Succeeding When You’re the ‘Odd Woman Out’

The ten years I served as a counterterrorism official in the CIA kept me on my toes, in an alternate reality, in which manipulation, lies, counterintelligence challenges and personal security threats were all in a day’s work.

Since retiring from government service and becoming an international management consultant, I am still the “odd man out,” working in a predominately male industry in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  In this dog-eat-dog world, I’ve learned how to deal—in my own unique way—with international businessmen, lawyers, government officials, ministers of state, political advisors, and not so long ago, terrorists and insurgents. Operating as a female in this arena gives me the opportunity to challenge the status quo and achieve my objectives in new and incredibly satisfying ways.  Success would never be realized if I tried to follow everyone else’s script, so I had to create my own.  Here’s what I figured out:

Don’t fit in.  I gave up on this early on in my career.  I will never look like, act like, or be like the men around me.  I stand out.  I smile a lot.  I’m super friendly.  My demeanor is warm and welcoming.  (Not exactly the image of a counterterrorism officer or high-powered businessperson dealing with political and security issues.)  Let them wonder about you.  Let the intrigue of your persona propel you into the limelight. When you stand out, you have something going for you that others do not.  When people look at you and wonder, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” you have a distinct advantage in business where a little extra attention is never a bad thing.

Let them misjudge you.  I cannot say this enough:  It is incredibly useful when people underestimate you.  I no longer find this annoying or off-putting.  I hold my cards close until I am ready to reveal my hand.  As Gomer Pyle used to say, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!”  In the high stakes game of intelligence (and as I learned later—business), there is a lot of posturing and game playing.  You don’t always want people to know how smart you are until you’ve collected the intelligence you need to make the sale, land the contract, or seal the deal.  Use their false assumptions about you to turn the tables upside down and win.  Poker, anyone?

Be your beautiful, empathetic self.  It really bugs me when I see successful businesswomen downplaying or denying their use of traditionally female gifts to get ahead in the workplace.  It’s like they are afraid to admit they are women and that they do things differently from men.  Why?  I have always capitalized on my empathetic nature and see it as one of the keys to my success.  Empathy allows you to read other people well and ultimately, connect with them.  I personally feel that this will take you places that a stone-faced and stern demeanor will not.  Women are intuitively gifted in making friends with people of all kinds of backgrounds, which is essential in my line of work where I’ve had to befriend terrorists or work with world leaders who are used to being kissed up to.  Both are surrounded by fakes, kiss-ups, and manipulators, so authenticity catches their eye.

Photo Credit: Transformer18 via Compfight cc

Michele Rigby Assad

After obtaining a masters degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Michele applied—along with hundreds of others from the university--to work for the CIA. After a long and grueling hiring process and a year of intensive training, she became an intelligence officer for the National Clandestine Service, the covert (operational) arm of the Agency. Serving for a decade as a counterterrorism officer, Michele worked in all of the awful places you hope you’ll never visit, including Iraq during the height of the war. To date, Michele has traveled to 45 countries, lived in six of those, and has a lot of crazy stories to tell about life overseas. While working for the CIA, Michele initially decried the traits that made her different from senior male officers, but later realized that these traits were what made her a great intelligence officer (empathy, intuition, strong interpersonal skills). Now she’s on a mission to show women that they have the elements to be a Femme Fatale—the incredibly intelligent and operationally astute woman that gets stuff done. After years of service to her country, Michele has left the undercover life behind and now works as an international management consultant focused on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She has a more “normal” life now and a lot more time to do the things she loves: writing, cooking, traveling for pleasure, walking on the beach—and most of all, inspiring others!

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