Work Like A Spy: An Ex-CIA Officer’s Tips For Business Success

The former spy who stumbled upon a covert career with the CIA in, of all places, a classified ad, shares how a life undercover informed her more conspicuous role in the corporate world.

Work Like A Spy: An Ex-CIA Officer’s Tips For Business Success

“When I went to work in the corporate world I was bored out of my mind,” recalls J.C. Carleson of her life before the CIA. Then one Saturday afternoon when Carleson was 23, working in HR at Tektronix, she stumbled onto a classified ad for the Central Intelligence Agency. “Part of me thought it was a scam, but I submitted my resume anyway. I had wanderlust from a young age and was an adventure buff. The CIA had this sense of built-in adventure,” says Carleson. Some two years later, after countless interviews, medical and psych screenings, and Pentagon training, the Cornell industrial labor relations grad found herself on the ground in Kabul, Afghanistan, searching for weapons of mass destruction. “I suddenly realized I was more corporate than commando,” says Carleson of when she first touched ground in 2001.


But she adapted quickly. For nine years, Carleson was a CIA agent in counterterrorism and counterproliferation, collecting chemical, biological, and nuclear weapon intelligence. After nearly a decade of undercover high wire missions, Carleson decided to return back to civilian life in order to start a family, but was faced with the reality that if she wanted to get back into the mainstream workforce, she’d be starting from scratch.

“I tried to jot out what I would say in a resume, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized my skills from the CIA were far more applicable to the business world than I thought,” says Carleson. And she never stopped writing. In Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer, which hits bookshelves in February, Carleson applies what she learned from her Jason Bourne-ian life about navigating the corporate world. Carleson spoke to Fast Company about exploiting your competitors, the importance of building intelligence networks, and why you should befriend your company’s security guard.

FAST COMPANY: What are the parallels between being in corporate America and being in the CIA?

J.C. Carleson

J.C. CARLESON: First of all, there is crisis management; you can definitely deal with anything the world throws at you. Also sales. CIA officers are the ultimate sales people. If you can convince people to steal secrets from their country and deliver them to you, you can sell just about anything.

For example, in the spy world let’s say there’s a change in leadership–a shift in power, someone new is taking the helm. There are always going to be people who feel stepped on. Those are the people who are vulnerable to recruitment by a spy. They still have access and knowledge. They are the people who see the writing on the wall, so they want to get revenge or build up a bank account. Translate that to the corporate world: new management comes in, a CEO gets ousted, a new exec brings a new team, people in the organization feel stepped on, they feel as if an outsider is taking over, those people become vulnerable for recruitment. It’s a great way to get talent.

That’s a really interesting way to seize opportunity, but do we really want to go through our working life distrusting that everyone around us might become a turncoat? Corporate America is paranoid enough.


CIA officers are some of the most principled, ethical people you’ll ever meet. It seems ironic, because they’re great liars. They use deception to achieve a mission critical goal. CIA officers have strong moral compasses. They do not lie to one another; you save the deception and exploitation for when it’s necessary.

For example, building an intelligence network. It might seem to some to be mercenary, but it’s about being friends at all levels of the organization. With the security guard, the executive assistant, rather than just looking up the hierarchy all the time. Who are the people who can tip you off, who is working late at night?

I imagine one of the most important skills required to be a CIA agent is the ability to make split second decisions in high-stakes situations. What are your tips for those of us who crumble during those?

The money moment for an agent is when you try to recruit a spy. When you make it black and white: will you provide me information on an ongoing basis? It’s a scary question, even for targets who have been letting information slip, and you never know how people will react. Sometimes they say, Of course, and you’re cementing the obvious. Some people panic and report you to authorities and you are at risk to be arrested. You have to watch for early indications for things to go bad; you need to have exit strategies planned out in your mind. I would try to get a sense of their reaction before the formal pitch was out there; if the reaction would be negative, have some softer way to spin it, so it could be misinterpretation. The parallel for the corporate world is if you’re making a pitch for a huge change, like some drastic change in strategy, and you can see the answer will be a big Hell No, don’t commit, give yourself an out.

So you’re a pro at the art of persuasion. What’s the best way to persuade your boss you deserve a promotion?

You need from the moment you step foot in a place of employment to pay attention to people one level above you and several levels above you. You need to analyze what those people have in common, what types of people are succeeding, what types of behaviors are rewarded, what types of people get the blame, and be a chameleon from day one. You need to have a firm understanding of your rivals; if your boss only has so many dollars for salary increases, Joe is your main competition.


Now, if this approach is misused it would make for a nasty work environment. You don’t adopt the assumption that everyone is your rival as a mindset. But you accept as a factual hypothesis that other people are up for the same promotion. It’s not making others your enemy, it’s understanding what behaviors will be rewarded

Right now all the rage is Big Data. The general obsession is: if we can access more data, we can get a real-time clearer picture. But can data ever be misleading?

I would caution against an overreliance on numbers. I was part of the WMD search team in Bagdad very early after the invasion and there was a target facility we assessed with a high degree of probability to be involved in biological weapons. We looked at the imagery, we looked at the people–the woman who ran it had a PhD in biochemistry, we looked at patterns of deliveries at night. It all pointed to something suspicious.

We raided the facility, and turns out it was a salt factory. Everything was so easily explained just by asking the right questions. Yes, the woman running was overqualified, but there were very few jobs for females in Iraq. The imagery showed big areas of runoff; it was salt residue. Everything was so readily explainable in a sit down over a cup of tea; she offered to taste the salt in front of me, we had the CIA chemists and technical experts check all of her claims and they were verified, and everything had a silly explanation. The data was accurate, but the analysis of it was wrong. I felt ashamed, embarrassed. We went in with this huge presence–military convoy, Blackwater guards, it was an aggressive entry. It made me want to do my homework.

[Image: Flickr user Genesee]


About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton.