When I was a Special Agent with the FBI, a significant part of my job was devoted to recruiting people who were in a position to provide information related to terrorism within the United States.
You may have heard these people referred to as “informants.” In the FBI, we usually just called them “sources.”
When I first became an Agent, I was, well, pretty lousy when it came to this part of the job. But over time, like most FBI Agents, I learned leadership skills that set me up for success.
Here are 3 strategies you can use to get more out of the people who surround you, whether they are your coworkers, your employees, and even your customers.
1. Take Off Your Mask
People often feel pressured to put on a tough exterior when they find themselves in a position of authority– and it makes a lot of sense why they do it, right? They think that if they don’t, they’ll be perceived as weak, soft or even worse - a pushover. They protect themselves by hiding behind their masks, being careful not to expose their true selves.
When I first started out in the FBI, my mask was as thick as 3-inch reinforced steel. I was hollow and wooden, especially when I was trying to recruit my sources.
Luckily for me, about 6 months into the job, a senior FBI Agent took me under his wing and showed me the first step to develop trust within people: Having the courage to simply be yourself. Since I can’t tell you his real name, let’s just call him “Tony.”
In the office among his fellow FBI Agents, Tony was full of personality and was known as a jokester. But here’s the thing - Tony was the exact same person when he met with his sources. He even told his sources about his family, his interests and his hobbies.
Of course Tony was a professional, but by not being so darn serious all time, his levity helped put his sources at ease and view him as a real person- even though they were dealing with the most serious of issues.
Adopting this same approach, I was amazed at the level of trust I was able to generate with my own sources when I allowed myself to become vulnerable with them. It felt a little weird at first, but the more conscious and deliberate I was with this stuff, the more I could sense that they craved this from me.
As a leader, when you take off your mask and let people in, you give them an amazing gift: The emotional space required for them to trust you.
2. Be Like Schwab
As I was learning how to be a more effective FBI Agent, I dusted off my copy of Dale Carnegie’s time-tested How to Win Friends and Influence People. Since being an FBI Agent was all about dealing with people, I knew I needed to up my game when it came to human relations.
One of the stories that hit home was the story of Charles M. Schwab, who at the age of 39 became the first President of the United States Steel Company. He owed his achievement to his ability to generate enthusiasm within people through simple appreciation and encouragement.
Taking a lesson out of Schwab’s playbook, I was always on the lookout for something to praise with my sources. Any opportunity I had to lift them up with encouragement, I was quick to do it. Whether it was a piece of information they were able to give me (a.k.a. “intel”), or even something great that happened in their day job, I was quick to acknowledge it.
Like Schwab, I was “hearty in my praise and lavish in my approbation.” Not only did I make my sources feel good about themselves, I created a significant amount of buy-in from them, which is vital in the Agent-Source relationship.
How did this create buy-in? By leveraging a universal truth: Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are all at the center of own universe. And for most of us, one of our greatest desires is to be told that what we are doing matters, especially from someone we perceive as being a “leader.” When we hear this type of praise from someone we respect and admire, it strengthens our willingness to go above and beyond for them.
3. Go Beyond the “What”
When it comes to the business of terrorism and national security, seasoned FBI Agents know that you can’t just dive in head first and ask for this stuff from people – especially from people with a sensitive level of access.
Think about the “awesome” deal an FBI Agent is able to propose to a potential source: In exchange for informing on people within their community, in some instances their family and friends, they risk their safety in exchange for a modest amount of compensation and whatever feelings of patriotism that come with it.
So all that said, the relationship between an Agent and a source must be delicately cultivated, often for many months. So well before I asked any questions related to matters of terrorism or national security, I spent a lot of time getting to know my sources – often over the course of several meetings. I learned about their families, where they grew up, their hobbies, their hopes, their dreams, and their worries.
I call this going beyond peoples “what” and tapping into their “who.”
When we take the time to go beyond the surface-level stuff and really get into a person’s world, we fulfill that basic human need: the desire to feel valued and appreciated.
In a time where the word “leader” is being bandied about, I challenge you to incorporate these concepts into your arsenal and earn the right to be called one.