Why the U.S. Intelligence Community Must be Adaptable

The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has failed to exercise and implement some of the most basic principles that make a workplace desirable for the most skilled and qualified workers. Unlike Deloitte, most IC agencies are not flexible in terms of allowing their employees to telework. This lack of flexibility is a failure on the part of senior leaders in the IC, who have simply failed to imagine a different model and context at work. The argument that the classified work that the IC is doing is not invalid, but the IC must do more than what it is doing now to recruit and retain top talent in an ever-evolving work environment.

The IC cannot thrive or succeed in the long run unless it modifies its outlook on creating a work environment that is conducive to the happiness of the majority of IC professionals. This problem is linked entirely to the IC leadership. The leadership – especially of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) – must design and implement a strategy that is comprehensive and consistent with time. The pandemic has significantly altered the business world and its business model. Employees – as manifest in some companies – would rather quit than show up in person. While it is true that most individuals that join the IC do so out of a sense of duty, the pandemic has unveiled the fragility of the world and reinforced the importance of family in life. In such a dynamic and evolving context, IC leaders must work to shape a radically different environment than the one the community is used to.

Great leaders are ordinary people that are unafraid to take on any kind of challenge to bring about the materialization of their vision. They make mistakes. They fail. But they refuse to stop maneuvering toward the realization of their goals and the outcome they wish to achieve. Such is the essence of leadership. My focus is Deloitte – a British corporation – that is at the cutting edge of change and innovation in the fields of accounting, auditing, risk advisory, and consulting. The company owes its success to transformational leadership, strategic vision, and focus on developing and advancing its employees around the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that Deloitte is a recognized leader in its industry for top talent.

Deloitte’s website boldly proclaims the following: “We strive to be an organization where our people can thrive. With a focus on development, flexibility, and well-being, we hire people who are among the best and brightest in the business. Our culture is about inclusion, collaboration, high performance, and opportunity, and we are proud to be recognized as a great place to work.” If this were the company’s mission statement, one would have a hard time finding a corporation with a similar approach; the statement is not only inspiring, but it immediately resonates with readers. These are simply not words; the company can fortify this statement with tangible data. In 2021, Deloitte achieved national recognition by the American Heart Association for making significant progress toward building a culture of health and well-being. It was ranked number 5 on the Best Workplaces for Parents list in 2021; it also made the Best for Vets list in 2021. The list of Deloitte’s achievements goes on.

The IC is by its nature cloaked in secrecy. IC agencies are complex organizations that are primarily interested in the operations and works of the United States’ enemies. IC leaders oftentimes are very much concerned with the accomplishment of the mission; this is not to say that they are not interested in their people. But the training and mindset are such that everything takes a backseat to the mission. While this is noble, it is people that make the mission happen. The IC must shift from this paradigm and become a lot more flexible. Successful intelligence operators must embrace both leadership and management. While leaders are the “heart of an organization,” managers are its brain. The vision and direction that leaders create must closely align with the rules and operational procedures that managers establish.

While there are many leadership styles, successful leaders subscribe to and implement a multidisciplinary approach to get the outcome they are seeking. Toward that end, IC leaders must, in addition to setting high standards for performance, must also develop their followers for the future. As the U.S. economy was recovering from a recession in 2011, Deloitte leadership decided to open a university – a $300 million dollar learning institution in Rice, Texas in 2011. Barry Salzberg, the CEO of the company at the time, stated that he believed in taking intelligent risks and investing in his employees. If the IC wishes to maintain its relevance, it must adopt similar practices and not allow budgetary issues to get in the way of providing a flexible and healthy work environment for its people.

Shaping the environment or bringing about a climate that corresponds to a flexible and productive workspace requires serious effort on the part of IC leaders. A productive work climate does not have to do anything with the physical environment of the place. Bruce Pease writes, “If you are leading analysis, you are responsible for more than the analysts whom you lead. You are responsible to nurture an environment that brings out their best. This is one of the greatest challenges you will face.”

Reinvigorating one’s team has less to do with changing people and a lot more to do with changing the context that leaders create around their people. Such a context has been called the smell of the place. Sumantra Ghoshal has compared the atmosphere of Calcutta in India in the summer, where temperatures average around 100-degree Fahrenheit to the forest of Fontainebleau in the spring. Ghoshal states that as soon as one enters the forest for a leisurely walk, one cannot because there is something about the “crispness of the air, something [about] the smell of the trees” that prompts you to jog, run, catch a branch, and do something. This, according to Ghoshal, is what is wrong with most organizations: creating downtown Calcutta in the summer within an agency, where one always feels tired and lazy. Instead of creating, what Ghoshal calls constraints, compliance, control, and contract, companies must work hard toward bringing about a context that fosters stretch, discipline, support, and trust. These latter elements are what lead to a context in which employees feel revitalized and bring their absolute best versions to work every day.

That the IC is behind in terms of creating a flexible work environment where employees can telework and remain happy is an established fact. However, the pandemic has provided companies, including the IC, with an opportunity to implement a different strategy and inculcate a new set of practices. This, however, requires the kind of leadership that imagines and executes different policies. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal has written that leaders must behave like gardeners as the latter “plant and harvest, but more than anything, they tend. Plants are watered, beds are fertilized, and weeds are removed.” Leaders, McChrystal concludes, must engage in “enabling rather than directing.”

Enabling in lieu of directing requires trust. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once stated that the essence of leadership was trust. Powell went on to state that leadership “ultimately comes down to creating conditions of trust within an organization. Good leaders are people who are trusted by [their] followers. Leaders take organizations past the level that the science and management say is possible. You achieve trust by a clear mission and statement and selfless service. And then you prepare the followers; you train them. You give them what they need to get the job done. Don’t give them a job if you do not want to give them the resources.” The IC can bring about conditions of trust where both leaders and employees can operate in a productive ecosystem. And while trust is key in leaders’ decision to allow employees to telework, there are serious challenges to the implementation of such a policy.

To begin with, the nature of IC work is such that employees must show up to a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF). To date, the IC has yet to overcome this challenge and come up with an alternative to a SCIF. One solution could be for the IC to switch to a hybrid work environment, where employees can complete unclassified work at home and show up in person to discuss and work on classified projects. The benefits of bringing about such a work environment will be huge for the IC, as it will enable it to attract workers from varied backgrounds with a disparate set of skills. The IC has no choice but to begin implementing such a policy if it wishes to recruit the best and the brightest. Companies, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations can rarely succeed without bringing in top talent and retaining them. Treating employees well is the essence of a healthy work environment. Employees will go to any length – including “following [the leader] into the darkest night, down the deepest valley, [and] up the highest hill” – if there is a context of trust and respect.