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For nearly twenty years, Mike Baker was a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency before transitioning into the private sector — a move he made far earlier than his then cloak-and-dagger compadres would ever think of making.
“When I said I was going leave, I had many coworkers who were legitimately concerned as to what I was going to do next,” recalls the 61-year-old, UK-born, US-raised security and intelligence expert. “In the old days, you finished after the right amount of years and you retired.”
Baker immediately got a gig at a London-based, fraud-investigation destination and eventually became chairman of the global intelligence firm, Portman Square Group, where he continues to use skills, first learned at Langley, within the high-stakes world of corporate security.
Throughout this private sector push, Baker established himself as a go-to media pundit, Hollywood script adviser, host of the Discovery Channel’s Black Files Declassified and the ongoing object of The Joe Rogan Experience’s affection, (to date, Mike’s made seven appearances on the comedian’s hit podcast).
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All of these adventures compelled the man to write his newly released Scribed audiobook Company Rules: Or Everything I Know About Business I Learned From the CIA. It’s a tremendous lineup of nine CIA-based guidelines that any CEO can, and should, deploy so as to better navigate the bumpy roads within modern-day corporate America.
Expert intel from the intelligence expert in question
Mike is an Idaho-based married father of four, has faced death “a handful of times” while serving his country, speaks four languages, (“French, Greek, Tagalog, plus very little English”) and is alarmingly good-looking. Seriously. The man’s miraculously unmarred moneymaker makes all the 007 hunkies look like a barrel full of probosci monkeys.
Still, I humbly believe Baker’s greatest achievement to be his weekly “Security Blanket” segments on Mornin’!!!, (i.e., the Compound Media show I cohost with former Miss New York and current actress, Joanne Nosuchinsky).
Joanne and I first shared camera time with this in-demand pundit back in 2007, via a late-night cable news show we worked for called Red-Eye. Five minutes into first meeting Mike, the monster promptly, and violently, administered on-air “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a beloved childhood toy of mine. (More on that later.)
This secret agent fan recently interviewed the author-in-question during a boring NFC Championship game and interspersed with a lot of giggles. (Baker remains both a highly trained killer AND a seemingly-high goofball.)
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Per your title, why exactly does the CIA call itself “The Company”? And don’t they call Langley “The Farm” as well?
MIKE BAKER: “The Farm” is a geographical area where our training facility is located, but it’s not headquartered. “The Company” has been around forever and it’s just how we always referred to the place. Now I’m embarrassed I don’t know the root of it.
In the book, you detail the day you finally turn in your CIA badge: A) What do their IDs look like? And C) What happens if you actually lose one?
The badge is for security within Langley and it’s an actual, physical thing. Your face is on it along with some standard markings and your level of access. If you lose it? Okay, fine, we really wish you hadn’t. If it is lost during an overnight encounter with a Lithuanian hooker? Well, that’s another matter and, let’s face it, a bigger mistake.
You’ve said that civilians would be surprised to learn about much of the day-to-day mundaneness that comes with being a spy: Like, say, the overwhelming receipts one has to deal with when filing an expense report…
Don’t fuck up the receipts and don’t fuck up your cash box. You can successfully overthrow a small country, but if you don’t keep your receipts and submit them to accounting? Oooh boy, yeah, it sucks.
Give me an example of how the dictates within Company Rules help private sector gigs?
Know your operating environment has obvious connotations within the CIA while addressing real-life and death concerns. You’ve got to really know the terrain that you’re operating within, which obviously applies in business, as well. These two worlds are really not all that different.
Tell me about the CIA’s “prior planning prevents piss poor performance” mantra.
It’s basically just a colorful way of saying, “do your homework.” You could apply the same advice to anyone running a car dealership or coaching a high school football team. Designing the right plays when you are down by two and there’s very little left on the clock? It’s the same thing and people do it all the time. Some instinctively do it and others do not. When they don’t? It doesn’t work out well. Information gathering, risk mitigating, thinking every scenario through, weighing the options — things rarely work out the way you plan. It’s all about risk versus gain.
You were essentially told by peers that, if you leave, your first day out of the agency will be an agonizing dose of reality, but you woke up, 24-hours after your departure, to a feeling of excitement. Why do you think you reacted that way?
I’ve got a high-risk appetite. A lack of structure doesn’t worry me. Also, I was a single dad and needed to put food on the table. Don’t get me wrong: I was worried and, again, a lot of the folks I worked with were well-meaning. Friends, that I have to this day, were telling me that this was a bad idea. The world of intelligence has grown up a lot. There are far more options [in the private sector].
You also mentioned that the agency posted pay scales on the walls along with the average timeline of various career trajectories: What good comes of that? For you, it sounded like it was a little deflating.
It’s not unique to the agency, the GS Pay Scale covers a broad swath within the government. It’s part and parcel for GS-15. There are steps within all of it — another 7 dollars for this much of work — that kind of thing. I didn’t want to know! There are people there that liked that kind of transparency, but it’s not motivating. I was doing well at the agency, so that was one of the reasons why I wasn’t concerned about leaving. There is a structure in it, but I never found it particularly inspiring.
