Former CIA Operative Mike Baker On How To Succeed In Business Without Really Spying
The Discovery Channel host and frequent “Joe Rogan Experience” guest shares insights from his new book, “Company Rules.”
After nearly two decades as a covert field operations officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Baker (which, come to think of it, sounds too pedestrian to be his REAL name), abruptly transitioned into the private sector. First at Maxima, which was then one of London’s premiere fraud-investigation destinations. From there Baker became chairman of the global intelligence firm, Portman Square Group, where he continues to use skills, first learned as a spy, within the high-stakes world of corporate espionage.
Along the way, Baker became a prolific national security pundit, an in-demand Hollywood script adviser and currently hosts the Discovery Channel’s Black Files Declassified. All of which compelled Baker to jot down his journey via the new audiobook, Company Rules: Or Everything I Know About Business I Learned From the CIA.
With all the blunt-force-trauma Baker’s just-the-facts-ma’am title would suggest, this Idaho-based, father-of-four reveals nine make-or-break tactics that he mastered during his time at Langley, resulting in the kind of advice that will make sense to most readers, while leaving them wondering why EVERY company doesn’t deploy these directives. Yet your humble reporter still believes Baker’s greatest career accomplishment is his weekly “Security Blanket” segment on Compound Media’s Mornin’!!!, which I cohost with Joanne Nosuchinsky.
Here are some top-secret highlights from my recent chat with Baker about Company Rules.
The book begins and ends with a young Mike Baker in a non-descript CIA building, learning about the agency’s history as well as receiving prime directives that became the overall outline for your book. You describe yourself, plus the other rookies in that room, as being self-important and a little obnoxious…
The agency tends to hire same types with mostly the same skillsets. I’m sure the type of personalities, with each new crop of recent hires, is the same: arrogant, obnoxious, etc. We all had lots of language capabilities, self-confidence, discipline, honesty and were naturally curious about the world. Those traits you want.
How many languages do you speak?
I guess four: French, Greek, Tagalog—which is an indigenous Filipino dialect—and very little English. There is a certain aptitude that many in the CIA have for that sort of thing. I still look for that trait now, considering what I do in the private sector. One woman at the Portman Square Group speaks seven languages.
How about skills at just various types of English accents? Is that a plus?
It doesn’t hurt to be good at that while being an operating alias in a different country. It’s never along the lines of shows like 24 or Alias. A louder cover is never a better cover. The point is to blend in and be non-descript.
I’m reminded of Michael Fassbender’s Inglourious Basterds character who, after speaking perfect German as an undercover Allie pretending to be a Nazi officer, makes the fatal mistake of using his hand to ask for THREE drinks, in a gesture that only a Brit would use…
Oh, I have seen people make—or maybe “perform” is a better word—huge mistakes that I won’t talk about. It is why we spend so much time learning the culture, people, surroundings, etc.
It’s such a badass line, when Fassbender knows the jig is up: “Well if this is it, old boy? [lights cigarette] I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking The King’s…”
And now we’re actually back to calling it “The King’s English” rather than “The Queen’s”.
RIP, Elizabeth. How many times did you feel as if it you were about to punch your last ticket in either the agency or even doing what you do now?
There have been a handful. It provides prospective. If you go through life constantly concerned? You are not living a very full, or entertaining, life. Others may think different, of course.
Give me the crux of Company Rules.
The spy world is not all Jack Bauer, with shit blowing up all the time. If it is? You’re doing it wrong. But the world of business turned out to be remarkably similar in the sense that whomever has the best intelligence, or the best information, typically wins.
Who’s your competition? What’s the playing field look like wherever you’re operating? Know the motivations of your staff, your investors, etc. When was the last time you had a 360 with your employees and hear how they’re feeling? I’m not talking about a circle jerk, here. But be aware of their motivations, as well.
The chapter on admitting your own errors really hit home. In the CIA, mistakes lead to deaths. Why is it so hard for people, in other professions, to admit when they’ve miscalculated?
The human instinct is to NOT do that. We think survival means covering up our mistakes. But that old cliché is true: The cover up is worse than the crime. That’s a recipe for a real disaster and critically important to avoid. Military intelligence can be highly sensitive. A mistake made back at the agency could mean a rocket up my ass, somewhere abroad.
We’ve investigated a lot of frauds over the years and mostly the individual wasn’t initially being nefarious. He or she made a mistake, but THEN they tried to cover it up. At that point, it goes south. Quickly. If you have the right management, that doesn’t kick someone’s ass just because they made an error, a lot of really bad things can be avoided.
It’s the same with raising kids. If one of them tokes on a spliff, or whatever the youth is calling it these days, are you going to immediately kick the kid’s ass? No. We make it a teachable moment. Now that’s not saying parents should accept poor behavior, but how you respond to simple mistakes can make all the difference.
You’re on The Joe Rogan Experience A LOT. The most recent January episode felt longer than your audio book. Do you ever get hoarse during those marathon interviews?
Nah, it’s very low key. You’re just sitting there chatting. It’s not like you’re Hugo Chavez, banging on for an hour or two, in front of a military that’s not interested…With Rogan it’s really just like hanging out in a bar with a buddy.
Rogan didn’t understand your Hercule Poirot reference. Do you read a lot of Agatha Christie?
I do. With my dual citizenship, I’ve always wanted to retire within a small cottage at a local village NEAR London, but definitely not IN London. I like the idea of solving murders, surrounded by an idyllic English countryside and taking it WAY too seriously.
There is also a prolonged scene where Rogan gives you an ornate lighter with which to ignite your expensive cigar and you really just shit the bed while trying to make it all work…
It was a very, very complicated cigar lighter. I think it’s, like, a hundred-thousand-dollar lighter. I may have that number wrong, but all I know is there were a bunch of moving parts, unlike my simple Zippos. At the time, I believe I described it as like watching a “monkey try to fuck a football”. Joe said something like, “my God, this is embarrassing…”. Well, I told HIM that I’m too old to be embarrassed by anything, anymore.
I’ve never actually asked why you left the CIA.
Oh, that was simple enough: I was a newly single dad and needed to be home. What I was doing didn’t really lend itself to being home a whole helluva lot. As it turns out? That’s what kids really want. I could’ve been doing ANY profession and she wouldn’t have cared. They just want you home, sitting on the floor and playing Legos with them.
I assume the money issue, or lack thereof, must have been a factor, as well?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as materialistic as they come, but it wasn’t “the money issue”, initially. There was an element of wanting to do something else and wanting to see if I could succeed. Once you have a kid, while doing that job, it changes your perspective. So it was that, along with taking, what limited skills I had, to try and do something else. So thank God it all worked out.
In the book, you detail how going through a target’s garbage often reaped huge rewards when it came to your post-CIA career.
As you can imagine people threw all sorts of stuff out in these businesses we had to investigate. There was one company that apparently had flushing issues, so there was a lot of used toilet paper in garbage. You know what you can and can’t do, from a legal standpoint.
We knew that this particular target did not have a good cross-cut with their standard issue paper shredders. Meaning, a lot of sensitive material could be reassembled . Did we have to go through a lot of bad stuff to get to what we needed?
For sure, but we found litigation and meeting agendas that were very detailed while not properly destroyed. I’ve never been one to mystify what we do. There’s very little smoke and mirrors. We’re providing information and we have to get as creative as possible, while not doing anything stupid or illegal. If that means rummaging through trash bins? So be it.
I’m probably butchering the line in the book, but fake business cards used to be an invaluable tool for you back in the day. They were like “paper bullets”?
Yeah, you are absolutely butchered the line. Back in the day the [fake] business cards we had, made from good stock, where you can actually feel the weight of them, really helped. This was before you could quickly Google whether or not a person was full of shit. They were gold. Everyone can search engine someone’s background now.
In the nineties? It was still not a thing, which made it a lot easier for us to maintain a façade. You come up with a fake business, say “ABC Widgets”, then we’d go straight at it via a lot of backstopping tools like making a fake post office box while creating a website. Now you have legitimacy to work off of and it was honestly part of the fun.
Operating as an alias requires a certain amount of acting skills. Per the silly scenes that you, (as a disgruntled CIA vet) and my cohost, (playing a new recruit/earnest former improv theater nerd), table read during your weekly segment, showed me that you’re really pretty good at it. You’re great at playing “exasperated”. How does acting apply in all lines of work?
Sadly for you, it helps if you first actually like people. You have to find humans intriguing enough in order to get into their shoes, so to speak. Acting, in the agency, is another important tool in the kit bag. As it applies to business overall: You have to be able to put people at ease. There is no heavier lift than to try and convince someone that you’re something you are not.
Have your years having to deal with being strapped up to a polygraph, at the CIA, during regular progress reports, given you the ability to be a human lie detector?
Unfortunately, there’s really no such thing. It’s still hard to read an actual psychopath. They give you nothing good to pick up on. But if you spend a lot of time reading people, who may be involved in illegal or questionable activity?
Certain behaviors fit a certain mold. Verbal cues can be pseudo-science while people can, and do, beat the poly. But look for inconsistencies in what they’re saying, because most people have the tendency to pile on more complicated lies onto what was, initially, a simple lie.
People tend not to be good listeners and spend most of their time thinking about what clever thing they’re going to say next, rather than actually listening.
Who is your favorite Bond girl?
Oh God, who was the one in Octopussy? Actually, you know what? Moneypenny! I’m not kidding. She was cerebral, loyal and you could tell something a little crazy was going on underneath the surface. In a good way.
Favorite Bourne movie?
Probably the first one, The Bourne Identity. Matt Damon was really great in that franchise. Loved all of them.
Most accurate movie about the CIA?
None! Actually, speaking of Matt Damon, The Good Shepherd handled the period right and illustrated the fact that so many difficulties the agency faced were more cerebral than anything else. Although the movie, itself, was almost too cerebral.
And least accurate movie?
Does JFK count?