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lucy kellaway

Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer

By J.C. Carleson, Penguin, $27.50

The prospect of a business book written by a former CIA officer fills one with dread at the inevitable 007 anecdotes and laboured corporate parallels. But Work Like a Spy turns out to be rather different. There are no gadgets, few cloaks and fewer daggers: instead, it is a bracingly realistic book about people at work. It is short. It is sharp. Better still, it is sensible.

It is also about spying, though only enough to lend a sprinkle of glamour and danger. The author picture shows J.C. Carleson, an undercover agent for eight years, looking like a real-life Carrie from Homeland – without the blonde hair and the bipolar disorder.

Yet her stories from the field are as much screw-up as conspiracy. The book opens with the heroine as a young case officer in an armed convoy in Iraq. It is 2003 and she is going to inspect a plant that the U.S. is convinced makes biological weapons. They disarm the guards and terrify everyone – only to discover it is a salt factory.

"Salt. (Insert your own expletive of choice here.) Salt!" she writes.

Ms. Carleson assures us that not all CIA work is suitable for general adoption: The threatening, lying, trapping, cheating, misleading and detaining that go with the territory should not be tried in the office.

But the spy can teach the general manager about human nature. Spies are simply better at observing people because they have spent more time practising and because the stakes are too high to screw it up.

By comparison, the rest of us are pretty hopeless, only we don't know it. Reluctantly, I have started to reappraise my own view of myself as a brilliant judge of character and admit that such a belief is a liability.

I've just tried the following exercise: Pick a stranger and try to guess their education, profession, religion, income bracket, marital status and hobbies. Disaster: I was wrong on every score.

Because we cling to this idea that our gut instincts are reliable, we make a lot of avoidable mistakes. We make bad hiring decisions. We bang on vaguely about wanting passion and creativity rather than setting to work corroborating CVs and seeking out references. Employers should make a short, precise list of the traits a job requires and hire to fill it. It is all obvious. Yet it takes a spy to point it out.

Less obvious but no less valuable is her tip for job candidates: Get the interviewer to do most of the talking and then hang on their every word. As hardly anyone can resist talking about themselves to a rapt audience, a job offer is almost bound to follow.

To the public speaker and the salesman, Ms. Carleson has further good advice: Never rely on a script and never learn what you are going to say off by heart. When you do this you use a different tone of voice, go on to autopilot and all trust is lost in an instant. Ms. Carleson is right. I have done this, but never again.

I also liked the observation about newly minted CIA officers (for which read new Harvard MBAs and so on) who emerge from the year-long training process all swagger and irritating charm. This doesn't wash in the agency, any more than it does elsewhere. More seasoned colleagues slap them down. "Don't try to case officer me," they say.

Not everything from the book can be copied. The CIA keeps its best staff by doing sensible things such as moving people around, giving them interesting work and letting lone wolves be lone wolves.

Yet the perks of being an undercover agent also involve wearing disguises, learning how to crash cars and jump out of aircraft – all of which are big pluses but not terribly transferable.

The main lesson from Work Like a Spy is that we are much more likely to get what we want if we watch other people carefully. It helps to identify the other person's weaknesses, and for this there are some common denominators: " … ego, money, ego, ego … ego, ego, ego."