Techniques spies use that can double up as management lessons

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

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