What I’ve learnt from working in espionage

As told to Frances Hedges
Photo credit: Courtesy of Rupal Patel

From Harper's BAZAAR

After a thrilling career at the CIA, I moved to London to start my first business. Over the ensuing years, I felt a deep, nagging pull to do something bigger and bolder, but didn’t know what that something was. Ignoring the pull wasn’t working, so I finally gave it a listen. Today, as the founder of Entreprenora, my focus is on helping women become powerful, visible role models who are professionally successful and wholly fulfilled. The women in our community are entrepreneurs and leaders with brimming brains and overflowing spirits who want to unlock their potential and help each other thrive.

Here are my five mission-critical lessons, learnt from my time working for the CIA and from following my entrepreneurial instincts…

Go deep into your identity. I’ve found that understanding who we are and what makes us tick is at the core of success and happiness, but so few of us ever take the time or space we need to think carefully about what we want to do, who we want to be and what makes us thrive. It’s so easy to fall into a routine (which can then become a rut) without thinking about these important questions. In the world of espionage, going undercover means diving into your persona, and it’s essential for the rest of us too. We have to study who we are and get comfortable in that skin so we can better define and decide how we want to live and what our purpose will be. For me, Entreprenora was born from that process.

Focus on your mission. It’s not easy to run your own race without a sideways glance at those running beside you – and there are times when I still get sucked into comparison-itis – but we can never be anyone else, have anyone else’s career or start anyone else’s business, so why waste time, energy, and sanity looking around? In life, as in the CIA, it’s dangerous, distracting and destructive to focus on any mission but your own.

Choose your operatives carefully. The likelihood of mission success is determined by the team executing and supporting it, so choose your team carefully. We effectively become the average of the five people we spend the most time with, and those five will either help us move forwards or yank us backwards. Whatever our individual mission looks like, we need people at home, in our personal lives and in our businesses who understand us, inspire us, support us, call us out and refocus our attention whenever we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Use your full arsenal. The best agents are the ones who bring all of their skills and resources to every mission and adapt them as required. In the real world, that can mean drawing on our liberal-arts education, say, to analyse knotty problems in our start-ups. It can mean leveraging our negotiation skills when handling ‘business’ at home with our partners. We just have to remind ourselves to modify the ‘weapon of choice’ for the mission at hand.

Conduct an after-action review. There is an anatomy to any mission success or failure, but the component parts will remain a mystery unless we commit time and energy to investigating what went wrong and what went right. Every outcome offers fertile ground to guide what we do next time, but only if we crystallise the learning by capturing all of the relevant information and interrogating it in as much detail as possible.

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