Many of my experiences in the CIA as an operative are and remain classified. But one of the most profound came from watching a wounded friend and colleague learning to walk again with the assistance of exoskeletons supporting his shattered legs. It provided a key moment of clarity that pushed me to combine my love of technology with helping those in need.
That’s why after more than 15 years of service, I left the CIA to pursue my dream of starting a tech company. Furenexo’s mission is to provide people with disabilities access to affordable assistive technologies that solve challenges in ways not possible even a few years ago.
I learned many important lessons during my time in the CIA. These five concepts that were important to my success in the agency translated perfectly to the commercial world when I took that next step forward in my career:
Know the essentials
We used to say, “Tickets, money, passport,” before walking out the door on a project. Even if everything else was a disaster, as long as our people had those three things, each person could find their way to where they needed to be and move forward from there.
Moving forward could mean shopping for essentials in local shops, improvising or changing the plan on the fly based on the new circumstances, or postponing or cancelling the project if safety or common sense dictated it. Regardless, we knew having the right people in the right place was key to most projects and the rest was secondary.
Back up critical components
“Two is one, and one is none,” was a common mantra when planning technical work. If there was a critical item, we would always bring two of them. Work-arounds could be found for a variety of components, like antennas, batteries, even laptops if need be. However, core electronics components were usually brought in duplicates to address Murphy’s Law.
Listen when someone speaks
Much of the work in the field involved connecting with people from other countries and cultures. People everywhere want to share their own stories. Those stories may be of oppression, horrors they’ve seen and heard, or perhaps something more personal about their family that is weighing on them. You want to empower that person to explain their views, logic and motivations, and trust you to not force their narrative into a stereotype. The person on that other side of the conversation needs to know you’re listening.
Establish your own values
Within the agency, one of the first leadership courses taken by young managers requires classmates to identify the values of the CIA in three ways: as an ideal, as they see demonstrated by coworkers, and through their own personal values. For many it can be eye-opening to see any disparity.
Making sure you can reconcile the actions you see occurring around the workplace with what your organization stands for is crucial for being able to act swiftly and consistently. Establishing those values and thresholds for action early in the growth of an organization is key to saving yourself a lot of change-management work down the road.
Look for ways to get the job done
Unguided innovation just for the sake of doing something differently can be just as damaging or wasteful as clutching too tightly to the status quo. Effective innovation comes from identifying real challenges that are blocking goals and creating workarounds.