Elizabeth Rice, Senior Vice President of Business Operations and Strategy at Blackstone Consulting, sits down with Security’s Layan Dahhan to talk about her career journey and the importance of culture in the workplace. She says inclusion and diversity are the marks of great leadership and encourages leaders to take every opportunity to build an empathy-based culture.
Security magazine: Could you tell me a bit about your journey into security and what led you to your current position in the field? Was it something you always wanted to do, or did you fall into it?
Rice: I definitely fell into it. Early in my career I actually worked in educational sales, so I worked with school districts and built educational programs. Then I decided to go to business school and got an MBA and a master’s in education leadership. I went to an all-women’s business school program [at a] liberal arts college in Oakland called Mills College, and at the time, I got connected with some really amazing women-in-business networks. Through those networks, I was recruited to be a management consultant for a woman-owned consulting firm based here in the Bay area where I live, and one of their big clients was Kaiser Permanente.
I was working on some different programs at Kaiser and was introduced to [the] security industry that way, [as] project manager on a pharmacy infrastructure project. [I] got to learn all about security technology and pharmacies, and then I went on to work on a big cybersecurity project for Kaiser as well. Because I was working with the security organization who is a partner of Blackstone, I met my now-boss Ken Daigle and was actually recruited into the role I'm in now — to help him run strategy for our healthcare security division at BCI. I never thought I'd be in the security industry in [the] way that I am, but [I am] really glad that I’m [here]. It's surprised me in the sense [that] I love the people, I love how important the work is and I'm learning. I love to learn, and I feel like [even] though I don't have years of security background, my skill set [is] very valuable because I have a business and strategy background. I'm really good at getting things done in complex environments, which is a lot of what we do in our partnerships with different clients.
Security magazine: You mentioned within your role, you work with a large healthcare security division. What do you think makes for an effective security operation? Is it just the technology, or do you believe there's more to it?
Rice: I’ve done a lot of work — both in my management career and in this job — building operating models, and an operating model is people, process and technology. It's all three, and you need all three to be effective. Then I really focus on the fact that you also need culture to kind of glue it all together. Culture is often the glue that holds process together, holds teams together [and] makes technology usable. I tend to be a very people-focused leader; I have a lot of really amazing process and technology people on my team that have long-standing backgrounds and lots of security experience. What I bring to the table is more strategy and a big focus on people. I'm a fan of multidisciplinary and diverse leadership teams, so what I really tried to focus on is recruiting people with different backgrounds. I think you definitely need and want people with deep security experience — law enforcement, military, all the traditional things you need in a security environment — but we've also brought in a lot of people with MBAs, people with communications and marketing expertise [and] people from healthcare, and that's helped us create a pretty amazing team.
My department that I oversee is human resources, learning development, business consulting and communications. Across my close to 40 employees, I've got people who've risen the ranks from security officer, I have people who have come in a year ago from their MBA, [people] who are really process or technology driven, [people who are] systems subject matter experts, people who are ex-law enforcement and ex-military. I've got lots of women, men [and] diverse backgrounds. My team is amazing, they're just absolutely incredible, and I think it's that diversity of experience — it's really powerful. We run the national program and [also] at the local level in the hospital. We've got managers from very different backgrounds and they come together [to] communicate. That's where I think a lot of magic happens and then culture, as I mentioned, is process and things like creating a safe environment, good leadership practices and empathy. Decision-making in the security industry is so critical — we have to make decisions fast, and we have to make decisions that are very impactful. The more that you can create [a] streamlined process so that decisions can be made in an informed and smooth way, the better your operation can run, and at the heart of that is communication.
We have over 3,200 security personnel working at hospitals across the country and communication just doesn't flow very well. We’ve got union workers who don't have emails in California [because] it's really hard to issue company emails [due to] wage and hour limitations. Getting information from the top to the bottom is super challenging, and we've spent a lot of time and energy creating communication processes through meetings, through publications, through SharePoint sites and things like that. To me, communications is key [and] I've got an amazing communications leader, Deborah Finkler, who just does a tremendous job keeping everything straight and making sure the right information gets to the right people. Then training and development. Really make sure from all the way at the officer level to the top that people have the training they need to be successful in their jobs. [We’re] trained in the technical security skills, but we're doing a lot right now to focus on developing leadership and business skills. Project management skills, PowerPoint skills — all the things you need to present business cases to your customers. Those things are always really important.
Security magazine: You mentioned that you work with over 3,200 people. From a position like that, do you think fostering a positive work environment translates into a secure operation and motivates people to do the work?
