Career Lessons the CIA Teaches Kids

 

“….and so, your father works for the CIA….” At least that’s what I think he said. But at that point, my ears were ringing with gauzy confusion. And I figured that the best thing to do was nod respectfully and wait until I got home to double-check with Dad. I could pretty much ask him anything. I might not get an answer I understood. But I assumed most kids didn’t fully understand what their parents did for a living anyway.

It was my 16th birthday, and I had already endured some good natured ribbing about learning a new “fact of life” on the school bus from the older kids who also lived on the Army base in cookie-cutter ranch houses that looked identical to my house I shared with my father, a fresh widower just home from a 3-year tour in Saigon. It was just he and I in that little house – my older brother off at college. And there was no laptop at home to do any private googling – which wouldn’t have offered up any useful intelligence anyway, if either laptop or Google had existed back then. It still doesn’t, at least as regards my father, who looked more like Professor Bunsen Honeydew than Sean Connery.

The acronym CIA wasn’t an unfamiliar one. He had already taken me to its headquarters in Langley, VA. In retrospect, I see now that it might have been a test run to see if I was going to act like a jerk as we crossed the iconic floor mosaic of the eagle and the wall of nameless stars, each one indicating the ultimate sacrifice of an operative in service of his country. I must have passed the good behavior test. (Now that I think about it, there was also that time at a restaurant in Spain, where my father kept repeating sotto voce, “Don’t turn around.” He always sat at restaurant tables in the chair that allowed him to keep an eye on the whole dining room. But this was the only time he kept repeating the same instruction about eyes forward.)

The next phase of my Sweet 16 ritual was this private conversation with the base’s civilian chief of security, who I only knew as the father of my friend who tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to canoe on a pond at the end of our street. (Dad and I weren’t exactly athletic. We were readers. A detail that actually does figure later into this story. The only upper-arm strength, coordination, and stamina we needed was enough to hold a book upright in our laps.) All his coworkers were, to me, my friends’ dads. And until that day, they all seemed to know something I didn’t.

Yes, that night my father confirmed what I thought I heard from my friend’s dad. Yes, the whole base is a CIA base. And yes, that’s why there are so many civilians living on it with a relatively small contingent of uniformed soldiers guarding it. This is where the senior case officers (not “spies,” by the way) come in, frequently after high-pressure assignments that involve hair-trigger world conflict and guns, spend a few years reuniting with their families, decompressing, and teaching what they learned in the field to incoming groups of new case officers. And yes, I’m expected to keep my trap shut at school. It’s a matter of national security. Okay? Okay.

So I grew up watching my one career role model dedicate his life and his family to a larger-than-life mission that entertained no questions, like “How was your day at the office?” Or even, “What’s your new phone number?” His devotion to his work and the fate of the nation played a major part in my mother’s early death. That devotion also explained why I moved 13 times in the first 13 years of my life. And why Cold War Era hot spots, such as Vienna, Berlin, Mexico City, Miami, and Madrid show up in my family’s list of home addresses.

That devotion, as wordless as it was, was also my most significant influence on my own career choice. Whatever I chose to do, I grew up just believing in as much as I believed in air, simply had to be so compelling and all-absorbing, nothing less was even thinkable.

CIA Career Lesson 1: Love your work so much that its mission eclipses almost everything else that might compete for your attention and loyalty.

Loyalty is a Myth

As I staggered through a checkered college career…painfully approaching a dubious graduation day, my father’s only advice was, “Work for the government, it’s recession proof.” He thought a career with the federal government was an unbreakable contract. No offense to current Federal employees who might be reading this today, but to my narrow mind in those days, “government work,” brought to mind soul-sucking cubicles; day-after-lifelong-day of standing in Washington, DC, weather waiting for the Metro bus; rigidly enforced promotion schedules and pay bands with ceilings so hard you could actually hurt your head. The very thought of that kind of career made me want to chew my paw off.

“No thanks, I’ll take my chances,” I would say, which would baffle him. A reaction that, in turn, continues to baffle me, because all these years later, he actually had the riskiest job of them all.

His job may have been recession proof but it wasn’t idiot proof.

He got fired. While on assignment. In Mexico City. One of these days, I’d like to see a movie where James Bond gets a pink slip like my father did. Right in the middle of an operation.

He wasn’t alone in this firing. The C-Suite of the Agency – those temporary guys who come in and out at the whim of the president, who is also temporary – had looked into the future and saw that the future of intelligence gathering was “signals intelligence (SIGINT)” not depending on the skills, knowledge, intuition, finesse, wisdom, perspective of blood-and-guts human beings (HUMINT). And so, Temporary Guy by the name of Stansfield Turner initiated the Halloween Massacre, in which 200 of my father’s peers were fired as abruptly as he was.

