Carmen Middleton, former Deputy Executive Director of the CIA, talks diverse recruiting in an increasingly globalized world. Listen in as she tells all — except the top secret stuff.

Behind the Talent logo, featuring Former CIA Director Carmen Middleton.

Listen as former Executive Director of the CIA tells us her top secrets for attracting top secret talent. It was her responsibility to make sure job opportunities were given to America's best and brightest. For an organization as international as the CIA, that meant finding talent who understand complex situations, have the ability to excel under pressure, plus skills to work effectively in languages and cultures around the world. In an increasingly fast-paced, global economy these skills are becoming equally essential in the private sector.

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David Mead: Welcome to Behind The Talent, a podcast from Indeed where we sit down with the people who find the people that drive industries, entertainment and culture. We'll hear how they do it and expand our understanding of what it means to be a recruiter in today's world of work.

I'm David Mead. On today's show, Carmen Middleton. She's recruited a lot of people, some of them for jobs that are top secret. In her 33 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency, she rose to become executive deputy director. That's up there, the fourth highest ranking official. She had lots of assignments from managing operations to directing the response to crises around the world. And it was her responsibility to make sure that job openings were filled with America's best and brightest. People who could be trusted.

We'll talk about all of it, or at least the parts she can.


David: I begin by wondering how people react when she says I work at the CIA.

Carmen Middleton: [laughs] Well, some people would be excited and they'd ask you, well, what can you tell me? What secrets? Have you killed people? Other people, you could tell their eyes went dead. Cause I think the organization has a reputation for good or for bad. And sometimes you could tell people were kind of turned off by it. But I would say in most cases people would say, “Thank you for your service,” and it's quite beautiful and that goes such a long way in encouraging you in the job.

David: I’ve heard that, despite your successful 33-year career in the CIA, you don’t even like spy novels.

Carmen: [laughs]

David: [laughs] You never have. Why is that? What is it about them that just doesn’t do it for you?

Carmen: Well, I’m, you know, everybody has their own flavor of entertainment. I, you know, grew up on the cozy mystery. I love a good Miss Marvel mystery. There seem to be a lot of spy related shows, you know, and movies. You know, certainly after a long day at the office, I don't want to power up a television show that is filmed with a CIA type of set. You know, I want to escape.

David: Is it common among people that are hired at the CIA that they didn't really have much early interest in a career in intelligence and they sort of grew to love it or, or do you find that most people, that's kind of what they're looking for?

Carmen: I think that is probably the most exciting origin story I've ever heard at CIA is asking people, “How did you come on board? How did you do this?” There are people like me who answered an ad. There's a job fair, and CIA just happens to be there next to Booz Allen or Disney and somebody's like, “Yeah, why don't you go up to that CIA,” you know, like on a dare. Or people talk about that and they took away a brochure. They talked to somebody.

You know, others grew up watching spy shows and spy movies and reading, you know, the Bourne Identity and they're like, “I have got to work for CIA.” So it's all over the map and it's so beautiful, because you know, to be able to walk, you know, through those doors and across that floor, it's just, you have to recognize and be appreciative and say, you know, you've got to pinch yourself periodically. Wow.

David: Yeah. For those who maybe weren't looking for a career in intelligence, how did you convince them to come on board?

Carmen: I think we saw a real interesting cohort in the, certainly the post 9/11 environment, where people who had already started their careers, whether it was in the financial world or marketing, they tell these stories about just waking up and feeling like there is something more, and that they wanted to be part of defending the country. All of these folks who we know could make more money in private industry, but I think this is where that very refined articulation of the mission is, you know, works in our favor. You know, when you hear those stories, it's really quite powerful.

David: Is working at the CIA as glamorous as it sounds to the rest of us?

Carmen: No. [laughs]

David: [laughs] Say more about that.

Carmen: It can be glamorous. There are times when, you know, you're going on an overseas assignment or you're in a room with a foreign dignitaries or you’re working through an incredible policy issue and you really do kind of have this out of body experience where you think, “Wow, this is me and I'm here in this moment. And it is incredible.” For the most part though, you know, you're driving in traffic, you're working through an in-box that is just unending and it's hard work, but it is work worth doing.

David: What's the most common question you hear about the CIA?

Carmen: I think it's that glamorous question. [laughs]

David: [laughs]

Carmen: People really do want to know, is it like what they’ve seen on TV? You know, do you have those giant screens? And does everybody dress up in, you know, Armani gear? [laughs]

David: Carmen, there's an aspect of your upbringing that I think is really interesting specifically to me. My dad spoke five or six languages. My mom spoke three and the common language they had among them was French. And so they made it a point to teach the kids French and we spoke French at home. You had a very different experience. Say a little bit more about that.

