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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Work Like a Spy: Career Advice From a CIA Operative

When you’re bored with your day job, you probably find yourself daydreaming about a more exciting position: Maybe you could go be a Hollywood starlet, play with animals all day at the zoo—or get in on all the action as a CIA officer.

J.C. Carleson didn’t just daydream. Unsatisfied with her work in the corporate world, Carleson saw an ad for the CIA in the classified section of the good old-fashioned newspaper. “I thought, ‘Okay, this might be a joke, but I can send my resume,’” she explains.

One cryptic voicemail and two years of interviews and background checks later, Carleson began work as a CIA operative, traveling around the world to identify potential spies and convince them to share secrets with the U.S. government.

It was about as exciting as you can imagine, but after eight years in the field, Carleson decided to abandon her jet-setting life to spend more time with her young children. And as she started to think about what might come next in her career, it dawned on her how valuable the tactics she learned in the CIA would be in the corporate world. So, she decided to share her insights with the world, and wrote the book Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer.

Intrigued, we sat down with Carleson to learn more about her time in the CIA and hear a few of these career tips. Read on to learn all about what it takes to work like a spy—whether you’re in the CIA or in a cubicle.


Breaking into a career in the CIA is notoriously challenging. Was it more difficult for you since it hadn’t been your initial career trajectory?

Believe it or not, no. I think people with the more traditional political science backgrounds tend to go into the analytical side of the CIA. My colleagues coming into the operational side of the house were lawyers, professional athletes, people from finance—there was really a huge range of backgrounds.


Do you have any advice for people hoping to work in the CIA?

First of all, you have to live a fairly clean life to be able to make it through the background checks, polygraphs, medical tests, and all that. The CIA also looks for people who have traveled and have a little wanderlust. That’s definitely something that I had starting from childhood. They want people who are open and able to work in different parts of the world. So, for example, college students should do a study abroad program. Show an interest in the world and the CIA will be more interested in you.


This couldn’t have been an easy career change for you. What was the most challenging part of the transition? How did you work through it? 

Not being able to tell your friends or family what you do for a living is difficult for everyone who enters the undercover lifestyle. Even though you’re given the skills to tell the lies and you’re given a cover story, it’s still difficult to work an exciting job that you’re so enthusiastic about and engaged in, and then go home and pretend you do something totally boring so nobody asks questions. A lot of people struggle with that, and it even causes a number of people to self-select out early in the training.

I was traveling a lot, so I just threw myself totally into the work. A lot of people develop a really good social network within work. It’s easier to socialize with people who are going through the same thing.


What’s the biggest misconception people have about working for the CIA?

People are surprised by how basic the techniques used by CIA officers are. Everyone’s watched all the movies, so they think it’s all high-tech and guns and car chases, but that’s so not the case. Really, the techniques boil down to basic human psychology and a basic understanding of what motivates people. The work involves meeting, networking, studying, and analyzing, much more than it involves any of the things you see in a James Bond movie. Even though you learn these high-action techniques to get out of a dangerous situation, if you’re getting into car chases, it means you’re doing something wrong. People are almost disappointed to learn that.


What led to the decision to finally leave the CIA? What are you doing now?

After I had my first son, I tried to go back to work, but had a really tough time finding that balance. And some people do—there are fabulous, very successful female officers. But for me, something had to give. And although there are more family-friendly jobs within the CIA, it wasn’t part of the work that I loved. So I decided, if I wasn’t feeling passionate about the work anymore, it was time to consider something else.

I’m writing full time now and doing some speaking engagements. I’m slowly starting to do some corporate consulting, too, setting up executive training programs based around the book. People are more interested than I expected about the business lessons from the CIA world. I wrote this book and thought, “I hope somebody reads it,” so I’m surprised at the reception it’s getting.


Let’s talk about the book. One of my favorite chapters was about the ethics of espionage. Many people think these CIA tactics involve deception and trickery—but that’s not the case, is it?

Not at all, and in fact that’s something I’m having a hard time convincing people of. Again, I blame James Bond. These tactics involve a lot more carrot than stick—they’re about giving people what they want to get what you want.

In fact, it’s really important that you don’t make enemies along the way in your career (or in the CIA), because you never know who’s going to end up in a position of authority or in a position to help you down the road. Spies have to maintain good relationships, even in ugly political situations.


What career tactics that you shared are people most excited about?

People are really responding to my networking suggestions. Everyone thinks of networking as up—you network in an upward manner, you seek out people in positions above you—but, to really network like an intelligence officer, you need to have a 360º network of people at all levels, across the industry as well as across your company. You never know who’s going to have the critical bit of information that’s going help you get the job, or help you make the sale. You don’t know what little tip is going to make the difference.


What tactics are people most unsure about?

The idea of offensive recruiting: using recruiting to not only develop a skill set within a company, but also to basically siphon off talent from your competitors to give yourself an advantage. 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?”

I also talk in the book about how your co-workers are your competition and you need to be able to “win” the promotion. People automatically assume that involves stabbing your co-workers in the back, but it doesn’t. It involves identifying and exhibiting the behaviors rewarded in your office or industry better then the people around you. It’s not to the detriment of your co-workers—you’re not sabotaging anyone—you’re just studying the ways other people are getting ahead and you’re doing a better job at doing the same thing. It’s actually a very positive approach.


What are the clandestine skills that you now use most in your daily life?

Working in the CIA really gives you the ability to narrow in very quickly on the most pressing issue. It gives you an ability to prioritize and focus on what’s going to yield the greatest results in the shortest time possible.

It also provides really excellent people management skills. I can get along with just about anyone in a room now, because one of the fundamental skill sets of a CIA officer is the ability to find common ground with anybody. You don’t have to like the person, but you can always find a common element with him or her.


What one piece of advice would you give for succeeding in the corporate world?

Don’t be afraid to manipulate. Companies manipulate us as consumers all the time, and we consider that to be good business. But for some reason, I think women in particular think it’s unacceptable to manipulate our bosses into giving us a promotion, for example. People think it’s underhanded, but it’s not. Again, it’s just identifying what behaviors your boss rewards in other people, and exhibiting those.

That’s manipulation—you’re altering your behavior 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.


Want to learn more? Check out Carleson's book, Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer!