The truth is, spies rely on psychology far more than they do on technology. Instead of gizmos or gadgets, CIA officers use behavioral techniques to elicit secrets from people and organizations — techniques that are broadly applicable enough to be used in even the least cloak-and-dagger of settings. I wrote my book, “Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer,” with the intention of identifying and explaining spy tradecraft in such a way that it can be used in any workplace. Here are four examples of lessons from the clandestine world that corporate America can use:
1. Appreciate the power of offensive recruiting.
It is the job of a CIA officer to spot and recruit spies. In most cases, potential spies are chosen because of their access to valuable information; relationships with these individuals can go on for many years, for as long as they continue to hand over classified data. In a smaller number of cases, the purpose of recruitment is more immediate: to destabilize, demoralize, or even destroy the target’s organization. These are the high-impact defections that make headlines — nuclear scientists, senior military commanders, rival intelligence officers.
Please note that I am not advocating any form of corporate espionage here; this lesson for the business world is more subtle. Namely, being the employer of choice in your industry means denying your competition critical skill sets and leaders. Effective recruitment and retention policies are all too often considered fuzzy concepts in the business world, but especially in the most competitive industries, the player most capable of attracting and keeping key individuals has a very real advantage.
2. Build a network up and down.
Seek out a more senior mentor. Dress for the position you want, not the one you have. Maximize face time with the boss. Career advice in the corporate world focuses almost completely upward. CIA officers, on the other hand, appreciate the value of an intelligence network that spreads in every direction. Sure, a senior-ranking diplomat might have access to more information that a mailroom employee, but a good spy knows that the mail guy handles all of the same documents, and is far more vulnerable to recruitment.
In the business world, it pays to establish relationships at all levels — from the secretary who can choose whether or not to put your call through, to the security guard who can give you friendly heads-up that the executive you’ve been trying to get a meeting with hits the building gym each morning at 5:00, to the machinist who can give you the real scoop on those lingering quality control issues. The most effective networks are far-reaching in all directions.
3. Step away from the spreadsheets.
In 2002 and 2003 some very smart people with access to the most sophisticated data and imagery available made a convincing case that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. One invasion later, and the truth was revealed: the suspected WMD stockpiles did not exist. I spent several months in 2003 as a member of the CIA’s WMD search team in Iraq, and the stark contrast between the data I studied before arriving and the reality on the ground was shocking. Simply showing up and asking the right people the right questions told a very different story from the imagery, the intercepts, and the analysis. Human intelligence, in this case, made a mockery of the spreadsheets. This isn’t always so, of course. But an overreliance on metrics, spreadsheets, and forecasts can leave number-driven executives blind to the ground truth.
Stakes are high and deadlines short in the world of espionage, so CIA officers do everything in their power to improve the chances of success. A great deal of thought is put into planning the details for even the simplest of meetings with a target; the choice of venue alone requires careful consideration. The location must be accessible, yet discreet. Unwelcome participants must be denied entry, yet the venue must have multiple, unobstructed paths of exit in case things go south. Everything from lighting to surveillance is chosen to facilitate the desired outcome, subtly manipulating the target towards “yes”.