Carmen: That's a great question and thanks for sharing your own story. So I grew up in Los Angeles, third generation Angeleno, third generation Mexican American. My parents had grown up, born and raised in East Los Angeles, and certainly their experience growing up in the 40s and 50s was really filled with discrimination against Mexicans. And my parents would have said they were Americans.

And so when they started their family, I think they've made a very conscious decision not to speak Spanish in the home or teach the kids Spanish for fear that their children would have a Spanish accent and would suffer from discrimination. And it was really interesting. Fast forward, as I was going through the interviewing process with CIA, I met an older gentleman and when I told him this story, because he had asked if I was a native Spanish speaker and I said, no, I wasn't.

He said, “You know, I had the same experience because I'm the son of German Nationals growing up in the United States.” So he experienced the same kind of post world war II discrimination against German Americans. So it's a common story, but when I run into people like you who've really just kind of flourished with a foreign language, it's just so fabulous.

David: The ironic thing about that whole story is that later on you actually fell in love with Spanish.

Carmen: [laughs]

David: Tell a little bit about how that evolution came about.

Carmen: Yes, so growing up and going to high school, I started to take Spanish language as my foreign language cause our school offered three German, French and Spanish. I thought, well Spanish, I think that's kind of easier. And it was really funny, my first day of Spanish class, my high school Spanish teacher asked all of the kids to come up with their Spanish names, right?

So Rick might be Ricardo, David might go by Dah-beed. And of course I said, well Carmen, I need a Spanish name. So I chose Julia (hoo-lyah).

David: [laughs]

Carmen: When I look back on that, I thought how odd (laugh) that I wouldn't have stuck with Carmen.

David: Yeah, right.

Carmen: And certainly growing up my mom worked in a factory and my dad was a County Surveyor. So really when I looked at role models in high school, they were my teachers. And so my high school Spanish teacher was my role model. At the time she was a single gal and she had an apartment and she had this really cute Karmann Ghia that she drove to school. So I really followed in her footsteps. I fell in love with the language. I went on to apply to one college. That was the college she graduated from UC Santa Barbara and I did a year abroad at the University of Madrid, just like she did.

David: Amazing. And if I understand correctly, you were the first person in your family to pursue higher education and go on to do something like that. What does that mean to you now? Looking back. And what, what has that perhaps inspired in your family since then?

Carmen: I was always a hard worker in school, very diligent. There was always a sense that I was going to go to college. Now that I look back on it, I realized how much sacrifice on my family's part went into that decision and I was able to go away to a four year university, and just had a great college experience. And even doing a year abroad was pretty tremendous, because that is an additional cost. And certainly my first flight — airplane trip — was going to Madrid.

David: Wow.

Carmen: When I look back and think about how my parents just went along with this adventure, they were super supportive even though they probably didn't understand the whole thing.

David: What was your motivation for getting a job in intelligence?

Carmen: Ah. [laughs] My year studying abroad at the University of Madrid really changed me as a person. I experienced as a 20, 21-year-old, this incredible new world of art and culture and foreign language and so many different nationalities than I was used to in California, which was, can be a bit insular at times because people look at that state and they think, well, why would you ever want to leave this state?

David: Right.

Carmen: This is paradise. Returning back to California, I just had this burning desire to pursue a career that had some sort of global footprint or some sort of international perspective. And I didn't know how I was going to do that, but I knew that that was the most important thing about a future career.

David: I mean, that could have taken so many different forms. Like, I mean, it could have been in hospitality or travel or all these things, but the thing that sort of potentially drew you to intelligence was a job ad that you saw in the LA times, Right?

Carmen: Absolutely. What you're exposed to right as a young person is you're formulating your dreams and your aspirations about a future career or future occupation. Really, it depends on what you're exposed to and what's in the art of the possible. I mean, surely I watched a lot of, you know, television and movies, but that didn't seem real to me. And just by happenstance I answered this ad in the LA times, got into the interview process and a year later I'm packing up my bags moving from Los Angeles to Virginia to start my career.

David: And what were your expectations going into that job?

