Dan Waldschmidt

by Dan Waldschmidt

February 9, 2013

Work Like a Spy: Business Tips Shared CIA Style.

J.C. CARLESON is a former undercover CIA officer. She spent nine years conducting clandestine operations around the globe before trading the real world of espionage for writing about espionage. She is the author of Work Like A Spy: Business Tips From A Former CIA Officer.  Today she shares how to get people to tell you everything you ever wanted to know


Have you ever sat through a job interview where you, the candidate, did almost none of the talking? In my experience (and I am a veteran of an embarrassing number of interviews, since I job-hopped quite a bit before joining the CIA), those were usually the most successful interviews. Quite simply, people like talking about themselves, and they like talking to people who appear interested. It’s basic human nature.

Using strategic elicitation in this context, then, involves getting your interviewers to tell you what they want to hear. For starters, it is usually easy to glean information about exactly what an interviewer needs to hear from a successful applicant. Imagine the following exchange, in which the applicant uses strategic elicitation at the most basic level:

Interviewer:  Before we get started, do you have any questions?

Candidate:  Well, you mentioned that you’ve been with the company for over a decade. Could you tell me a little bit about your career progression here, and what has made you successful?

Interviewer:  Interesting question. When I first started, the company didn’t even have an in-house marketing capability. I arrived with very little experience, but I was given an overwhelming amount of responsibility. I built the marketing team from scratch, and along the way proved my resourcefulness. I’ve been very lucky, because senior management allowed me to be creative, and once I had proved myself, they gave me free rein. I’m happy to say that the company has rewarded me for my hard work along the way with regular promotions, which got me to where I am today.

From this very short conversational exchange, the applicant has learned several key elements that the interviewer values: resourcefulness, creativity, initiative, and a willingness to prove one’s worth early in the game. Based on the interviewer’s own response, the job candidate is now armed with a set of important details that he or she can work into later interview questions. Imagine the next segment of the job interview:

Interviewer:  Okay, tell me a little bit about yourself. What makes you a good candidate for this job?

Candidate:  Well, I’ve been with my current employer for several years now, and I’ve learned a great deal from some truly outstanding mentors. Now I feel ready to stretch my wings a bit and take on a bit more responsibility. I think that you’ll find that I’m an out-of-the-box thinker, so I’m looking for a position in a company where I can really make a mark. I’m definitely a self-starter, so I feel as if I’m ready to move into a position that will allow me to prove exactly what I’m capable of.

So what exactly did the candidate reveal about himself here? Absolutely nothing (other than a talent for using corporate clichés). And a skilled interviewer will be waiting for more detail to substantiate all of the candidate’s generalized claims and buzzwords. But the candidate has set himself up with a response framework that includes all of the elements the interviewer has already told him are important in order to succeed within the company.

Note that the candidate did not parrot the interviewer’s responses verbatim. This is a critical part of strategic elicitation. Had the candidate used the exact verbiage provided by the interviewer (“I’m creative and resourceful, and looking to be rewarded for my hard work”), the answer would have been far too obvious and ham-handed. Instead, the candidate elicited details about what the interviewer thinks are critical for success, processed them, and then used those details to craft his own substantively similar but not identical response.

In order to practice your strategic elicitation skills, try the following exercise, which can be quite challenging for all but the most outgoing individuals.

Strategic Elicitation Exercise.

To practice your strategic elicitation skills, it’s time to exit your comfort zone and practice on a complete stranger. If you’re really up for a challenge, pick a practice target who comes from a different culture than you, and who maybe isn’t even fully fluent in your native language. These are challenges faced by CIA officers every day! Not sure where to find your target? Try dining at an ethnic restaurant or shopping at an ethnic grocery store staffed by employees from a culture you don’t know well, and then strike up a conversation. As a customer, you have a built-in reason to initiate an exchange.

Before starting out, identify one or two questions that you would like answered during the course of your conversation. Here’s the hard part: you can’t ask for the information directly, and it needs to be totally unrelated to the nature of your business transaction. No fair asking the waitress at the Thai restaurant if the pad kee mao is spicy! Your quest does not have to be difficult or complex; it simply needs to be totally divergent from your task at hand.

For example, find a way to get the bartender at the Russian restaurant to tell you his favorite color. Or try to learn what kind of car the butcher at the halal grocery store drives.

This can be a very difficult task, and can even be excruciating for those of you who tend to be shy. Bluntly asking your intended question would be awkward and out of context, so you need to work out a reason in advance to elicit your information in the context of your natural encounter. The strategic elicitation exercise above may seem awkward and forced, because you are attempting to segue from the natural flow of a normal interaction (simply entering and making a purchase, for example, without extraneous conversation) to eliciting seemingly random information. Don’t fret, however. The more consistent your strategic elicitation with your overt interaction, the easier it is to gradually draw out the information you need.

So you will likely be pleased to discover that strategic elicitation in the corporate world is actually far easier than the exercise. Getting your customer to tell you exactly what she needs to hear in your sales pitch will seem like a cinch if you’ve already mastered the art of drawing out far more esoteric information from people you don’t even know.

This was excerpted from WORK LIKE A SPY: BUSINESS TIPS FROM A FORMER CIA OFFICER. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) J.C. Carleson, 2013.

About the author

Dan Waldschmidt

Dan Waldschmidt doesn’t just talk about leveling up. He’s obsessed with it. He's set records as an ultra-runner and been the personal strategist for the leading business leaders of our time. He wrote a book, called EDGY Conversations that accidentally became a worldwide bestseller and continues to share his insights from the stage as a keynote speaker and on the blogs and podcasts you will find here. Most days, you'll find Dan heads-down, working on breakthrough strategies for his clients at EDGY Inc, a highly-focused, invite-only, business strategy execution company based out of Silicon Valley.