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A CIA Officer’s Guide to Networking Like a Spy

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In some ways, working for the CIA is like being on a never-ending job search.

Hollywood depictions of a more explosive nature aside, it’s a CIA officer’s job to recruit spies. On a day-to-day basis, that boils down to a lot of hours spent searching for potential targets—“trolling,” in spy slang. People with just the right combination of access to sensitive information, approachability and a willingness to share their secrets are few and far between, after all. So, just like someone looking for that elusive perfect job, CIA officers network to increase the odds of landing their next recruit.

In many regards, the CIA version of networking looks a lot like your typical career networking: weeks spent sifting through possibilities that don’t pan out. Moments of excitement when something or someone looks perfect on paper, but turns out not to be the right fit in person. Business lunches. Conferences. Cold calls.

So here are a few ways you can network like a spy:

Take a 360-degree approach

Standard career networking tends to focus upward. That makes sense; you’re trying to make connections with people who can hire you, after all. CIA officers, on the other hand, adopt a 360-degree strategy.

To understand why, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Imagine you’ve been tasked with collecting information about a highly secretive laboratory. Who do you think is more likely to be willing to sell you the data you need: the multimillionaire CEO of the lab’s parent company, or the minimum-wage janitor who has access to the entire facility every night when everyone else goes home?

This scenario is oversimplified for the sake of brevity, but the point is that CIA officers have a well-developed appreciation for networking at all levels. You never know where a good job lead might come from, so don’t restrict your networking to the executive suite.

Give to receive

Come on, admit it: you’ve been a selfish networker. It’s all about what they can do for you when you go on those painful “informational interviews” your neighbor’s cousin’s Facebook friend set up for you, right?

CIA officers, on the other hand, try to walk into a networking opportunity with a favor to grant rather than a favor to ask. It’s far easier to establish good rapport when your relationship is mutually beneficial from the start. Even if it’s something as small as a good book recommendation or an introduction to someone with a mutual interest, be generous with favors within your network.

Not only will this make you more memorable when contacts stumble across job opportunities; it also gives you a good reason to get back in touch later without seeming like a pest.

Embrace the power of rapport

Too often people approach career networking with an “all business” mindset. Professionalism is always a good thing, of course, but don’t focus on the task so intently that you forget to be interesting.

Your typical networking moment isn’t going to result in an instant job offer any more than a CIA officer’s lunch meeting is going to result in an instant spy recruitment. Rather than treating such events as one-shot chances, CIA officers endeavor to make themselves memorable enough that they’ll be the first person who comes to mind when a real opportunity does arise.

The purpose of your resume is to convey your skills and qualifications. Don’t waste a valuable face-to-face meeting, then, by boring your audience with a redundant recitation of the same information you’ve already provided in writing. Establishing your qualifications will get you in the door for a meeting. Establishing rapport will build a professional relationship.

Get a second date

Because of this focus on building rapport and establishing a mutually beneficial relationship, CIA officers don’t expect a first meeting to yield results. They do, however, expect to walk away armed with information that will enable them to have a more productive second meeting. Not everyone is willing to do a favor for someone they just met; people are far more likely to help you in your career search if they know and trust you.

The more you can develop your professional relationships over time, the more likely your network is to yield results.

J.C. Carleson is a former undercover CIA officer. She is the author of Work Like A Spy: Business Tips From A Former CIA Officer.

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