Your mentor, Michael Comer, literally wrote the book on corporate fraud and was quick to see how your particular set of skills might benefit his own London-based company, Maxima Group …
I had met Comer, who is now sadly deceased, after I left the agency. He was a great guy, could be incredibly irascible but was probably the best fraud investigator that ever lived. I owe him a lot.
Operatives are out of office by job description, but with all the behind-a-desk stuff analysts do, are there now fewer people actually stationed within CIA headquarters than there used to be?
Good question. I understand that the world is changing and the agency wants, and needs, to attract the best and brightest. Whether it’s the financial branch or analysts, they have to adjust. Hires at the CIA now look at it as a career stepping stone, which doesn’t make the latest crop any less capable than we were, it’s just a different climate. Now, there’s a lot of I’ll be here for five years and then see what the private sector is like. I grew up in an environment where you just didn’t leave.
What are your thoughts on remote-work culture, overall, and how does it currently apply to your company?
With the pandemic, a lot of brick-and-mortar companies struggled with remote staff. For us, we already had employees telecommuting and with the economy the way it was, we just wanted to make enough to stay alive and therefore not let anyone go. I don’t want to come off as Mother Theresa, here, but at the time? We did put keeping everyone gainfully employed. We did the right thing.
How big is Portman Square Group?
We’ve got 22 people. It’s not an overly large business, by nature, because of what we do and how we do it. We’ve earned a reputation as one of the best, but we’re also not looking to take over the world.
The usual hires, in an industry like yours, are ex-military or former government intelligence-type folks. What made you want to flip the script and approach candidates like investigative reporters?
Kind of by accident. Due to our lack of money, we couldn’t really hire the former senior deputy of some government organization that you might normally employ in our field. We didn’t have the money, but we were looking for people who were curious, write well and can operate in a variety of environments. That’s what you need in this field. So, yeah, a former investigative journalist was one of our first hires. You CAN teach what we do, but you CAN’T teach “curious”. We quickly learned to go after THAT. People that are curious are who we go after.
What’s it like, within your current industry, dealing with them annoying millennial-type employees?
Oh, I usually ask my daughter any and all millennial questions I have. In our business, which is essentially a consulting firm, you require a lot of generations worth of talent. So you have to adjust. Look, I’m not saying I understand them. In fact, I typically DON’T understand them. But I’ve met so many younger folks that have done amazing things for their country. This isn’t going to shock you, but I’m not the most touchy-feely person in the world. So I tend to ask others to help motivate our younger staff who may be from a generation that is a little bit more sensitive. Bottom line: All humans want to feel valued. So just tell your people that they did a good job when they’ve done a good job.
What are the upsides and downsides of having a Portman Group bureau in Mexico?
It’s a great, fascinating country. Unfortunately, the corruption remains terrible, the cartel remains a huge problem and it can be incredibly frustrating. South America is a very important area, but it requires top-notch security when constantly dealing with organized crime, extortion, hijackings, and the kidnapping of clients. It’s challenging. Wherever security is really needed, we always tend to operate in place.
What was it like to work in the early days of a post-Saddam Iraq?
It was very difficult. In March, as the US military was moving in, there were a variety of opportunities, for a handful of companies, that moved in with them. Most of them were there to support the infrastructure. But immediately, all of them needed security support. By September, it had all gone South. The opposition was organized and our concept went from gathering information to security support. We provided communication and logistics for the clients, then they had the ability to better navigate some truly tricky terrain. I learned some valuable lessons and met some wonderful people as a result of it. That’s when I learned how much the agency’s rules applied to both life and business.
Forty-five-year-old tech mogul Bryan Johnson recently admitted to annually spending $2 million to extend his age. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos…they’re ALL investing in life-prolonging businesses. Because none of them can envision a world without them in it?
Their only vice, while trying to live that healthy, is being a self-absorbed douchebag. Look, I think having kids actually keeps you younger. You’re just constantly keeping up with them and they’re a motivator to try and take care of yourself because you want to stick around, you know? Also, just drink a lot of water, always hydrate. Oh, and you’re not going to like this: Everything in moderation. Whether it’s booze, red meat or whatever you’re on? Just everything in moderation.
Your many Joe Rogan appearances are longer listens than your actual audiobook. Do you know why and how he first developed such a man crush on you?
[Laughs] I do actually think Joe is one of the best interviewers out there. He’s concise, he’s curious.
When I first met you on Red-Eye, you grabbed our mascot/MY-childhood-toy, Clowny, and drowned him under a cup full of H20 so as to demonstrate how waterboarding worked. Do you think the powers that be over at the CIA ever saw that?
[Laughs] God, I hope not. That’s my best answer.
Well, the clip in question seems to have been wiped from the worldwide web, which probably means they saw it and acted accordingly.
[Sighs deeply] Great.
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