I’ve spent many weeks identifying the myths prevalent in the field of private intelligence and political risk (many of which the industry has actively perpetuated) and the realities of working in these fields over the last 5 years. Although I haven’t covered all of the myths yet, I do think it’s time for a more optimistic post, one that focuses on how to improve the political risk industry. Not surprisingly, I’d like to start with the people- the analysts and consultants and project managers who make political risk firms function. We can only fix many of the industry’s issues by hiring, training and enabling the right people. We’re failing miserably at this. First, we need to correctly identify the skills necessary to excel in the field. Only then can we find people with skills to match those needs. Obviously, there are a few basic skills: research skills, analytical skills, oral and written communication skills, familiarity with the Microsoft Office Suite, as well as the ability to collaborate, multi-task and work in fast paced environment, while paying attention to detail. This probably sounds like countless job postings you’ve seen in just about any industry, and that’s exactly the problem.
Step 1: Write better job descriptions, and know what skills are truly needed.
Private intelligence and political risk are not just like any other industry, and they require a very particular set of skills. Ideally, they’re polymaths, or at least philomaths. In addition to all of the skills mentioned above, intelligence analysts and political risk consultants need to possess curiosity, know how to ask the right questions (and have the persistence to find the right answer), have a vibrant imagination, and be able to absorb, comprehend, analyze and apply vast amounts of information very quickly. This includes being able to read maps, remember the names of leaders, understand statistics and be familiar with a wide spectrum of cultures, as well as having a nuanced understanding of business processes and how they are affected by political risks. Good analysts and consultants have to be able to think several steps ahead, to see connections, causes and consequences of events.
Step 2: Establish more effective interview processes.
Right now, the hiring process in the fields of private intel and political risk basically consists of a couple rounds of interviews where candidates are asked basic questions (What’s your greatest strength? Biggest weakness?) and a writing test, and occasionally case study analysis. I don’t really care if someone’s biggest weakness is that they have trouble saying “no” to people. I can teach them to prioritize tasks and feel empowered to tell managers when they’re overloaded with work. I can’t teach people to be naturally inquisitive or very creative. I want to see someone define political and geopolitical risk, and to give a short presentation with analysis of a recent international development. I want to watch them think on their feet as they tell me why it’s important, whom it’ll affect and 3 scenarios for where things can go in the future. I want to hear their ideas for how a fictional client could navigate the situation to minimize disruptions to their business. I want to know what products they would offer the fictional client to keep them from running into the same problem or keep them better informed of their risk environment. Not only would such a trial by fire tell me whether the candidate possesses all the skills I value, but it would also weed out lots of candidates who seem good on paper, but would likely be disappointing analysts and consultants. I don’t want to watch them flounder for three months, when a 15-minute presentation and a conversation can minimize the torture and lost time for both parties.
Step 3: Stop hiring typical candidates and expand the pool of possible candidates by targeting smart people early. The types of people being hired by these firms can generally be grouped into 4 categories:
1) People who’ve spent 3 months to 3 years at a government agency. Why? Their alphabet soup government agency experience lends credence to analytical teams. “We have analysts who’ve spent time in the FBI/CIA/DIA! We must know what we’re doing.” The problem? These people didn't spend enough time there to really become immersed and succeed in their position, since they left, likely signifying that they weren’t good enough to get promoted. Or, they spent long enough there to get burned out because they were so frustrated with bureaucracy and now just want a position where they can coast and “re-charge.” Neither makes for a stellar analyst. They also lack business expertise.
2) People who’ve previously worked at a think tank. Why? These people know how to research and write but they’re used to spending months doing research and writing dense reports, not quick turn two-pagers outlining the major threats to shipping firms in Asia. They usually have good networks- that are full of other think tankers. There’s nothing wrong with these people at first blush, but they often lack any business experience and therefore could explain the finer points of the Yemen conflict but couldn’t tell you why it affects a firm’s supply chain. I’d prefer someone who worked in a small logistics company, who likely got to understand the finer workings of business, over someone who’s only ever done research and never experienced how a business functions.
3) People with a Masters degree and no real world experience. Why? A Masters degree is quickly becoming a pre-requisite for any decent paying job in political risk. As someone who went from undergrad straight to Georgetown’s SFS, I heartily endorse getting that MA ASAP, but only if you're sure of your path and have decent professional experience from your time in college. I worked in business, public relations, on campaigns, etc., throughout my time in undergrad, building an international network of contacts. Those who get a Masters degree with virtually no experience beyond a couple think tank internships are unlikely to have a vibrant network. When you’re being vetted by a private intel or political risk firm, the strength of your network becomes one of your biggest assets.
4) People who are straight out of undergrad and speak a language. Why? They speak a language! I love eager students straight out of undergrad. They’re usually energetic, curious, and good with technology. Most often, they’re hired because they studied a necessary language. The problem is that taking 4 years of a language makes a person a good walking interactive dictionary, but not necessarily a good analyst. I can always find someone in my network to translate something for me. What I usually need is someone who also knows the culture, particularly the business culture, of the country where that language is spoken. This leads me to my next step.
Step 4: Do a better job of marketing the industry as a good career option.
Study abroad programs are increasingly popular and students are going abroad to a range of fascinating countries where they have the potential to strengthen language skills, learn a new culture and see the world from a different perspective. The industry needs to start getting on the radar of sophomores, who are choosing majors and planning their junior year experiences, and letting them know the private intelligence and political risk are great career paths. By reaching them early, we can help students better focus their study abroad programs to suit their strengths, take advantage of all that the experience has to offer, including interning in a foreign firm, and equip them with the foresight to know which knowledge and insight firms will value in candidates. If we can convince these students to engage in international affairs in addition to international cocktail parties, we can have shape a new generation of analysts who make the most of their time abroad and come back with knowledge, perspectives and a level of comfort being abroad that could greatly boost the value of our analytical teams.
Step 5: Institute interactive training programs.
Ah, orientation. The weeklong torture, I mean, "training process," usually includes boring, endless lectures directed at the recently hired cohort. They throw in everything from security and sign-in procedures to how to access files to how to fill out templates and even follow style guides. We’ve all been to classes where it makes sense when the teacher says it, but we get into trouble when doing it on our own. Why must we lock these poor shmucks, I mean analysts, into windowless rooms and drone on about dozens of things that they likely won’t absorb? Training should be an interactive process, not a passive listening experience. We should have them try to use the online platform, go to a mock client meeting or interview with a subject matter expert, design and deliver a mock presentation or draft a mock project. We need to give them feedback and point out oversights, and let them try again and watch them improve. We need to give these people an active role in their training. Yes, this takes time and effort, but the results are always better because they’re actually training to do something, running into obstacles and learning ways to address them while adopting company procedures.
Of course, instituting these steps will only yield good results if a company is well managed and provides analysts with adequate work to challenge them and allow them to grow. A bad firm won't find any magic fixes in implementing these steps. Now that we’ve covered how to make sure we have the right people to do good analysis, I’ll discuss the ways in which we can improve our methodologies in the next post.