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Aug 9, 2021

You may not think your business has much in common with the Central Intelligence Agency, but it does. Whether you manufacture tires or roam the world to collect unique information to guide presidents in their decision-making, you ultimately rely on well-matched talent to fulfill your mission.

Patty Brandmaier spent 32 years at the CIA, starting as an intern and retiring as a senior executive. She was among the executives who reengineered the agency’s efforts to attract and hire diverse talent and also to facilitate organization-wide cultural change.

Recently, Michael J. Case, CEO of executive search firm Neptune People, spoke with Brandmaier, now a principal at Pondera International, which advises early stage startups and small businesses. They explored how Brandmaier’s experiences at the CIA offer lessons for talent acquisition professionals in both the public and private sectors — even if their focus doesn’t involve clandestine activities!

Michael J. Case: Thirty-two years is an incredibly long tenured career. I’d love to hear how you got into the CIA and what you did during your time there.

Patty Brandmaier: I was hired right out of college, first as an intern and then as a full-time staff member. I thought I’d stay for five years. I ended up staying for 32 because I worked with amazing people and it was such compelling work and mission. For my last seven years I was part of the executive leadership team, the CIA’s top leaders who steer the agency as it carries out its mission.   

That leadership experience really informs what I do now at Pondera International, which is a boutique consulting firm. I’m also a performance advisor for two other companies: Arena Labs, which is building healthcare’s first performance coaching platform and program, and the Liminal Collective, committed to enabling humanity’s boldest endeavors.

MJC: For a time, you led the CIA’s Recruitment Center. Could you tell me about that?

PB: Well, when you think about the CIA’s mission — and I’m just going to boil it down to one sound bite — it’s to give a decision advantage to our nation’s leaders. To ensure the success of that mission, which is worldwide, you need to have a workforce that reflects the world we live in, with all its different perspectives, backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. The Recruitment Center is charged with developing and implementing the recruitment strategies to find, recruit, and hire mission-critical diverse talent that can work in any environment and degree of complexity.

At the CIA, building that workforce is an incredibly difficult job when you think about the requirements involved: U.S. citizenship, extensive security process, and the need to find candidates in states beyond the Eastern U.S., which is more familiar with the CIA than other areas of the country.

Now, the CIA does get tens of thousands of resumes a year, and when a spy movie comes out, we’d see our recruitment go through the roof. But we’re incredibly selective. We hired a minuscule percentage of the resumes we’d receive.

MJC: You mentioned in an earlier conversation that there were four fundamentals you look at to find the right people. Could you talk about those?

PB: Of course. The first one is to be relentlessly curious about the people you hire. That means don’t just accept at face value what you see on their resume — their credentials, their experience, where they went to school, or whatever. Look at the whole person, meaning the talent, the skills, the experiences and choices, and what does that really tell you about them?

Number two, evaluate candidates’ potential to learn and grow. This is something that I don’t often see applied. At the CIA, we actually developed recruitment and success profiles to ensure that we attracted the talent that we needed and that would thrive and succeed in our environment given our mission. It is also a great way to uncover any bias in your processes.

The third one is to assess culture add and value fit. You know, success in any company requires people to be able to work within its culture, which is also any company’s differentiator in the marketplace. At the CIA, you have to be able to put up with the peculiarities of our culture and worldwide service and be inspired by our values. So we look at how candidates’ values align with ours.

The last one is determining our candidates’ intrinsic motivation, that really deep internal motivation that leads to personal fulfillment and satisfaction at work. The candidates that we hire need to be intrinsically motivated by public service and by the mission and by how we need to work to achieve that mission. 

There was a McKinsey study, I think it was back in 2016, where they say that people who were intrinsically motivated by their work had 46% higher job satisfaction and 37% higher productivity. So that’s something we emphasize in our recruitment process.

MJC: Which questions or tactics did you use to determine whether a candidate would enhance the organizational culture?

PB: There’s a lot of debate about culture add. It’s important to really understand what your culture is. What are those values, those attributes, those guiding principles, the compelling ideas that inform your culture, that are most important to your culture and how you work together. 

I don’t think you change culture through hires. You’re looking for people who have congruent values with your culture. If they have values that really fit in with how you work and how you need to work, and they’re excited about your mission, and they’re excited about the guiding principles of the company, those are the people who you want to attract because they’re going to help you shape and grow your culture.

Values-based recruiting is a core part of the CIA’s process, and there is a great blog out there by Erica Hayton there lays this out really well. It is all about ensuring that those values and attributes are present in every stage of the recruitment and hiring process, so that your company is connecting with the right people, and the right people are also seeing how explicitly their values translate into the jobs and the behaviors that are going to be expected of them.

It also gives people a good sense of confidence and comfort that you’re going to have their back and that they’re going to fit in. That will allow them from Day One to be a bit more confident about joining your company and starting to contribute right away. 

MJC: Pivoting to a hot topic, diversity is on everyone’s mind. How did you tackle that?

PB: We were highly entrepreneurial and extremely aggressive in our sourcing pipeline. In fact, we created a sourcing assessment capability at the Recruitment Center to find out where we were going to find the talent — the mission-critical, diverse talent in the United States.

Then how do we go and meet these people and help them understand that they could have this amazing career? We reached out to colleges and universities and diverse professional organizations and heritage-based groups, and we really engaged with them. We wanted people to get to know us a little bit better, to help us understand how we appealed or not, and what issues people may have had with us so that we could address them.

We also did a really deep dive into our analytics and metrics throughout our whole process to ensure we were well-serving that diverse talent throughout the process. We especially needed to understand where that diverse talent was dropping out of the pipeline so we could figure out what we needed to do to fix it. That took interviewing people. It meant looking at every single process — we eventually revised all of our interview questions to be more inclusive. And that was, I think, probably something that made us more accessible and more approachable. 

MJC: Do you have any thoughts about the future of recruiting and how things are going to evolve? 

PB: What the future of recruitment will be, I don’t know. But I want to leave you with three thoughts that need to be part of the thought process.

Always remember that your recruiting process supports your company’s brand in the marketplace. It’s your calling card. So whatever you do or harness, you want to make sure it really does represent the heart of your company. And I say that very deliberately because we tend to intellectualize everything. People are very motivated by emotional decision-making.

Also, remember the candidate experience and your recruiting process are absolutely key, especially with the advent of sites like Glassdoor and other ranking services. They can impact your ability to attract the talent you want. Even if you don’t hire somebody, make sure they have a good experience with you, consider them part of your network going forward, and make it a respectful process all the way through.

Finally, companies spend all this time and effort and money on the recruitment process, and they need to make sure the investment culminates in a very robust, personalized onboarding experience. When new hires walk in the door on Day One, they’re still evaluating you and whether they’re going to stay. So you really want to make sure that you have an onboarding process that makes them welcome, helps them to belong. It helps them to understand exactly what they’re going to be doing and who they’re going to be working with and who’s going to be helping them navigate the company in their first three to four months. I think that’s absolutely core to the success of the recruiting process.  

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