Carmen: I don't know that I had any expectations, David, other than I knew from the interview process that there would be opportunities to live and work overseas, which was really answering that primary objective of mine. I understood that it was in public service in the federal government. My father had served in the Marines during World War II in Saipan and he had worked for the County of Los Angeles. So there was always the sense of service to your community and to your country instilled as a value. So that was really the second pillar. And I think the third pillar for me is that the people I met during that interview process were so incredibly smart and dynamic and traveled and well-read and I just thought, “I want to be part of this club.”

David: Once you actually got the job, was there anything that was wildly different than what you had expected?

Carmen: I would say no because I really didn't have any expectations. I had, you know, my previous job, David, was working at a jewelry store in my local mall. So I knew it wasn't going to be like that. [laughs]

David: [laughs] Safe bet.


Deliberately diverse

David: Carmen, why did the CIA feel so strongly about having a diverse workforce that reflected the American population?

Carmen: The CIA from its inception has valued diversity because it understands that it needs the best talent that this nation has to offer. And it needs officers with a unique skillset to include foreign language, cultural competency, overseas experience, different ways of thinking. So all of these things were really part of the fabric of the organization ever since it was established.

There have been times in its history when courageous CIA officers have stepped forward to say, “Hey, we can do better. We can do more.” And I would say in my understanding of CIA's history, that happened probably as early as 1953, when the new Director Dulles came in and was holding his first all hands or town hall with the employees, and one brave woman raised her hand and asked him what he was going to do about discrimination against women at CIA. And he went on to establish a panel to study this issue. It is fondly known as the Petticoat Panel now.  I don't even know if listeners know what a petticoat is anymore. But in doing my research around workforce issues that flare and that really change the nature of the organization for the better. That was probably the earliest instance of that in 1953.

David: Is there a particular story or example that you can share with me of how diversity helped in a situation at the CIA?

Carmen: The most obvious examples are having native level foreign speakers who are able to go into different environments and draw on not only the language, but that deep cultural understanding of what might be happening and really understanding ground truth, motivations, risk analysis. I mean, that really comes from understanding foreign cultures, having this cultural competency. And so much of that is actually obtained through understanding how a foreign language works.

David: Your focus at the CIA was, was really on recruiting and again, helping the CIA to have a workforce that was representative of the population. As the composition of America's population changed over time, was it challenging to keep up?

Carmen: It's always a struggle to obtain and retain the most diverse workforce that you can in this country. We have some, uh, requirements about US citizenship. We've got the whole security process, et cetera, and we are looking for the best of the best. How do we expose the CIA mission to every corner of this nation? Then how do we attract people to that mission? I do believe that if you take your foot off the accelerator of trying to get greater diversity and trying to really find that talent in the most unlikely places, we're just going to fall back.

And so, for example, my husband went to Georgetown University. He was exposed during his undergrad years to federal service. And when he went to the orientation for  CIA recruitment, he saw so many of his fellow students at the event. And so we're in this kind of Northeast corridor where people know what federal service is all about, they've been taking classes that are taught by former Department of State, CIA, FBI, et cetera.

So many across our nation are going to their colleges and universities and not having that exposure. And it isn't even in there, they're processing or they're thinking about, what could a job look like? I have heard a lot of almost what I would consider hiring biases around certain communities. “Oh, they wouldn't want to leave their families. They wouldn't want to leave their home state or their community.” And I am a great believer that if you really do believe in this mission and talk about this mission and what a career could look like, probably 9 out of 10 might be really convinced that they'll give it a try.

David: You know, we often project these sorts of things upon people. How do organizations do that? And how can organizations protect from doing that?

Carmen: Really understanding your biases ahead of time before you go into interviewing people or outreach to any given cohort is critical. And knowing that that's been said in the past.  You know, disabusing yourself and your recruiting team of, “Hey, we've heard that before. Come on now. Carmen moved from Los Angeles to Virginia, and you know, this is great.” So we do have examples of people who are willing to take on this incredible mission.

David: And conversely, how do you help those who maybe have those biases in their own communities around while we don't do it this way or you know, these are not the jobs that we go for. How can organizations sort of sell their opportunities to those who might not think, “Well, that's for me”?

Carmen: One of the challenges I saw probably in the eighties and the nineties, when the organization was doing outreach to underserved communities. Their mindset for their child who had gone to university or had a college degree was, you know, doctor or lawyer, but government service wasn't really in that mix, right? And then trying to explain what is national security to, um, a family, um, or applicants growing up in Idaho or Montana or Nevada, you know, places where they don't have necessarily day to day contact with the federal government. So talking about the benefits of what that job can bring and why a career in national security really matters.

David: Similarly, then the responsibility perhaps of business is to help people to understand the reason or the meaning or the benefit of coming to work for that organization and what they could perhaps contribute to.