Rice: The one thing in the world right now that's constant is change, and everyone that works on our teams is experiencing everything that's going on in the world in a different way — and they're human, right? I have 3,200 humans that are responsible for keeping hospitals safe and they themselves are going through a lot. [The] hospital environment is so unique in the sense that when people walk through the doors at a hospital, they're often not on their best day or in their best moment. They're on edge, so our officers have to provide good customer service to really ensure a safe environment so that person can receive the care they need. That's difficult when at the same time, you might be going through your own feelings or reactions to having kids at home, [having] family overseas that are going through things [or being] a person of color that's been experiencing everything that's going on [in] the world at a certain level of intensity your white colleagues might not understand. It’s important to always come back to human: we're all human, we're going to do the best that we can.
[Then] leadership practices and culture. Starting at a place of empathy and [humanity] will help people feel safe enough to keep other people safe. At the end of the day, if I feel secure at work and I know somebody has my back, I am going to be that much more comfortable and focused and dedicated doing my job. If I come to work and I don't feel like my company has my back, then I'm going to be less able to be my top-performing self when I show up to work. It's imperfect, especially given [that] there's business decisions that need to be made. Sometimes they're hard, and things change rapidly in the healthcare environment, so it's not easy. I can't say that we do it perfectly — I think it takes time to change a culture, and I know that it's a journey we're on right now in my organization. We still have a lot of work to do, but I do think that at the top level, we've all agreed about how important [it] is and [how] it needs to be one of our priorities to keep ourselves successful. As we deal with staffing challenges, for example, our employees are working really long hours. So we're trying to figure out, “What can we do to create a more sustainable work environment for people who are burning out?”
Security magazine: I've seen that be a big problem in so many fields; it's so hard to find staff everywhere.
Rice: Yeah, it's incredible how difficult it is. Everyone's facing it; it's a national problem that is hurting all kinds of industries. We are putting our heads together and trying to get creative like everybody else. Again, our team members in the field, our officers, I'm so thankful for them because they have been working so hard through the pandemic to keep the hospital safe. They're working long hours, they're putting their lives at risk and they are what's keeping everything together. The top are really just trying to figure out how to make it work for everybody else, so I am constantly in awe of our front line and the work that they do.
Security magazine: Going off the idea of community, I know you're very active with women and security — I heard at your workplace you've developed a community there. Do you think having safe spaces like that helps? I also listened to a podcast episode you were in, Bryan Hamilton's Healthcare Security Cast, and you said something along the lines of you “wanted a network to be built by women, for everyone.” Could you tell me a little bit about the distinction between making a safe space for everyone versus one just for a woman?
Rice: Going back to the beginning of my story where I talked about the fact that I went to a women's liberal arts college and got involved in a bunch of different women-in-business organizations. One of them was the Committee of 200; the other was Watermark for women. What I learned through that is there's so much power in bringing women together. It's really amazing how supportive women can be of one another. A lot of my career success is tied to mentors, many of which were women, who helped me along the way. I have a lot of really awesome role models who showed me the possibilities and I have peers that I've grown in my career with.
When I got to Blackstone, when I first started working here, I went to a security conference in Chicago and I knew that it was a very male dominated industry, but it was going to that conference where it hit me. I was like, “Wow, there [are] really not a lot of women,” especially in leadership positions. I just started reaching out to women to really understand the industry. I talked to female officers in the field to understand [how in the] front line, what [it’s] like to be told, “Oh, I want a man for that post because you're not going to be able to handle the situation.” In reality, a woman might be able to handle it better; you never know, it just depends on the situation. [I was inspired] to create a community where people could come together and wanted to give it a try, but when we started the organization, there was hesitancy. The women in my organization didn't want to put attention [on] them being women. They didn't know if they could trust other women because they hadn't really been [a] part of [something like] this.
What has been so [magical] is that they have come together as this tribe of sisterhood and everyone's rising in their careers. They're there for each other, [and] it's really become this family of support that has brought attention to the topic of gender in a really positive way across the whole organization. We have more male allies who've signed up for our organization than we have female members because men are fathers and husbands and all the rest. They are excited that we are talking about this, so I think [that’s the] reason we really wanted to focus on building an organization built by women, but for everybody. Divisiveness can be dangerous, othering can be dangerous. So while we wanted the safety of being able to talk about our unique challenges, we also wanted to keep things open so that it wasn't drawing a line. It was “Here's an important thing to recognize: There are less women in this industry [and] we deal with different things than men do.” Women bring something really powerful into business, it's proven that companies who have diverse leadership teams perform better. Let's talk about it, but let's bring everybody along and mature our leadership practices together.
I think that [it’s] been unique and wonderful because we've been able to create a real blend [and] it's made us more of a community, even with 3,000 people. Having these types of programs, having special interest groups where people can come together; it shows and sends a signal to your teams that that matters and they matter. I think that tightens a culture [and] cohesiveness, and I really think that not being afraid to bring people together, not being afraid to talk about hard topics — like bias — enables a speak-up culture, and, at the heart of security, our job is to speak up or respond when something's going wrong. Not [to] be silent [and] to really make sure that organizations, companies, people [and] situations are being looked at and responded to, if needed.
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The above transcript has been edited for clarity.