Review: A spy’s eye in the workplace
By Martin Langfield
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
James Bond fans would expect a former spy’s book of business tips to offer a crash-course in whiz-bang gadgetry, car chases and stealing secrets. Intelligence nerds might want to read about working the “dark side” through Dumpster-diving, coercion and other black arts. J.C. Carleson’s book “Work Like a Spy” smartly does neither.
Instead, she mostly concentrates on the psychological and behavioral tricks that intelligence officers use to winkle out secrets. Carleson, who worked for the CIA’s clandestine service for eight years, clearly has a terrific book in her, though “Work Like a Spy” is only intermittently it.
The book waters down some clandestine techniques till they seem merely bland. Others, though, fizz with insight, and the dabs of color and adventure she throws in, from her time in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to her stint in Iraq looking for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, add drama and exoticism. The reader longs for more of this stirring stuff.
Carleson explains that much intelligence work is in fact more like the average workplace than a Hollywood adventure film. Workers and businesses can learn from CIA tricks of the trade – at least the legal ones.
Among the tips she provides are: how to elicit useful information about rival firms or workplace colleagues using CIA source-cultivation techniques; how to set up meetings to foster the most favorable outcome; how to build networks of informants at all levels of an organization to maximize good information; how to target potential “defectors” or key rivals one would like to hire away; how to minimize the risk of being spied on by rivals; and some handy CIA approaches to negotiation. Carleson even includes some exercises to try in the workplace.
She makes it sound easy. “There is information for the taking that can change the entire playing field for you and your organization,” she writes. Sometimes this is no more than clever tactics: “asking the right people the right questions in the right way.” Sometimes it sounds a little underhand, requiring “manipulation of individuals and exploitation of … vulnerabilities.” But Carleson makes clear, repeatedly, that she does not endorse effective but illegal techniques such as bribery and hacking. At least, not in the business world.
Actually, some of the book’s high points come in passing. It is refreshing to read that the agency’s field employees can be heard referring to headquarters at Langley as the “Death Star.” She also says that CIA officers are regularly required to undergo excruciatingly detailed questioning about their personal lives while wired to polygraphs. She stops short of recommending that management technique for business.
The gap between the CIA and the corporate world is wide enough that Carleson’s approach risks bathos, as when an anecdote of adventures in exotic climes after 9/11 demonstrates the importance of “empowerment”. Yet she shows a pleasing disdain for business buzzwords and mostly stays on the right side of cliché.
Carleson’s most surprising claim, at least for some readers, may be that ethics are at the core of effective espionage. It would be interesting to see if her fiction – a thriller, “Cloaks and Veils,” came out last year – shows the same high moral tone. In any case, she argues that any good operator, whether spook or business leader, inspires trust. While there are many firms out there that will indeed dive into trash bins and dig up dirt on the opposition, Carleson says that the higher road, in the end, is more effective than the seedy.
J.C. Carleson’s “Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer” was published in the United States on Feb. 7 by Portfolio, a Penguin business book imprint.