From all over the world, they were called back home to Langley. There they met a team of truly unfortunate outplacement consultants whose job it was to help them enter the unfamiliar private sector, in a terrible economy, with much-redacted resumes and career stories these guys really couldn’t tell. Not fully, at any rate.

“You seem angry,” said the hapless outplacement consultant with my dad’s file under his fingertips. “You’re damn straight,” my dad replied. And with that, he stood up, left the room, walked past the stars, across the eagle, out the building and never returned. It would be another 15 years before “outplacement consulting” would be uttered in my family’s home. I would be the one to bring it into the house the next time.

Just like that, almost all the seasoned case officers were removed from the ranks like the scraping of nutrient-rich topsoil. Years later, while I was interviewing the agency’s chief covert officer about what happened, he observed that the CIA’s long-term prospects were devastated with the one sweep of the org scythe because the nation’s best high-performing, high-potential college graduates could tell at a glance there was no one to apprentice to. And so, for several decades, the brain trust quality of the Agency took a precipitous tumble. It has been said that there is a direct connection between the Halloween Massacre and the massacre that took place on September 11, 2001.

CIA Career Lesson #2:There is no loyalty. That’s not bad. That’s not good. It just is. Have a resume that doesn’t need to be redacted. Choose a career you can actually talk about. And assume nothing.

“It’s An Attractive Offer, But I’ll Pass”

Smart kids know to take advantage of their parents’ connections to get their first step on their career ladder. If they can. Being self-made is wonderful. But why not take the advantage of it’s-who-you-know, if it comes your way? One conceivable reason in my particular case: The neighbors might think you’re a call girl.

I graduated from college. I decided to move up to Manhattan to have my first grown-up adventure. I snagged a sweet apartment in a West Village brownstone, built in the 1800s, with a cast-iron tub, and a kitchen so small that I used the ironing board as a counter for chopping. It also had a fireplace; and I still feel bad about the fact I didn’t know about opening the flue. I slept on a mattress that a friend found discarded on the sidewalk. And I can’t remember where I got the desk, which doubled as the dining room table. This was no Nora Ephron movie, and I was no Meg Ryan.

My father thought that maybe his connections might help set me up with a sweeter deal.

“How would you like to run a safe house?” he casually asked me, quietly in a loud Greek restaurant closer to the East Village. Anyone watching us would have thought he had said, “Pass the souvlaki.” He still had friends on the inside, and they offered to get his crazy daughter set up in better digs.

Again, I did what I always do when befuddled: I waited quietly for clarity.

“It’s a beautiful apartment in a doorman building in the Upper East Side. You can live there for free. There are just a few catches,” he added.

“First: You have to keep the place clean and tidy for no-advance-notice drop-ins. Second: You have to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, any time day or night. There will be people you won’t know who will need to be let in. Third: You can’t write while working this assignment.”

Well, I am a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was 8 and read Charlotte’s Web. But who am I kidding? It was Catch #1 that I knew I wouldn’t be able to live up to. But Catch #2 was enough to make even my dad see that this wasn’t a good idea. But I still had to spell it out for him.

Here I would be, 22 years old, living in an Upper East Side apartment. By myself. With sketchy gentleman callers coming in day and night. Whatever would the neighbors think?

Plus I had a boyfriend. He was a reporter. And he didn’t appreciate secrets. Snagging an exclusive story about a safe house in the middle of Manhattan would have been a break-out career move for this boy reporter. A sudden move uptown, with no required safety deposit to speak of, and with strange in-and-out habits would have driven him to relentless questioning. I’ve never been a good liar; and he was already trying my patience in a big way. On the other hand, if all this went on under his nose and he found out about it only later, what would that have done to his professional confidence?

So I said no. And I continued to sleep on the mattress just long enough to finally decide to break up with the guy and head back home to McLean.

CIA Career Lesson #3:  We are all paid to keep our employer’s secrets to some degree. Just make sure that those secrets don’t destroy your personal reputation, create deal-breaking holes in your resume, or slam doors on your future options. (And don’t take a job that will make you look like a hoe.)

The Tree and Its Apple

“You know what? You’re doing exactly what your father did.” It was Steve Harrison, founder of the outplacement firm, Lee Hecht Harrison, who made me see what was in front of me all the time. We met while sitting next to each other in the back of a hotel ballroom at a Fortune Magazine leadership conference right after 9/11. I was making snarky comments about the self-impressed speaker, and he was laughing. Politely, probably. As we got to know each other better, I filled him in on the details, which I could speak about more freely by that time.

