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How to get into Political Risk & Security Consulting

James Brandon from PwC has provided a comprehensive piece around starting a career in Political Risk & Security Consulting.

James Brandon, the Head of Geopolitical Risk Analysis at PwC has put together a fantastic guide to the Political Risk & Security Consultancy sector and how to get a job in this sector. In this article, he shares his thoughts on a career in Political Risk analysis & security.

What is the political and security risk industry?

The “political risk” and “security risk” sectors both contain a small galaxy of different career options, paths and specialisms, many of which overlap.

Put broadly; political risk consulting refers to a job focused on assessing the impact of political developments on business. This can range from analysing how elections and changes of government, and resulting shifts in policies, can impact businesses and industries, through to how changes to legislation, regulation and taxation, or even foreign policy can also affect business environments.

Such roles can also include assessing the impact of political decisions have less direct – but still significant impacts – on businesses, for example through affecting levels of consumer demand, or the viability of supply chains. This can include everything from assessing how the UK’s vote to leave the EU impacts corporate compliance with EU regulations, to understanding what China’s Belt and Road project will mean for Central Asia, through to how mayoral elections in Paris, Bogota or Moscow can affect local investment or business operating environments.

As for security risk consulting, this refers to roles focused on assessing how changes in society, government, politics can lead to greater physical risks to companies. It typically includes assessing how such changes these will alter the threats facing to staff, facilities, supply chains and key business partners (e.g. suppliers, consumers and clients).

This can range from assessing how changes in the composition of a militant group in the Sahara region could increase the terrorist threat to an oil plant in Algeria, to understanding what risk anti-government protests in Mexico could pose to staff visiting the country for business. Often this also involves knowledge of the steps needed to mitigate such threats, which could range from, in the most benign instances advising staff what forms of transport to take through to, in the most hostile environments, hiring armed guards to protect your travellers, or even evacuating staff. For these reasons, ex-military personnel are often favoured for some of these more security-focused roles.

Political and security risks are of course intrinsically linked. Political changes impact the security environment, and security changes – for instance through worsening crime or increasing terrorist attacks – also impact politics, for instance by triggering changes of government and policies. As a result, there is no hard and fast division between a career in security analysis and political risk.

In addition, political and security issues cross-over into a range of other business functions in large companies. This can include departments or units focusing on compliance and due diligence departments, cyber-security, government affairs, business development, resilience and business continuity, as well as public relations and communications.

An interest in these areas is therefore a significant advantage; working in these fields can also provide exposure to the kind of issues that are covered in the political and security risk analysis space, or can even alternative careers to “pure” political or security risk consulting.

Finally, there are two broad streams within the industry. One stream is to work for consultancies – i.e. for political and security risk firms that sell their services or analysis to client companies (e.g. oil companies, airlines, tech firms ,etc.). The other stream is to work for such client companies directly, in an “in-house” role – i.e. being employed directly by an oil firm or airline solely to analyse the specific risks facing their business.

Why choose this career?

For many in the political and security risk industry, the prime advantage of this career is that you are paid to do something that you find genuinely fascinating, enjoyable and intellectually absorbing.

In particular, if you have a strong interest politics, diplomacy, conflict and security issues, then this career is one of the relatively few ways in which you can commercialise this interest.

An additional attraction of this career is that it is about solving problems. At its most fundamental, it is about helping people go about their jobs safely, and even in the most dangerous and unstable parts of the world, and go back home to their friends and families when their work is done.

It is also about helping companies, and thus their employees (i.e. ordinary men and women), navigate the world safely, avoid challenges relating to crime, corruption and poor governance, and be able to get on with the important business of creating, producing and innovating.

Therefore, which much of the job is around risk (i.e. ‘bad things’), it also provides a chance for you as an individual to do good.

Finally, one of the greatest parts of the job – for me at least – has been to the opportunity to work with many people who are supremely talented, knowledgeable, well-travelled, articulate and intelligent. It may sound paradoxical but there is a great pleasure in knowing that you are not the smartest person in the room; when you are part of the right team, surrounded by some of the brightest, most articulate and most worldly people that you will ever meet, every day is truly a learning experience.

In addition, as the world is in constant evolution, this learning experience is constant. New issues, events and political dynamics in countries, societies and industries ensure that there are always new things to learn and new challenges.

During the past few years for instance, issues such as fake news, the impact of social media on politics, the rise of anti-globalisation populists have become more prevalent, and in the next decades it is likely that issues such as automation, artificial intelligence, climate change and deep-fakes will also become more important.

Enough positives! What are the downsides?

One potential issue for some people can be the pay, which is good by many global and national benchmarks, but is below that of some other comparable careers.

For instance, if you have the ability do thrive in political/security risk consulting, then you also have the skill-sets (such as intelligence, articulacy, adaptability, willingness to learn) that would also enable you to be successful in fields such as law or management consulting – many of which pay much, much better. It is therefore worth thinking very carefully about your choices.

A separate challenge is that this is a small industry, especially compared to the number of jobs coming up daily in industries such as teaching, consulting, accounting or medicine. This means that vacancies for good roles are infrequent, and that moving up the career ladder can be a long and challenging process. In addition, roles are located in just a few cities – principally London, New York, Washington DC, Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong, along with a few industry-specific hubs in Dallas (oil), and England’s South Coast (maritime security), and in higher risk countries such as Iraq, Libya, etc.

A final downside is that, in comparison to many other industries, the sector can be quite conservative and old-fashioned in regard to recruitment, opportunity and career progression. It is no exaggeration to say that, in some UK firms at least, straight, largely-white men from good schools and universities may find it easier to get jobs than others. Sometimes this is because – to try and put this diplomatically – some skills and attributes, for instance, the ability to sound authoritative on issues of which you know relatively little, can favour some such demographics more than others. In other cases, women and others are simply not taken as seriously by clients and senior management as they should be, even when they are well qualified in every way. Equally troubling is that people from ethnic or religious minorities may also find themselves siloed into covering particular regions, countries or issues.