Carmen: Absolutely. I think people are looking for the intangible. “What am I contributing, not only to an organization's bottom line, but also to improving or enhancing the community?” You know, not just their desire for, you know, health care and a good match for their 401k. That's important. Um, but also a sense of contribution and meaning. That's what people are looking for.

David: So obviously there's a draw to the mission. I think when people see national security. It's sort of obvious that like, “Yeah, I want to contribute to that. I know what the mission is in some sense or another. And I feel like that's something that I want to be a part of.” How do you suggest that organizations who either are not that clear on it yet, or maybe you're in an industry where it just isn't that obvious? Retail, manufacturing, whatever it might be, how do they attract people to their organizations?

Carmen: I think passion around whatever your organization's mission is, is paramount. Whether they're in manufacturing or in healthcare or in entertainment. Ultimately they have that “why” of what they're doing. Whatever space you're in, it's paramount to have to understand what your mission is. Be passionate about that and be able to explain that “why” as you're trying to attract talent and really understand what their role is going to contribute to that mission.

I think people can feel that and whether it's working at the mall, at a jewelry store … And, I know that when I started it was a small family jewelry store. It was one couple and two of their cousins who had started this company, and they were very passionate about bringing affordable, beautiful jewelry to people in my suburb. And they really believe that. And they had this training course for their salespeople. I mean, it was the real thing. It was all connected, and I think that was very attractive to me.

David: What do you feel is important in a mission? What do you think it should entail?

Carmen: To be able to articulate why you're doing what you're doing. My mom worked in a factory for example, and she would spool wire, and it sounds kind of soul crushing. But in her company they talked about these sort of spools of wire that go to military aircraft. And so there was this whole link to what was the end product.

And there's also the more, you know, kind of basic need of having, you know, having an occupation, having a job, having stability, being able to have affordable housing and opportunity and being able to, you know, not only realize your dreams or maybe encourage the dreams of the next generation. These are all wrapped up in what it means to have a job and have a career.

David: What particular strategies did you find helpful in kind of reaching every corner of, as you put it, of the country to make sure that people were aware of the opportunities or finding those unlikely candidates?

Carmen: When I first got into joining various recruitment teams, it was about going to college job fairs, and it was about ads in newspapers and maybe some radio ads as well. Representation was really important as well, ensuring that we had people who looked like the communities we were interested in and where we can build some trust. Um, when you have just one type of officer, and everybody else looks like that type of officer. More diverse communities might think, “Well, they don't look like me and maybe, you know, that's not necessarily a place for me.” So really having that foot forward on diverse representation was really important. And certainly I've seen the evolution of how CIA gets the message out. They've been kind of branching out into social media and I think they just in April launched an Instagram account so they can show more about the unclassified locations and the people at CIA in unclassified settings to really get a little bit more flavor because certainly, um, I didn't have the benefit of, of that when I was hiring on.

David: You mentioned some of these perceived obstacles that you run into, which is, you know, Oh, the, this type of person or this demographic may not want to leave their home or their home state or whatever it is. What did you learn at the CIA that might help other organizations adapt to a changing workforce?

Carmen: Diverse workforces will create conflict. And so that in order to harness the best that that diversity can deliver in terms of innovation and deep thinking and creativity, you really have to be able to figure out how to manage that conflict that differences bring. I think we're all comfortable when we all think alike and we've all maybe gone to the same schools or grown up in the same places because we think, “Ah, they have the same values. They think the same way I do. They perceive things the same way I do.” But that isn't necessarily true. And so kind of breaking through those myths and really understanding that conflict, constructive conflict just can deliver so much in terms of productivity.

David: You mention constructive conflict and I have to confess, I am somebody who avoids conflict even when it's constructive.

Carmen: Hello brother, it's nice to meet you.

I totally understand that. You know, being in the room when you're conflict averse and voices are raised and, you know, my natural inclination is to just kind of shut down a little bit.

Like, that's not healthy and that's not what my organization is expecting me to be doing. So just reminding yourself of what the expectations are for you to say, “Listen, my voice matters and I'm going to have to figure out a way to be able to insert that voice.” And sometimes if things are getting too heated, that's a great opportunity for people like us who are so attuned to conflict to be able to raise a hand and say, “Hey, let's just step back and talk about process here and talk about rules of engagement and really create that professional space, and do a reset.” So I think we do bring value even if it's painful for us.

