7 career tips you can learn from the CIA


Your workplace and the CIA aren’t so different after all. Here’s how America’s first NSA director-turned-CIA director advanced his career—and how you can do the same.


By Bethany Chambers, Digital Operations Manager

Michael Hayden Bethany ChambersGen. Michael V. Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), recently released an insider’s look at national security in the form of the 400-page career retrospective “Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.”

The book, which Hayden says can’t be deemed a tell-all what with some of his favorite parts redacted, offers a glimpse of U.S. diplomatic relations with other countries and Hayden’s experience as the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

What’s most surprising in the book, though, is just how much like the average American working experience the CIA is.

Last week I had the chance to hear Hayden speak at Duquesne University (our shared alma mater) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about his book and came up with these seven tips we can all apply to our jobs.

1. If a tree falls in the forest…it’s not such a bad thing.

Just after taking the helm at the NSA in early 2000, America was without signal intelligence for 72 hours. But with a blizzard hitting the East Coast and people stuck at home, it didn’t make the news cycle—which gave the agency a chance to make some much needed improvements.

The moral of this story (other than how scary it is to think this happened) is that if you suffer a career setback, you don’t need to broadcast it.

2. Question everything.

On the failure of the media to fully vet Bush administration claims that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium in Africa to build weapons of mass destruction, Hayden says the media was too credulous and called it a “clear swing and a miss.”

As Pulitzer Prize-winning intelligence reporter Joby Warrick, who spoke with Hayden at Duquesne, says of other journalists post-9/11: “They were skeptical of my skepticism.”

In hindsight, it’s clear that journalists, security officials, politicians—all of us—must continue to seek the truth and look past the easy answers.

3. Everybody’s boss is putting the squeeze on them.

After Sept. 11, Hayden says President Bush asked “Is there anything more you can do?” to identify the terrorists responsible. When Hayden responded that there was nothing more within his authority he recalls being told, “That’s not what I asked.”

So the next time you find yourself between a rock and a hard place with demands from your boss, employees, coworkers or clients, find a Plan B that’s as amenable as possible to the stakeholders involved. And keep in mind: Everybody has been there. Even the head of the CIA.

4. Communication and consensus-building are key.

Hayden says one of his biggest career regrets is that he failed to garner consensus from Congress during his tenure.

Each time you roll your eyes at another interdepartmental meeting request, remember: You don’t want a failure to communicate to be a lasting legacy that haunts your retirement.

5. Sometimes you expect the worst and get the best.

Hayden and Warrick agree that they anticipated there would be widespread negative reaction to the CIA’s drone surveillance program before it became public, but it was “pretty popular as it turned out.”

If you have an idea to propose to your boss or clients and you’ve stalled thinking it’s too radical or sure to be rejected, stop assuming and start taking action.

6. ‘Don’t opt in the direction of caution.’

To quote Hayden: “There are no easy answers. When the phone rings at 2 a.m. … this not an invitation to be conservative. If you’re conservative, you could end up with a worse outcome.”

Just be glad your phone doesn’t usually ring at 2 a.m.—and when it’s 2 p.m. approach your job with boldness and confidence.

7. Whatever you do, ‘have an animating vision.’

Hayden’s intelligence career was punctuated by significant disasters and roiling international conflict, but throughout it all he says he continued to follow the same morals and principles he’d always had, many of which he credited to his Catholic upbringing.

You may be disappointed to learn that the CIA isn’t as you see on TV (or as Hayden joked, he “never once met Jack Bauer or bumped into Jason Bourne or even saw Jack Ryan.”) but you can find some comfort knowing that some challenges are inherent to career advancement in any field that you choose.

Chambers graduated from Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration in 2007, the same year Hayden spoke at commencement—which you can read about in Chapter 13 of his book.

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