HR & Management

Techniques spies use that can double up as management lessons

12 min read

18 October 2016

Hollywood has lovingly told us spies live in a high-tech, guns-blazing world filled with an incredible amount of car chases. But there are plenty of management lessons business leaders can learn from spies – apart from the gleaned 007 tips of buy a fancy car and suit.

The author of “Work Like a Spy”, former undercover CIA officer J. Carleson, might at first not seem well-placed to give business management lessons – but you’d be surprised what a decade of undercover work can teach you, her book revealed.

It depicts her life story, wherein she proclaimed Hollywood’s portrayal of a CIA career is 98 per cent inaccurate. Despite that, the job has its glamorous moments, and “ruins your chances of ever being satisfied again in a more traditional job.

“Yet it was clear to me that I had reached a plateau and it was time to make a change,” she said. “Upon dusting off my decade-old pre-CIA resume, I was surprised to discover the CIA had taught me more valuable business-applicable skills than all my previous corporate positions combined. Granted, not all of my clandestine skills were directly transferable – at least not without the risk of a prison sentence – they were not nearly as esoteric as I had originally assumed.”

(1) The click factor is key

Carleson told the story of how she conducted an armed raid on a salt factory in Iraq hoping to find what she thought would be a more than suspicious substance. The scientists later revealed, however, that it had merely been salt.

“I felt like an incredible jerk,” she said. “I learned a valuable lesson that day. What looked incriminating and suspicious on paper suddenly seemed silly and harmless. There are circumstances in which the inside scoop, the firsthand account, can trump even the most sophisticated data analysis. Sometimes you have to be there to really understand – and if you can’t be there, then you need someone who can be there for you.”

The click factor, as she called it, exists in the corporate world as well. You could have all the research you need of a particular market at hand and still be missing the whole picture. You need knowledge that can only be gained from the inside. Whether that be visiting the country you plan to expand to or launch a product in, or to find out what your work environment is like by being on the shop floor for a day, the fact remains that you can’t just assume.

(2) Don’t be afraid to manipulate or poach talent…

…within reason. According to Carleson in an interview with The Muse, many leaders use offensive recruiting only to gain new talent. Her job in the CIA was also to recruit talent, and she claimed the tactic should also be used to siphon off the best staff from competitors. 

She explained: “I’m always a little hesitant to talk about this, because people tend to react badly when I essentially say, ‘Steal your competition’s key talent.’ They say, ‘We can’t steal employees.’ They act like it’s somehow an evil or dastardly suggestion, but I always counter back saying, ‘Your competition is happy to steal your customers – why shouldn’t you steal their talent?’

“Don’t be afraid to manipulate either. Companies manipulate us as consumers all the time, and we consider that as good business. But for some reason, People think it’s underhanded, but it’s not. You’re merely altering your behaviour in order to get ahead. For CIA officers, manipulation on a personal level isn’t a bad word. We’re manipulating our targets toward saying yes, just like businesses do. So I’d say, don’t shy away from it. It’s a concept that can get you ahead.”

(3) Find out what makes people tick

A career in the CIA also provides really excellent people management skills. Essentially, it’s great for figuring out what motivates people, and what their vulnerabilities are, former CIA officer Lindsay Morn revealed in a Pursuit Magazine interview. There’s this idea of CIA officers as rogue assassins, she said, but “what we do is far more mundane. You’re more like a salesperson, because what you’re doing is showing up in a foreign country, making a life for yourself, and basically going out and trying to meet people and then selling those people on the concept of committing espionage. You’re not out to kill people. You’re trying to get them to do something that you would never do yourself.

“You’re trying to develop a relationship with that person. It’s a very difficult thing to do, in fact. It would be a lot easier to kill someone as a sniper or assassin than to recruit a human being to commit espionage. So much of what you do as a CIA operative is psychology-based. On the most basic level you’re acting – almost – as a clinical psychologist for your assets. They come to you with their problems, and you have to listen, and talk them through their issues.”

In the same way, let’s be honest, you want something out of your staff. While it’s nice to build a relationship with them, it’s also to ensure you keep them happy so their productivity levels and mood don’t take a nosedive.It’s why you need to go out of your way to foster engagement.

Don’t miss out on three more management lessons from spies!

Image: Shutterstock

(4) Separating the good talent from the liars

What would management lessons be without advice on how to remove the, well, we’ll call them bad factors for now. Having the advantage of being able to read people will work wonders for your career, it seems. Josef Hufelschulte, a former intelligence officer, once claimed the bread and butter of being a spy was acquiring secret information from sources. He even claimed to have known an officer who was given the location of a visiting lord after 90 minutes – that included information such as martial status, occupation and hobbies.

In much the same way, it helps to tell if someone’s been lying. From day one, Hufelschulte said, fellow officers are encouraged to create made-up stories when they’re asked personal questions as practice.

Don’t worry, it’s a concept used by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, as well. He unveiled that he interviewed everyone at SpaceX personally as it allowed him to pick out liars. “If you struggle with a problem, then you can solve it,” he said in a live interview. He asserted that an individual that handled a problematic situation would be able to explain in detail how they resolved it. Those who stammer and skirt around the topic are likely lying about their involvement.

(5) Set priorities

Jason Hanson, a – you guessed it – former CIA officer, described some of the skills he picked up along the way in “Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life”. One the biggest management lessons he had to offer was that it always payed to be prepared.

“If you set a routine that can be done in even the most extreme situations then you go into automatic mode, do your job and you’re done,” he explained. “When you’re done and out then your brain catches up. You have to have the ability to transform. It is and was easy for me to flip the switch. I’ve always had the ability to do it. Right now, I’m sitting in my office in regular clothes but I could easily flip a switch if I needed to grab my gun and go. It really comes down to being able to compartmentalise things.”

This was echoed by Carleson, who explained working in the CIA gave her the ability to narrow in very quickly on the most pressing issue. “It gives you an ability to prioritise and focus on what’s going to yield the greatest results in the shortest time possible,” she said.

(6) Spy management lessons also revolve around the insider threat

The case of Ana Montes provides important lessons for every business. She was recruited by the Cuban Intelligence Service and went on to leverage her role as intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency to steal US government secrets.

At the forefront, it’s a tale of how spies aren’t always motivated by money and greed. Montes happened to have ideological beliefs and it’s for this very reason that she didn’t exhibit many of the warning signs of stealing information from the government. Due diligence is a must, and while no one likes to think their company could be targeted from the inside, it’s still a risk. Disgruntled staff steal secrets and sell them on and rivals attempt to staff under your employ so as to know the tricks of your trade.

Have policies in place and ensure have adequate IT securities.