David: [laughs]

Carmen: The second lesson around the changing workforce is that you know, even though the workforce, the composition of your workforce might be changing, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're growing in their skills and their knowledge and their attributes. So you constantly have to be thinking about, “What is it we need today, but also tomorrow and in the next five years?” I mean, there are some occupations out there like social media influencer and all sorts of different jobs that just didn't even exist 10 to 15 years ago. So our organization's thinking strategically and anticipating. “How is my work going to change? How can I stay ahead of the curve and what does my workforce need tomorrow to be able to stay as competitive as possible?”

David: What are some of the challenges or pitfalls that recruiters might run into when hiring for diverse talent?

Carmen: One of the things I started to see is organizations almost doing a shorthand as they translated experiences on a resume and what that meant for matching to the role that they were hiring for. So let me give you an example. “I'm looking for an analyst and so I need somebody who has a good school record. Oh, I have somebody from, you know, this top tier name recognition school, four years, and they've done a study abroad and then they've had this internship overseas.”

And so I've just decoded those experiences to ... They've got these particular skills, critical thinking, good writing, cultural competency. And then I look at somebody else's resume who maybe went to a community college for the first two years and then got their bachelor's degree and doesn't have that academic overseas experience, but maybe went back to their home country or their parents' home country every couple of years, works at the mall, but didn't have an opportunity to do an internship because so many of them are unpaid and maybe it cost you to actually get to that location for your internship or pay for your rent while you were there. And so if I'm using that shorthand, I'm really doing a disservice because those experiences actually may have resulted in the skills, knowledge, and abilities that we're looking for.

David: As a recruiter, you have a lot of applicants, a lot of resumes, a lot of things coming across your desk. And there's a lot of, there are a lot of things to get through. And so there's something to be said for efficiency. There's something, something to be said for perhaps the experience or the bias that you have, but we have to be careful with that and some wondering how do you balance that need to process, you know, 150 applications versus making sure that you're not allowing that, that bias or that initial impression of that resume (or what you're reading) to influence that decision too quickly?

Carmen: I think this is where technology can be our friends as long as we're teasing out those biases in advance, and we're really making sure that we're able to sift through all of the resumes that come into CIA every day, every month, every year, and be able to suss out what it is we're looking for and that we're not relying on, on these kind of interim terms, but we're actually going to those knowledge, skills and abilities.

David: You have a degree in Spanish. Tell me how that was useful in the CIA.

Carmen: [laughs] So I never did use my Spanish in my career.

David: [laughs]

Carmen: I never lived or worked in a Spanish speaking country. However, I do believe that my love for the language, my love for learning about foreign cultures and really understanding how different people think about things and what their value system is and, and how things may be very different than what I'm used to, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad thing. I think all of that came from studying Spanish.

David: What are the most sought after languages in the CIA?

Carmen: There are a number of hard languages that are critical languages that CIA and the federal government continued to look for. Arabic, Chinese, Korean, um, Persian. So all of these languages that are very difficult, um, not only to learn, but also we just don't have as many people as we need.

David: Do you feel like speaking a second language is an advantage in a business context? And are recruiters often looking for bilingual candidates?

Carmen: I think they should be. We're so much more global today, and people in private industry and nonprofits and NGOs, they're just jumping on a plane and heading to all corners of this globe. And having those foreign language skills really does help. So even if you as a recruiter, you don't think this person's going to need this in the job you're hiring them for today, you may be surprised that somewhere along the way it may be necessary or at least a plus. I always think about some officers who were hired, maybe early on like when I was hired on, maybe who had Serbo-Croatian skills back in the day and it wasn't something that they were hired into, they didn't need to use, but in the 90s, all of a sudden it's like, “Wow, who, where are those people?” Somebody raises their hand and you're like, “Come on in. We need you now.”

David: Well and I think you made a great point before, which is when you learn another language, you don't just learn the language, you don't learn just how to communicate in a different tongue. You learn about cultures and other societies and other ways of thinking which can lead to more diversity as well.


Characteristically CIA

David: Let's talk about technology for a minute. Smartphones and mobile technology are having a huge impact on our culture. Did your phone keep you tethered to work at CIA?

Carmen: Absolutely not. [laughs]

David: [laughs]

Carmen: So if you look at the website, I think they have like 10 reasons to come to CIA, and one of them is that you aren't tethered to your phone. Like, when you're off duty, you're off duty because we can't bring our cell phones into the building. 

David: Ah, interesting.

Carmen: And this was always amusing when we would have outside visitors or guest speakers. After about 45 minutes, they just shake a little bit, being a little nervous and start looking in their coat pocket.

David: Yeah.

Carmen: And being untethered was a little unnerving for them. For us, we were used to it. And there is, you know, there are pluses and minuses. Obviously having flexibility, you can't really be working from home, right? Because you're, if you're working on, uh, uh, sensitive information, secret information, you have to be in a certain building, certain location. So you can't be doing that from your kitchen table at home.

David: Yeah.

Carmen: But that said, when you're off, you're off. And what a great blessing in this day and age when people are tethered to their smart devices 24/7, and I think that can be a real grind for people.

David: Do you feel like access to technology is becoming an obstacle to inclusion for some people?

Carmen: Yes and no. I think in terms of the U S workforce, people seem to have access. I have heard a friend in private industry talk about interviewing someone who was in a tent in Africa and she had satellite connectivity. So I think, access to technology, access to global communications is available. It's probably harder for some than others. This is just the way of the world. I think being able to keep up on the technology, keep up on the innovations that are happening at lightspeed, it's difficult, right? You just purchased the new phone and it seems like it's, it's like your car that you drove off the lot. It's already, they're already talking about how it's going to be improved in the next iteration.

David: What can you say about the types of talent or the attributes that you were looking for when you are hiring at the CIA?

Carmen: Obviously we're looking for the best of the best, coupled with — key attributes like integrity and teamwork and independent thinking. Also, an ability to leave your phone in your car [laughs] and be unplugged from, you know, your smart phone or your fitness tracker. I mean these are things that, you know, they may sound funny or amusing, but it's kind of hard when you're out there hiring this generation who have grown up being absolutely plugged in. And that's really not that easy. [laughs]

David: You may not be able to get into a lot of detail, but I'm curious to know: How did you figure out who had those particular traits or characteristics that you were looking for? What methods did you use? What types of things did you employ? Like did you give them homework? Were there certain tests? Were there group interviews, fieldwork assignments? Like what is it that you use to help assess whether or not they had the attributes you were looking for?

Carmen: So I won't go into the details of the assessment or the mechanics of it, but I will say that we were looking for some scenario based responses. At times you might say a what if question, but mostly it's really looking back in their past, which is to say, “Tell us a time when you failed academically, professionally, personally. And what did you learn? What would you do differently if you had an opportunity to go back in time?” So really trying to understand how people think about things, whether they are lifetime learners.

One of the questions I always ask was around team projects in school. “Tell us what your role was in that team project.” So the first answer was people who would always talk about what the team delivered and they never really highlighted what their role in it was.

Other times, I wouldn't hear anything about the team, but just what this person did. And really you just assumed that the team was carried on their backs. But what we were looking for actually is, “Tell us about those team dynamics. Tell us about what you contributed to that team. How did you and your knowledge, skills and abilities actually shape the direction of the deliverable or the outcome?”

David: So you're bringing up an interesting dynamic, which is the juxtaposition beyond the, you know, the checklist of this is the skills and experience and education for example, that you need to have in order to do the job. How do they recognize what are the personal individual attributes or characteristics of the human who's going to be doing that?

Carmen: The partnership between your recruitment shop or your HR shop and the actual hiring manager is critical. As I mentioned before, we talk in shorthand or even code, you know, “I need a team player. I need somebody who can command a room.” And we use these little phrases and I know that means something to the person who said that, but how does that actually translate into something tangible for a recruiter to actually look for and obtain? You know, sometimes I would sit in promotion panels and people would use this short hand and say, “You know, well, we're not gonna promote him at this time because he needs more seasoning.” So this person's a piece of chicken.

David: [laughs]

Carmen: Okay, let's actually use our words and figure out what that means to actually be seasoned. [laughs]

David: Right, understanding that, you know, words like trust and empathy and those kinds of things need more explanation and some more digging so that we truly understand what that means. To me, a lot of these characteristics are sort of table stakes, like you should have that anyway, sort of as a baseline for coming to work at this organization. What other characteristics or things specifically were you looking for and would you recommend organizations look for when it comes to those types of characteristics?

Carmen: I think one of the most critical attributes for long-term career success, not just in CIA, but I think in any organization is being a lifelong learner. I would run into people who were so smart, so fast, you know, they're quick and dynamic. But it was as though they were relying on that and not reflecting on, “Wow, could I have done things differently? Could that have gone a different way?” And really taking those lessons learned and actually converting them into a tool for their toolkit. Or others who were in that comfort zone and maybe staying too long in those comfortable positions and not really themselves.