This situation is changing, but slowly, and some companies are more progressive than others. This situation should not deter anyone from applying for any job in the field, as people from all backgrounds have succeeded in the industry. Likewise, it is important that people from all backgrounds continue to enter the sector as, despite these challenges, it is abundantly clear that greater diversity will improve companies’ abilities to analyse and understand an ever more complex and multipolar world. That said, people considering the industry need to be aware that the sector can be challenging in this regard, and unfortunately this means that people from some backgrounds may need to work harder than others to get to the same position.

Skills needed today

Given the diversity of the industry, and the range of sectors and issues that it covers, there are opportunities in the sector for individuals with a wide range of professional and academic backgrounds, skills and experiences to succeed.

The most essential skills are the ability to carry out research acutely and quickly, to effectively analyse complex events and issues, including those that you are not familiar with, and then to apply this knowledge to understand the risk to your firm or client, and to then identify ways in which to respond in order to minimise this risk. An essential part of this process is the ability to communicate complex issues clearly, concisely and simply to other people, including non-specialists, whether through written or verbal briefings.

There is no fixed profile for people in this industry. That said, people with background in the military, police and intelligence services, or people who have a deep knowledge of a specific region, or of an issue, such as terrorism, geopolitics or global trade, will have an advantage.

In addition, a strong working knowledge of a relevant foreign language, such as Arabic, Chinese, Russia, French or Spanish, is substantial further advantage.

Likewise, in almost all instances, companies will value time spent on the ground in a developing country or key economy, including through studying, volunteering, or working in a professional capacity, specially in a field such as international development.

Moreover, those who have a background or interest in understanding how firms respond to political and security risks, for instance through developing business continuity plans, stepping up their physical security precautions, or developing government affairs and communications strategy, will also find that many of these skills are at least partly transferable to this field.

The other qualities that employers typically look for are a genuine interest and passion for the subject, a flexible mind that can think outside the box when looking at political developments and understanding how they impact business.

In addition, employers will look for people who have a problem-solving mindset – i.e. people who don’t just see risks and threats, but also opportunities and solutions. The industry, despite its name, is often less about identifying risks, and more focused on resolving problems, trouble-shooting and enabling business.

Finally, commercial awareness is increasingly prized by recruiters. In the consulting space, this means understanding how to sell consulting, analysis and products to clients, while for in-house roles this means understanding the commercial imperatives that drive the business.

Therefore, when applying for a job in the field, it is worth thinking about these points, and making sure to flag up your own relevant experiences and skills,

Future skills needed

One of the trends in the industry is a shift towards a greater use of data, for instance covering economic changes or security incidents. Such data is increasingly organised, processed and understood through the use of machine learning/artificial intelligence platforms. Examples of this include companies’ increasing use of such tools to identify in real time and monitor incidents potentially impacting firms, such as terrorist attacks, social unrest, protests and earthquakes.

In addition, these platforms are also increasingly underpinning a wider range of risk assessment processes, and this trend will only increase in the future. Therefore, any candidates with a grounding in data-science is likely to be increasingly in demand in the industry, both among vendors and clients.

Furthermore, the coming years will see a rapid convergence of geopolitical, physical and cyber risks. This means, for instance, that whereas a growing risk of inter-state conflict traditionally meant an increase in physical threats to a firms’ staff, buildings and operations, the shift to states additionally conducting hostilities through cyber-space means that companies need to consider how this will impact their own systems and information.

This also means thinking about how they can take steps to protect themselves, and how they respond to rapid changes in the level of cyber-threat facing them, particularly from sophisticated nation-state actors as well as independent activist and criminal groups. One impact of this will be increased demand for individuals, both in the political and security risk industry and within the cyber security sector. who have a knowledge of both geopolitical risks, and cyber security.

How can I get into the industry?

As in most industries, finding the right job involves hard work, persistence – and lots of luck!

Networking is key, especially as in a small industry, personal recommendations count for a lot, and because many of the most interesting jobs are often not widely or openly advertised.

Face-to-face networking is generally the most effective. This can be done through industry groups such as ASIS, Women in International Security, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and, in the UK, the Security Institute, which both organise not only career-relevant training but also regular seminars and social events.

In addition, LinkedIn is a powerful tool to reach out to those already established in the industry, to ask for advice. Most professionals will be extremely busy, but many people will still try to find time to help you.

In particular, people are often most keen to help those from similar professional backgrounds – e.g. ex-military people providing advice to those leaving the Forces, those from academia or journalism helping others to transition from those industries. Don’t be afraid to reach out!

It’s also important to build your online brand. This can include developing a strong presence on LinkedIn, being active on Twitter, and writing articles relevant to the field that you are interested in. That said, it’s important to remember that there are risks here as well – an ill-timed or judged comments or post can instantly undermine months of hard work.

For finding advertised vacancies, it’s worth keeping an eye on the careers pages of the risk consulting firms, as well as LinkedIn, where many professionals already in the industry will often share and re-post interesting openings and opportunities.

Furthermore, there are a small number of specialist recruiters for the industry, although most only recruit for medium/senior level roles (Please DM for details). Many jobs will also be recruited for other specialist recruiters in areas such as Government Affairs and Risk Management.

That said, as it’s a relatively small industry, jobs come up relatively infrequently, so it’s often very often a matter of speaking to the right person at the right time. However, you can improve your changes of getting lucky by broadening and maintaining your network, and having a public profile. Good luck!

You can find James Brandon on LinkedIn here and he has invited those with questions about the industry to message him directly.

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