Business lessons from the world of intelligence

Mention the word “spy”, and most people would immediately conjure mental images of James Bond, or other famous characters from Hollywood espionage films. In addition to that, the common impression about spies or intelligence officers is that they are double-faced, mysterious traitors.

However, a soon-to- be published book suggests that they are, in fact, more similar to the rest of us than we think. Work Like a Spy: Business Tips From a Former CIA Officer is authored by J.C. Carleson, a former officer from the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

The book has gained enthusiasm from the business community for its interesting insights on how executives can apply time-tested intelligence tactics for several business processes, particularly in recruitment. In relation to her upcoming book, Carleson also contributed an article for CNN entitled Work like a spy to be the best boss. In the article, Carleson lists three “business lessons to be learned from the recruitment practices used in the clandestine world”, namely: Know the gaps, Identify your targets, and Assess motivation.

Under “Identify your targets”, Carleson points out that corporate recruitment practices tend to be passive. Interestingly enough, I have previously mentioned the same fact in my article about how to get the best talents for a company. Carleson and I seem to share the sentiment that the commonly used passive, one-way recruitment process hinders companies from finding the truly best talents in the labour market. In her article, Carleson advises companies to “Instead, consider adopting targeting techniques from the CIA to identify those individuals who are instrumental to your competitors’ success”.

In other contributing pieces for different websites and publications, Carleson also shares the strategic elicitation or strategic networking principle. According to her, it would benefit business leaders and executives to master this practice of subtly and ingeniously gaining information about customers and competitors.

In The Economist’s feature about Carleson’s book, there is one line that stuck to mind. It says: “In a trade in which deceit is a tool, knowing when to be honest is important.” When I read that sentence, I immediately thought that it does not only pertain to the intelligence or “espionage” industry, but also sometimes applies to the business world, as well. While I would of course not go as far as saying that deceit is a common and effective business tool (it’s not), the point is that sometimes, as businessmen, we are so entangled in thinking about company secrets and strategies that we tend to forget the most important element of business: relationships. At the end of the day, how we relate to people will determine how we are going to benefit from their assets, and how we’re going to contribute to their objectives in return. Even the darkest and most secretive of spies know that.

Knut Harald Nylænde is the founder and CEO of Moxie AS, a flourishing investments firm based in Oslo. He holds academic degrees from the two of the most reputable business schools in Norway, the Norwegian School of  Economics (NHH) and the BI Norwegian Business School.