You know, I wasn't hired in for one job per se, but I was hired in for a career, which meant that I had a lot of different opportunities over the course of that 33 year career. And what are you getting out of each of those assignments? Are you learning? Are you challenging yourself? Are you growing? And are you taking things, maybe even things you don't know that you're not going to use until two or three other jobs down the line?

David: How do you measure what are often called soft skills though so that somebody has trust or compassion or empathy or they're a good leader? Like how do you measure those things?

Carmen: I don't know that you can measure them per se. Certainly in the recruitment and hiring process, you're looking for those cues that people understand that their perspective is not the only perspective, that they understand that when working in a team dynamic that there are pushes and pulls, that there are times when you've got to change up your style for example, in order to engage more effectively with a given team, an ability to almost seamlessly you would hope, kind of enter into different cultures, whether it's a different work culture or a different culture culture — world culture. So these are things that you're looking for–those clues—and trying to craft questions or scenarios around them.

David: How important are soft skills versus the hard skills in your mind? What should that balance be like? And as a recruiter, what are you looking for?

Carmen: I found that early in my career, as just like a junior officer, the hard skills were most important, right? Cause you're still learning the job and you're just kind of putting your head down and you're doing your thing. But as you grow in your career, you start to see that if you can tap those soft skills, you can create more opportunity for yourself.

Is there any one perfect formula for hard and soft skills? I don't think so because at different times the demand may be for different things, but as long as you have access to both, I think you can be so successful in a career.

David: Well said.

A job vs. a career

David: Carmen, you're a great example of the CIA being a career organization. How does this apply to millennials? Because so often we hear, you know, millennials bounce from job to job to job. I have to believe you're hiring just as many millennials as anybody else.

Carmen: We have a very low attrition rate, which was beautiful. We've seen in, certainly the arc in private industry where back in the, you know, 50, 60, 70s, even the 80s where big firms were, you know, were places you went to for a lifetime, right?

David: Right.

Carmen: And you grew with that firm and that's really changed. I would say that government's been a place that hasn't necessarily experienced that transformation for its benefit, right?

David: Is there anything that you did specifically to encourage the younger generation to look at a career at the CIA as a career rather than just a job?

Carmen: I did spend a lot of time, and I still do, talking to young people in their careers, probably at that 5, 9 and 12 year mark where they're feeling like the glamorous wore off. They're trudging across the parking lot every day and they've got, you know, they may have the mortgage now and they're kind of, they're feeling maybe, “Ooh, is this really all there is?” Or you know, “I'm not feeling as inspired as I was.” So I talked to people about peaks and valleys of a career, and I've experienced them too.

But what I learned from time and experience — I wouldn't call it wisdom — is that things change and you change. And if you stick with it, you can have a tremendous, exciting, unimaginable career.

David: What differences do you see in public sector jobs versus private sector jobs? Anything glaring stick out?

Carmen: Now that I sit on a number of boards, there is truly a focus on the bottom line and quarterly reports. I would say that in some areas of private industry, workforce analytics is just so impressive and much further along than what I've seen in the government space.

So data, data analysis, really dig it. But on the workforce side, right? Kind of looking at ourselves and how can we be even better? I do believe that people, young people in particular are looking for something bigger than themselves. And so how a private industry can capture that and compete with other organizations, whether it's in the government, whether it's in the nonprofit space, I think is really kind of the distinct distinguishing mark for companies that can bring people in. That, you know, your work really matters and your work makes a difference.

David: You feel like there's a certain type of person who's just cut out for private sector versus public sector or vice versa?

Carmen: No, I don't think so. I think even private sector jobs demand a lot of sacrifice. I think there's something around people's commitment and valuing that dedication and then celebrating that dedication. It may be missing a child's birthday party because you're working late on a report or it may be going to a dangerous part of the world because you're trying to start a new satellite office or it could be the ultimate sacrifice. So these are things that I think we have to acknowledge and value and recognize and celebrate.

David: Do you see any difference in recruiting?

Carmen: Well, I would say that it's difficult for people coming out of government and, and the military in particular, to translate their knowledge, skills and abilities to the private sector. You know, when you run into that recruiter that can help that candidate navigate that transition, that translation, it's just golden. And so I think that's really one of the most pressing areas that recruiters can help with is that foot in both camps. How do you translate somebody's very different kind of experience when they're trying to navigate a pivot from public to private?

David: I feel like in a lot of industries or sectors like intelligence, sports, medicine, whatever it is,  for a lot of people there's more of a draw to that because it's glamorous or because it's exciting or because you know, whatever reason draws them to it. In a more general sense, how would you recommend that an organization who has a position to fill that's not that glamorous, find the folks that they need for those positions?