In classic outplacement counselor style, he connected dots and found the pattern:

“Think about it….What you do is you enter someone’s life, make friends quickly, establish trust and rapport, ask people questions designed to inspire them to relax, open up and say surprising things. And then you disappear again.”

Huh.

Actually, that pretty much sums up what I do for a living. It’s more complicated than that, of course. But you can say the same thing about what my dad did. And it was more complicated than that for him too. For starters, in his line of work, guns were involved occasionally. With me it’s the frustration of a missed phone appointment. Or an exploding printer cartridge. For me, the outcome of my labors is a new business book. For him, the outcome was the fate of one or more nations. But our job description and skill sets were exactly the same. (Only mine don’t involve quite so much prevarication.)

CIA Career Lesson #4: If we’re observant and watch our role models closely over time, we can pick up truly valuable, differentiating transferrable skills that support us as we pursue our own passion.

 

The Apple Helps the Tree

“Dad’s died. Call me.”

My brother wrote a gentler email than that, to be fair. But still that’s how I found out. I had just spent a fabulous evening with my favorite New York publisher. A dinner and a Broadway musical. I had flown in from California to give a lunch speech before relaxing with my friend. A tummy full of incomparable Italian, a slight buzz brought on by wine and the show’s stickiest tune, “Why Oh Why Ohio?” Key card in the hotel room door. Bed freshly turned down. I open my laptop, which by now existed, and this was the email that greeted me.

The next morning I was on Amtrak headed down to the DC area. And the full following month was devoted to cleaning out his apartment. I had plenty of time because it would be a full month before Arlington National Cemetery could accommodate our small family and the urn my dad had requested because caskets were coming in at an unprecedented rate from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I spent that time flopped on my stomach on the floor flipping through his files of correspondence. For a girl who grew up knowing that even “How was your day?” might net her a half-truth or no answer at all, so better not to ask, going through her father’s private papers felt more like safe-cracking. He was a prolific letter writer. Even as a teenager he typed his letters on carbon paper so he could keep a copy always. I was glad to have the full month to get through the paperwork.

A letter to his own father, dated 1936, made my eyes fly open. “I want to be a book author, just like you,” he wrote to his father, who had put Prentice Hall on the map with his set of scathingly fascinating books on accounting. A. Book. Author. Just. Like. You.

A book author just like me, too. Grandfather. Father. Daughter. The torch was passed.

His book, Spymaster, My Life in the CIA, which he wrote with his former CIA boss and best friend, wasn’t out yet. But he died knowing that it was due to come out inside the following year. Manuscript was finished. Now we waited for the CIA to give its blessing.

To quote the old Hamburger Helper commercial: I had helped. My brother edited the manuscript that my father had labored over during the last 10 years of his life. And one day while we were all quietly sitting in his living room, with books on our respective laps, I said to my father, “You do know, right, that I have contacts in publishing.”

He looked up from his book, as he had over years of gazing at a silly teenager, a bad college student who wasn’t working at her potential, the young woman who could probably do better than that New York boyfriend, the freelance writer who exasperatingly turned her nose up at steady jobs and daily Metro bus rides.

Here, sitting in his living room, looking remarkably like his daughter, was someone who, with a single phone call, could get him the attention of a literary agent, who would, in turn get him the attention of a publisher that respected the CIA’s place in history and wouldn’t butcher the story. That was a very specific order, that under normal circumstances would typically take months, if not years, to fill: Two unknown (I mean, really unknown) writers shopping around a book with an unpopular topic. None of us knew that both of them would be dead by the time the book would come out. So that single phone call that I was able to make on my father’s behalf was more valuable than we could have known.

While we waited for the many phases of book publishing to do their thing, back surgery was on his agenda. Which went as expected. Two nights later he was confidently transferred to a convalescent center to finish his recovery. According to the night nurse there, his last words were, “I’ll be fine.”

Just a handful of days later, I’m belly-flopped on his carpet tenderly lifting tissue paper carbon copies, one after the other. And I find the letter.

His teenage wish came true. And he died knowing that it would. Which really was all that mattered as far as I was concerned.

My brother and I still get checks from the publisher, 15 years later.

As I write this, I wonder how generations influence each other in their life’s work, whether they know it or not. One friend, who is a CHRO of a major global company, thinks of the influence her father had on her. He was a minister. Another friend, who is a business and finance writer, introduced me to her father this summer. He was a corporate communications executive.

We’re about to enter the season when families come together from great distances, seeing each other for perhaps the first time in a long time. If you’re lucky enough to sit at a table with two or more generations in it, play a little game. Do what Steve Harrison did for me and connect the dots.

You might be amazed at the patterns that emerge.

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