What Does it Take to Succeed in the New Intelligence Community?

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Maisha Glover

Maisha Glover no longer waits for opportunities to come to her. Instead, the senior adviser with McKinsey and Co. learned to create her own opportunities, and that skill is vital for workers looking to use their skills and make a difference in new ways within the intelligence community.

Glover spoke recently from a four-person panel at an Intelligence & National Security Alliance event. Joining her were Rachel Barnhill, federal program manager at the National Nuclear Safety Administration; Leslie Ireland, INSA Financial Threats Council chair and board member at Citigroup; and Letitia Long, INSA chair. Cameron Ward-Hunt, manager at Guidehouse, moderated the session.

Each of the panelists discussed how they were able to take somewhat unrelated or nontraditional backgrounds and use their skills in a STEM-oriented work environment. So, what does it take to make it in today’s intelligence community? Is a strong background in the STEM fields necessary to break in?

Glover said when she began her career at the CIA as a low-level employee, she had planned very clear, methodical steps by which to advance her career. Then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened, and she was suddenly told her new job was to become a terrorism expert.

“This wasn’t what I went to school for,” she said. “This wasn’t what I thought I was going to do. But it was a group of individuals that saw a mission need and looked at my career, looked at my skill sets, looked at my liberal arts degree and said, ‘We believe that you can have an impact and fulfill this mission.”

That approach was a game-changer.

Glover began to realize she no longer had to wait for opportunities to fall in her lap. Instead, she said, she learned to hone her skills, find her passion and look for ways to match those two areas to the missions of the organizations she had an interest in serving.

A few years later, she temporarily left federal government and reached out to industrial contractor SAIC — for an interview for a job that wasn’t even being advertised. That step launched her career in an unexpectedly different direction.

One year ago, she took the same approach with McKinsey, a global management consulting firm that hadn’t even created a role for someone like her.

“I see what you’re doing in the industry,” Glover said in her pitch. “I see what the impact is that you’re having in mission. I believe that there is a need. You have a gap (I can fill).”

She was hired.

Ward-Hunt, who holds a degree in religious studies and mysticism, said intellectual diversity is important when it comes to solving the nation’s problems, and that means bringing in individuals who can contribute to the variety of perspectives.

“The challenges of the new IC really require a plurality of skills and educational backgrounds,” he said. “Blending poli-sci and Russian majors together with double Es, space nerds and MBAs, to all put us in this one big soup, and yes even making room for people with backgrounds in religious studies and mysticism or even attempted theater minors.”

Barnhill, who said she learned mostly on the job, agreed there are many stereotypes about STEM and liberal arts majors. Confessing you’re a liberal arts major in a room full of people with STEM backgrounds often brings looks of judgment, she said.

“Now it’s true that the sort skills afforded to liberal arts majors and the hard skills afforded to STEM majors provide different advantages,” she said. “Being liberal arts majors, we go beyond problem-solving and key in on the how and the why. And being formally trained to have that context, the global, political or social underpinnings of a situation is extremely valuable.”

At times, the challenges associated with a liberal arts background in a technical environment are more internal than external, Glover said. She recalled a time in business development when she felt over her head as a group she was working with entered a very technical discussion involving kernels.

“Am I really supposed to be here?” she remembered thinking.

Glover said she eventually handled the situation by reminding herself that while she didn’t know as much as the others about kernels, she did have solid team-building skills. She brought in an individual who did understand the concepts at hand, and the work continued.

“It’s not about trying to do everything and mimicking someone else,” she said. “It’s about finding your own place and doing what Nike says and ‘just do it.’ That’s what I did.”

Ireland said the importance of knowing oneself and being willing to embrace change is another important characteristic for working in “the new IC,” perhaps now more than ever. With a degree in Russian studies, Ireland went to work for the CIA in an office that did scientific and weapons research.

Decades later, Ireland, a child of the Cold War era, would go on to reinvent herself as someone with expertise on the Middle East once political leaders decided the nation’s army of Soviet experts were no longer needed.

Liberal arts majors can also take pride in realizing that they have something of value to offer in the technical world.

“No offense to all you technical people, but sometimes the importance of what you have to say gets lost because you can’t get from point A to point B quickly without a lot of jargon,” Ireland said. “I was able to do that, and that really was advantageous.”

Long was the sixth of eight children and learned from an early age to speak up when she wanted something. Growing up, she loved math, science, theater and French but also excelled in English. Both parents worked at the National Security Agency.

She co-oped with the Navy to put herself through electrical engineering school at Virginia Tech and was eventually hired to work on building acoustic intelligence collection systems for submarines. Later, she moved into the policy world where she worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and eventually culminated her career as director of the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

“I’ve always been a big believer in that balance between STEM and the liberal arts,” she said. “It takes all of us to make this wonderful community work. It takes all of us to make this nation work, and it takes all of us to make this world work.”

Besides, she added, “Soft skills are every bit as, if not even more, important than those technology skills. If you can’t communicate what it is you’re trying to get across, all the knowledge in the world really doesn’t matter.”

Glover advised students to take advantage of opportunities that arise in school and on the job to learn more technical skills that can complement the knowledge they possess. She believes there are untapped opportunities at the intersection of STEM and liberal arts backgrounds, and that grabbing those opportunities is especially key for women and women of color, both of whom are underrepresented in the intelligence community.

Glover offered three takeaways: define your passion, be creative in seeing opportunities and remember the journey you take isn’t yours alone.

“There’s somebody,” she said, “that you should impact. It could be a person, it could be people, it could be a mission, it could be an organization, but remember … the journey is not yours and to always help someone else.”

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