There are as many ways to progress through the enterprise security profession as there are security professionals. In such a dynamic field, security leaders today come from various backgrounds, including law enforcement, enterprise operations and more.
For early- and mid-career security professionals looking to move into leadership roles, success is defined less by where they start and more by their tenacity, dedication and depth of experience.
Erin Belknap, Managing Director, Security at Sterling Bay, a Chicago-based real estate developer, credits some of her success in the security field with her ability to adapt to new challenges as her role grew. Belknap entered the security field through the U.S. Marines, where she served first as a Signals Intelligence Analyst and then a Sergeant and Special Security Office Chief, where she gained experience protecting top-secret facilities. As she neared the end of her enlistment, Belknap landed a Security Manager role maintaining physical security efforts at a data center, which she held for eight years before starting in a leadership position at Sterling Bay.
“By the end of the hiring process at Sterling Bay, it was between me and an individual with more experience. Sterling Bay leadership liked the idea of me being able to grow with the job. That was more than eight years ago, and now the company and my responsibilities have grown drastically,” Belknap says.
Belknap’s position has grown with the expansion of the real estate developer, which was comprised of a few buildings in Chicago when she started. Now, Sterling Bay owns 68 buildings across the United States. Along with the responsibility of securing more properties, Belknap has used her leadership role to develop career opportunities for her team.
“While our Chicago portfolio has continued to grow exponentially, we have also focused on expansion into new markets and market sectors. As a result, we’ve been able to build a fantastic opportunity for our security officers to develop their skills and then be promoted to leadership positions at other properties,” she says.
In her eight and a half years at Sterling Bay, Belknap’s role has evolved from a focus on access and compliance to a multi-faceted position that incorporates security across all aspects of the business. From her initial assignment of standardizing ingress across Sterling Bay’s first few properties, her role has expanded to include involvement in security design for Sterling Bay’s development projects; leading crisis management and emergency response; coordinating with a team of on-site property managers, engineers, contract security officers, high-profile office tenants, local first responders; and more.
Reflecting on her own career progression, Belknap shares advice for early- and mid-career professionals looking to move into a leadership role. The first step towards leadership, according to Belknap, is demonstrating your interest in roles with more responsibility.
“It’s important to be vocal that you are interested in moving up. Making sure that your leadership is aware that you are eager to expand your knowledge and you’re ready to take on more work is a great way to start progressing toward that goal,” she says.
Throughout Belknap’s career, she has relied on a number of mentors for advice in different segments of her career journey, from security-specific insights to navigating leadership as a woman in the field.
“Having a mentor or multiple mentors is so important. That doesn’t need to be someone that you’ve shaken hands with and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to be in a mentor relationship.’ It’s simply someone who has the expertise you are seeking, or is in a role you aspire to. Start informally by asking them questions or inviting them out for coffee,” says Belknap.
In addition to one-on-one mentor relationships, Belknap recommends participating in and leading industry events.
“Something else helpful for my career was getting involved in industry events, which are fantastic for professional exposure. I don’t necessarily mean going to networking happy hours as much as organizing or volunteering at an event or a panel,” Belknap explains. “There are good opportunities to meet different people working in the field by being a person at the event who is filling a specific role, like handing out name tags or organizing speakers.”
Lastly, Belknap emphasizes that leadership takes time and experience. In today’s job market, it is common to hop from one organization to another, she says it can be difficult for young professionals to feel successful while remaining in the same role for multiple years.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now. When I got out of the Marines 16 years ago, I thought that I should have immediately been offered the role I have now,” says Belknap. “It took me years to realize that I wasn’t ready or qualified for that level of leadership or responsibility yet. There are phases in your professional life where you do just have to put in the time in a specific role to gain the operational experience to eventually move up to the next level.”