How a national security expert makes things ‘less bad’

Juliette Kayyem on managing risk and the importance of situational awareness
VP, Education Strategy

Juliette Kayyem’s most recent book is titled, “The Devil Never Sleeps.” Truth be told, Kayyem doesn’t spend much time sleeping either. And our nation is better protected as a result.

Kayyem has spent more than three decades in public service. Early on she served as a member of the National Commission on Terrorism, a legal advisor to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and a trial attorney and counselor in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. She was Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s homeland security advisor, and more recently served as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.

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Juliette Kayyem, Professor and Faculty Chair, Homeland Security Project, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
Juliette Kayyem, senior lecturer and faculty director at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government

Today, she juggles academia, journalism and a plethora of private-sector roles — all focused on America’s homeland security efforts. Kayyem is currently the Robert and Renee Belfer Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she also serves as Faculty Director of the Homeland Security Project and the Security and Global Health Project. She is the CEO and co-founder of Grip Mobility, a technology company looking to provide transparency in the rideshare industry.

Kayyem appears regularly on CNN as its on-air national security analyst, is a weekly analyst for Boston NPR affiliate GBH News, and is a contributing writer in The Atlantic.

We spoke with Kayyem in advance of her upcoming appearances at NRF PROTECT, where she will speak at the Women in LP Luncheon and join CNN analyst Jonathan Wackrow for the closing keynote.

Anyone can read your bio, but what does a day in the life of Juliette Kayyem look like?

Some days I have no bosses and some days I have 40. My base is as a professor, so my day always involves some aspect of that. Mostly, I am at the at the mercy of the very thing that is continuous, which is what is the crisis or disaster of the time. Some days I focus more on corporate work or public-sector work. I advise a lot of governors and mayors. But it’s rarely predictable. This past Monday I woke to the news of another shooting. And because I work for CNN and The Atlantic and NPR — there goes Monday.

There’s no typical day, but the through line is that I like to spend my time helping others prepare or manage the worst, and every day is different, given ‘the worst’ is always different.

Are there times when your professional life meshes with your personal life?

For sure. I’m often in a place where my role is ‘how can I make things less bad?’ — and that’s true both personally and professionally. I talk all the time about preparation. Preparation may not stop the bad thing from happening, but things are going to be less bad with a lot of planning. It’s just a necessary life tool.

The fact that we have protocols for mass shootings now is sad but it’s necessary in the context of being prepared. Companies, cities, etc., need to know how to set up a Family Notification Center and how to protect families that have gone through a trauma from the media onslaught. We advise the leaders of institutions on what to say to employees. How much do you want to say? You may want to say something about guns, but you want to be empathetic to multiple points of view and careful not to alienate. So much comes down to being prepared, so there is definitely connectivity between the two.
 

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What advice do you offer to women in risk management-types of roles?

I think some of that depends on how old you are and what your level of experience is. When I was younger, I tried to be the most prepared and the smartest. I’d stay in my lane, understanding what my value add was. Now, I see myself in another role — helping other women see that there can be a career in this and that their seat at the table is necessary for a variety of reasons. It’s not just about female leadership. They need to think about their role being as much about protecting communities as it is about protecting institutions.

Think of some of the literature that has come out since COVID about female leaders. Women have a comfort level making decisions with imperfect information. We think about family unification in a way that is helpful to bring to the table. Both of those qualities are a key part of crisis management.

The main piece of advice I always give: We can’t be perfect, we can only pivot.

Is there similar advice that you offer to the broader audience of individuals managing the risks that retail executives in this field face today?

I’d say it’s important to think less about possibility and more about consequence. You don’t have to spend time wondering what is the thing? Assume it’s Martians or, as I say in the book, it’s the devil. Bad things are going to happen. Focus attention on the commonalities across those bad things and take action to shore them up ahead of the ‘boom.’ Don’t have a single point of failure. Be sure you have a plan for communications. Be transparent. Build your situational awareness.

Right of boom, the advice is similar to the guidance I shared earlier: Have the capacity to pivot. It’s imperative to respond in real time and to be present. It’s not going to go according to plan, and you have to accept that. It’s not unlike when something goes wrong at home. You try to do everything — to be that mom and that spouse and that person, but sometimes life demands one piece take over another, and it will. At that point, you have to give the most attention when it’s most needed.

In these roles, you have to be comfortable in the non-perfection zone. It’s a personality trait, but you can learn it. My husband tells me I don’t have the ‘stew’ gene and I bring that to bear both professionally and personally. In parenting, we tend to stew over the stupidest things, and then we realize the kid’s fine. Professionally, it’s about the capacity to not take things personally. People will be angry, they’ll be upset, etc., but your job is to stand firm and to portray an understanding and empathy for what’s going on.
 

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What’s the one lesson you hope people take away from your latest book, “The Devil Never Sleeps”?

It’s the importance of situational awareness. Have you built the capacity to know what’s going on in real time? We waste so much time figuring that out. You could have built it ahead of time. The book talks readers through how they can do that.

With multiples roles that constantly thrust you into crisis situations, how do you stay upbeat?

I believe in the human species every day. I have a great line in my book. I interviewed someone about zombies because we do zombie training. He said, ‘… despite everything, we are a remarkable species. We invented duct tape.’ I thought, ‘yeah — that’s one of the best things we invented.’ And, of course, family: They are the best distraction and the best reason to stay upbeat and resilient.

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