Sally Llewellyn is the Regional Security Director, EMEA, for International SOS, one of the world’s leading security specialists. They provide integrated, round-the-clock, travel security risk services to prepare and protect clients’ employees, travelling to and working around the world, including in challenging locations.
Her she opens up about working in a traditionally male environment, increasing the number of women in security, and how the alliance is attracting and retaining them.
Sally, could you describe your role at International SOS?
I wish that were an easy question! I oversee the operational delivery of security services to our clients wherever they are operating in the world. And that’s everything from providing training and advice, pre-travel or during travel, about the security environment where the client might be operating, all the way through to providing emergency evacuation and support on the ground to get people out of difficult places.
For example, we’ve recently helped several client operating in Sudan handle changes in the security environment. We do everything from preparing you to go into a difficult place, to getting you out of that difficult place should the need arise.
What attracted you to the job?
I come from an intelligence, security and operational support background, having previously worked for the Australian government; supporting the military in their operations around the world. I have a real interest in understanding complex problems and helping to find a solution.
The move to International SOS allowed me to use my skills and experience to help clients get on with doing business all over the world, even in the most challenging security environments. And we support an interesting and diverse range of clients from scholastics – university students and faculty who travel globally – all the way through to corporate, non-government and energy or mining companies. Each of those comes with their different ways of approaching security challenges.
I absolutely love this job, and the entire team at International SOS is incredibly passionate. We wouldn’t do this kind of work, which keeps us busy 24 hours a day if we didn’t love what we do.
It doesn’t sound like a traditional STEM role, is it very tech-focused?
Yes, at International SOS, we increasingly use technology to support every aspect of what we do. Tracking is a very important part of travel risk mitigation – helping clients understand where their people are at any given time is very much tech-driven.
We also harness technology to monitor and analyse the security environment in which our clients are operating. We use a range of technology solutions to anticipate and understand what’s going on so we can better inform our clients. Ultimately we offer a human-to-human experience backed by technology.
Did you study technology previously?
No, I studied International Relations, so I’m certainly not from a technology-minded background. However, being tech-savvy certainly helps, especially when using tools to help analyse data and sources to provide the best possible advice to clients on the ground.
Are there many women at your level in your organisation?
International SOS has an increasing number of women working in security. And at the security specialist level – our team that provides front line advice and assistance to our clients 24/7 – we have achieved gender parity, which is very unusual in the security industry.
Beyond gender, we value all forms of diversity. Not only does diversity make International SOS a great place to work, but it’s also critically important as a business that our people reflect the diversity of our clients and members. There’s something very reassuring about being supported by a security professional who looks like you or comes from a similar background or speaks the same language as you or lives/works/travels in the place you are operating. That’s very powerful.
Like most businesses, we’re actively working to support women to achieve their career objectives. Noting what we’ve achieved at the security specialist level – and our leadership team’s drive for diversity as a fundamental force for growth – I’m confident we’ll see increasing numbers of women at senior levels in the coming years.
What are the challenges in attracting more women, and what measures have you taken?
Several drivers have helped us increase the number of women in our team and retain them.
One is an industry driver. There are now more security professionals or people coming through university with a background in international relations or security who are also tech minded or tech natives. We put applicants through a rigorous process of assessment to determine if they’re the right person to do the job. We’re very fortunate that many of the people excelling in the assessment process, with the right skills and experience, happen to be women.
There’s also a client driver. More and more of our clients are sending women overseas into difficult environments. For a female traveller who is preparing to go into a high-risk or challenging environment, talking to another female traveller who has been there, seen that, done that, is incredibly helpful. I have within my team a female security manager who this year spent time supporting clients in Mozambique during Cyclone Idai. She’s now uniquely placed to have in-depth conversations with women about what it’s like to be in a challenging post-disaster environment.
Thirdly, there are the internal drivers. As a leadership team passionate about diversity, we focus on attracting a wide range of candidates, including women. We advertise widely, partner with women’s chapters of relevant industry bodies and tap into our personal networks
Once they’re in the team, we support all our security professionals in developing their skills, broadening their experience and enhancing their technical security expertise to help them advance their careers.
Are women able to be themselves at International SOS, and what are you doing to retain them?
The women in our team are encouraged to continue to be who they are, particularly because they’re supporting a client base who looks like us too. To support our clients operating in the most challenging environments in the world, you don’t need to behave like a man; you just need to be good at what you do.
At International SOS we’re passionate about retaining talent, whoever that happens to be. This company provides an incredible level of opportunity to anyone interested in travelling, working overseas, dealing with complex problems, getting very hands-on and really interfacing with and helping people. And we prepare our security professionals adequately for difficult environments. Our people – including our women – feel they have the opportunity to do the ‘pointy end’ security work that they came to us hoping to do.
It sounds like it could also be personally challenging in terms of mental health. What support do you offer your team?
We’re fortunate as a security team to work hand in hand with a wide range of medical professionals and have access to wellbeing and mental health support. We offer our clients access to psychological support 24/7 – the same is available to our teams internally.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Being part of a team that is incredibly passionate about what they do. We take phone calls 24 hours a day. We go to interesting places all over the world, both physically challenging and mentally challenging, but we couldn’t do that if we didn’t feel passionate about what we do and passionate about helping our clients achieve their objectives in the safest possible way.
Does the job make it difficult to have a family life?
It’s hard and, as a management team, we talk about this challenge. Achieving a level of gender parity in our security specialist team – and anticipating increasing numbers of women at more senior levels – has pushed that conversation to a new level. For the first time in my career, having worked in such a male-dominated world, I’ve spoken to fellow leaders about maternity leave, paternity leave and flexible working hours.
For me, the concept of work/life balance has melded over time. I may work all through the night or weekend and then take time off to be with my husband when I can. It’s not easy for me to achieve and it’s not easy for anyone to achieve, but we promote working when need to and taking a step away when you need to. We encourage team members to be honest and open with their bosses when they don’t feel like they can give 100%. This is a 100% job but very rewarding at the same time.
What advice or encouragement would you give to other women thinking of taking up a role like this, and how to go about it?
I mentor several women in International SOS, and they often ask how to continue developing their technical skills within security as a woman. It is still a traditionally male-dominated industry, and many senior security professionals are male. Sometimes it’s hard to see a career path as a woman. Fortunately, we’re able to offer opportunities for women to develop their security expertise, including through deploying to challenging environments or analysing the impact of security incidents. My advice to women is to seek out people who can offer advice and support at all stages of your career – your mentors don’t have to be a woman; they just need to be open and willing to help.