From 2010 to 2012, I worked as an Intelligence Analyst at the FBI’s New York field office. This was my first job out of college and sidetracked me from an early career in tech. When I arrived I was assigned to the white collar division, investigating securities fraud crimes.

As a 21-year old, I was the youngest of 15 team members on my squad. There were former Wall Street brokers, accountants, and lawyers on my team. Needless to say, as this was my first real job, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I first arrived.

Thankfully, I walked away with some valuable lessons that I took with me through the startup and tech world. Here are a few:

1. Most things can be taught

I arrived at the FBI without knowing a thing about the intelligence community or the intricate nature of working with classified information. The role involved 30 databases and had a heavy analytical component. Thankfully, I had over 12 weeks of training and got to follow the most seasoned and talented analyst for months. I literally stood behind him for weeks, learning everything I could.

This is something I see heavily lacking in startup culture in general. They often throw you into the deep end without proper guidance. The result can be positive and negative. The positive is that you fail many times and develop a thick skin to perservere (see #2). The negative is that is this sink and swim mentality can lead to a carnivorous environment that can hurt productivity.

My opinion is that the ability to listen, learn, and digest information outweighs “talent”. Most capable people can be taught the majority of any role or task. A sales rep can be a product manager and vice versa, for example. This is exactly how FBI Agents cross divisions and go from cyber to counterterrorism and back multiple times in a given career. Good startups will know this and offer a chance to learn, try new positions, and grow within a company.

2. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

This is probably my favorite saying and one I learned while with the FBI. In all fairness, the saying originated within the Navy SEALS, but an be applied to any kind of organization. Going back to the last point, this approach takes ambiguity, lack of direction, and adversity and gives you a blueprint to succeed. Chaos and uncertainty can breed experience that creates amazing leaders and companies.

I am not saying organizations should be unorganized, but this is often a natural result of a company operating at full-speed in a growth stage. When you find yourself in an ambiguous place, improvise and adapt. With time, most things can be accomplished and chalked as a great experience. In this model, luck becomes design. Discipline trumps motivation. Routine becomes scary. Chaos becomes organized chaos. Teams thrive and goals are met.

Also read: What I learned from living in and working out of a van

3. A sense of collaborative purpose outweighs incentives

The FBI is known for having a rigorous screening and hiring process. Mine was roughly six months and included a polygraph investigation. What this does is help hire people with a similar level of integrity and passion for the FBI’s mission. This bond, when fostered, helps create cohesive teams or “squads” that can tackle the biggest of missions and investigations.

The original blueprint of joining a startup involved gaining an equity share and ideally growing and profiting as a company grows and eventually exits. This has largely been replaced by “soft” incentives including casual dress codes and free snacks. Like many incentives, these can grow old after time. Without a sense of purpose, motivation can be impacted.

Purpose allows people to fight through repetitive tasks, take a long-term perspective, and feel invested in a company on a deeper level. Purpose is shared internally from the top down. Great managers and leaders can inspire and create purpose within a team. When both purpose and monetary incentives are lacking, startups face an uphill battle with long-term retention.


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