Carmen: I was always intrigued when “dot com” emerged. You know, you would watch TV shows or hear stories about companies with, you know, pool tables or ping pong tables and free food and gym memberships and all of us, you know, working level government people are like, “Oh, I work in a windowless room and I don't have a parking spot!”

There were moments, I will admit, a little bit of woe is me, right? But you start to recognize that those things I believe are a bit ephemeral. I think what really matters is what kind of people are you going to be calling colleagues? Who are these people? What are their values? Do they have your back? Whether you're in national security or whether you're in the manufacturing world, you see some of these organizations that have this sense of family almost and this environment that is so dynamically challenging one another and encouraging one another and recognizing that there are times when we've all got up pulled together.

If you can capture those intangibles, they beat the free snacks any day. 

David: Outside of work, we choose to put ourselves in places where we are with other people who we like, who we trust, who we have relationships with, and who we want to be around. And we should have the same thing at work.

Carmen: Exactly.

David: Carmen, how much of talent development do you think is process oriented versus relationship-driven and how do you strike the right balance between the two?

Carmen: It really is both. I think your network, who knows you, who has seen you in action, all of that, those are those human things. That's really important because when it comes to mentors and sponsors and people talking about you when you're not even in the room and what you can bring to a particular challenge or a particular job, that is reliant on those relationships.

But the process piece is also incredibly important. All throughout my career I had mentors and sponsors who were pushing me out of my comfort zone and saying, “You can do that. I know that you only have your bachelor's degree from UC Santa Barbara cause you say that all the time, Carmen. But you can go do that. You can go lead that team, you can go experience that. You can do that.” I remember being very insecure about a job I was going to take outside of my career occupation and I was doing a lot of hand wringing about it. And a colleague of mine pulled me aside and she said, Carmen, even if you're not confident in yourself, they picked you for this job. So be confident in them. And I just thought that was so beautiful and so encouraging.

And I think we have to think about those things as we're pushing and challenging our talent to get out of those comfort zones. And being intentional about that.


A relentless curiosity

David: Those of us who hire, manage and mentor those of diverse backgrounds, we all have certain cultures that we're simply more familiar with. That can sometimes be a challenge because obviously the goal and the intent is to be inclusive of everyone.

Carmen: So we're all human, so we all have commonality and familiarity with one another. I think recruiters in particular need to be relentlessly curious about people. I mean, this is what they do day in and day out and really trying to understand, you know, what is this package? Because every package is unique. And so even if the package doesn't necessarily look like them, that doesn't mean that they're not like them, right? That there aren't more similarities than they would have had anticipated.

David: What's the balance between finding that similarity and at the same time recognizing the distinction and the diversity that is so important in, you know, productivity and solving problems and bringing these different minds together?

Carmen: Because what we don't want is groupthink, right? We're not trying to bring all of this diversity in and having people from all over the nation or all over the world in, into our organizations just to become a cookie cutter of everybody else, right? That's, that's the worst thing that can happen. So how do you continue to value that diversity? Because I think that's where inclusion really comes from is that we value those differences, and we look at those differences and we are, we just marvel at them. We marvel at them.

David: Marveling at people. I love that. What do you want people to know about those who work at the CIA who are in the business of helping to protect their country?

Carmen: I think that they've made this fabulous choice and they could be doing their work. I'm in a different place and potentially making more money and working fewer hours and maybe not incurring the risks that they incur, but they're doing it for you and you’re worth it.


David: When Carmen looks back on her many years of service to our country, I hope she realizes what a big impact she's had. In fact, I wish that for everyone who hires people for a living. 


I'm David Mead. My thanks to Carmen Middleton, now founder and CEO of Common Table Consulting for a fascinating conversation. And thank you for listening. I hope you got some good takeaways.

Subscribe for more episodes of Behind The Talent so you can meet more experts on the changing workplace, including on our next episode, Sayu Bhojwani.

Tease of next episode.

Sayu Bhojwani: The reality is that just under 60% of our country is non-Hispanic white and that those numbers are continuing to decrease, right? And so if you're looking at a workforce that doesn't understand the consumer base, I think then you're talking about an organization that is out of touch with the America of today and the America of tomorrow.

David: Sayu's journey to becoming an American citizen has inspired her to identify and recruit a next generation of leaders, people who chose this country as their home.

Sayu's unique story and perspective on the next Behind The Talent.

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