent for security services adds to the organization.
Since joining Dell Technologies as Global Head of Uniformed Security Services (a part of the company’s Security & Resiliency Organization), O’Brien has led the company’s contract for 2,500+ uniformed security service to a top-performing operation within the organization providing its value many times over.
“Essentially, the security leaders in each region define their expectations in terms of security workforce, and it’s my job to make sure those expectations are meant. I love this opportunity because I get to push out my knowledge and proficiency within the physical security arena across a global platform, aligning cultural differences and standardizing processes and procedures,” O’Brien says.
But proving the value of a security workforce is not just about education. The task involves workforce optimization, clear expectations, streamlined processes and procedures, key performance indicators (KPIs), data and analytics. When O’Brien came into her current position, for example, she introduced variance reports and financial audits to identify over and under spending and billing, ensuring that issues could be rectified before affecting the overall budget.
O’Brien uses data and analytics in just about every aspect of security services optimization. She says that other security leaders can start out by taking inventory of what they have and clearly defining scope of work and expectations. “You can identify progressive innovative solutions so you can improve efficiency and ROI. Security is one of the largest spend buckets and learning how to leverage security technology and improve on the integration of that technology can help not only reduce security services headcount, for example, but get the same or better output and that’s really where optimization comes into play,” O’Brien shares.
She adds that digital and predictive analytics can help forecast challenge and risk and really help the security team foster a forward-thinking, risk-mitigation mindset, which not only optimizes security operations, but brings more value to the enterprise as well. In addition, O’Brien wholeheartedly believes that KPIs help drive program and process improvement, particularly in security.
“What gets measured, gets done, but they have to be quantitative” she says. However, O'Brien cautions security leaders from using KPIs as “gotcha moments” to catch security teams doing something wrong. “They should be an opportunity to identify gaps in service and put a plan in place for improvements. It’s hard to improve if you don’t know what the problem is first.”
With monitoring invoice accuracy, for example, quantitative analysis may catch 5% variance and every dollar counts in a security budget. “That money can be put toward staff incentives and other training,” she says. Another example is tracking turnover. Not just how many people leave, but WHY they leave. “A lot of reasons drive turnover and if you can’t use your data to figure out the problem, then you can’t improve the problem,” she says.
In addition to analytics and KPIs, optimization entails community and transparency within the enterprise to promote the value security brings — something O’Brien has spent her career believing in and proving. The Security & Resiliency Organization at Dell Technologies, for example, deploys an internal monthly newsletter, explaining what the group is doing, why it’s important, and educating the organization on the value the department brings.
“We also survey our stakeholders and get their opinions and perceptions of security at any given site,” O’Brien says. “When you have the insight into things like that, it helps you figure out how to promote the value that security brings.”