Career Insights Career Insights

It Depends

On the Strike Source staff are multiple former CIA Operations Officers (OOs) with decades of experience in the Directorate of Operations (DO).  As noted on the CIA website, OOs “focus on clandestinely spotting, assessing, developing, recruiting, and handling non-US citizens with access to foreign intelligence vital to US foreign policy and national security decisionmakers.”  Serving as an OO is demanding but intriguing and rewarding, allowing one to contribute to our national security, work with exceptional people, and engage the world.

PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS AND SKILLS

While some are extroverts and some are introverts, successful OOs share a range of personality characteristics. Chief among them is the ability to deal with ambiguity on an ongoing basis, a reality captured in the unofficial motto of the DO: “It depends.” In addition, since Murphy’s Law is the first rule of intelligence operations, OOs have to be able to think on their feet, often in complex, high-pressure situations fraught with risk. OOs also have to be comfortable navigating issues and situations that are gray, rather than black or white. Managing ambiguity with an understanding that human behavior is not binary is something that OOs do every day.

OOs are self-starters. The best ones are ambitious and driven to make a difference. They do not wait at their desks for things to happen; they go out and make things happen. They are creative. They can work alone or as part of a team. They are excited by new challenges and are intellectually curious – they want to learn and understand why people make certain decisions and undertake various actions.

In the course of a career, a typical OO will have field tours in multiple countries, as well as occasional assignments in CIA Headquarters, and shorter field assignments lasting days, weeks or months. As a result, OOs must be adaptable and culturally sensitive, able to conduct espionage in a variety of foreign environments and then, switching gears, retool themselves to find a way to be effective within a large bureaucracy.

OOs have to have a thick skin, as operating in different cultures can involve criticisms of American culture and personal, physical and social attributes, while working in the large bureaucracy presents its own challenges, such as dealing with an assignments and promotion system that is not always straightforward. It also helps to have a good sense of humor and irony. Given some of the hard issues with which OOs have to grapple, dark or gallows humor is not unusual in the DO.

Again per the CIA website, OOs are “expected to build relationships based on rapport and trust using sound judgment, integrity, and the ability to assess character and motivation.” As a result, OOs must have strong interpersonal skills, the most important of which are related to emotional intelligence and empathy. Successful OOs are able to put themselves in the shoes of those they are recruiting and handling, to understand each individual’s perspective, why they are working with the U.S. Government, what they want out of the relationship, and how to guide them to do what it is they need to do.

OOs also need strong communication skills. In that regard, when conducting operations, although it is important to be a good conversationalist, it is even more important to be a good listener. After an operation is complete, or during stints at Headquarters, how well an OO writes will be a key indicator of their success. Indeed, for all the sexy work that draws one to the OO career, there are more hours of writing than one can imagine.

In addition, given the infinite range of problems an OO might encounter, planning, while important, will only get one so far. Therefore, strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to innovate, are indispensable. An OO must be able to fall back on the core of a plan and remember what the goals of it were, while being able to let go of the specifics and find alternate routes or means to achieve those goals.

FOREIGN TRAVEL AND FOREIGN-LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY

Previous foreign travel is a plus. If one has lived, worked and/or studied overseas, that is even better. Such experiences not only allow an applicant to acquire and demonstrate some of the personality characteristics and skills cited above, but will also give the successful applicant a head start when they go abroad on their first field assignment.

In addition, extended time spent in a country or region can result in expertise in one or both, which might come in handy during one’s career. Proficiency in a foreign language will serve to enhance any such expertise, since language is key to understanding culture.

While OOs, like other Agency officers, will have opportunities to learn foreign languages, proficiency in one or more of them will make an applicant more competitive. While any foreign language is good, so-called ‘hard languages’ (e.g. Chinese, Russian, and Arabic) that are relevant to our country’s highest national security priorities are better.

Beyond the merits of the foreign language itself, those who acquired their proficiency outside the home will have shown an ability to learn a language. In addition, since, for one’s first foreign language, one learns both the language and how they learn a language, they will be better prepared to learn more languages after entering on duty.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL PREPARATION

OOs must be dedicated to our national security and committed to the Agency’s mission. Applicants should understand these are not just words and the commitment is significant. OOs agree to be worldwide available in accordance with the needs of the service and are therefore expected to take difficult assignments in hard places. Days are often – and, in some jobs and/or places, always – long and intense. One can expect to miss many birthdays and anniversaries, and possibly to have to cut short vacations during their precious time off to return to work due to a short-fused requirement. For any OO, it can be hard not to bring one’s work home with them figuratively, even if they are unable to do so literally. This adds to the stress of the job, as well as to the long hours.

As can happen with any project or relationship, those that OOs have, respectively, undertaken or built can become quite personal, especially if the OO has been engaged in the effort for a long time. Nevertheless, when it is time to transfer to a new post or position, the OO has to let go and hand over responsibility to the new arrival or other staff. The OO has to trust in the training and abilities of their peers to do just as good a job – if not better – than he or she did. Based on the assignments cycle, this hand-over process can happen months or years into a project or relationship. Thus, assuming responsibility for and handing off are a common occurrence that can be emotionally taxing, depending on the circumstances.

These are only some of the demands that make the job and work-life balance for OOs challenging. Applicants should consider whether they, and anyone who depends on them, are prepared in principle to deal with these realities and accept the sacrifices the job will require.

Rick and Tom would like to thank their colleague who, though unable to be named in the byline, co-wrote this article with them. Rick Hotchner contributed to this report with Tom Billard.