Quickness of intellect was at the top of the list for KGB recruiters casting their net in search of suitable candidates for the job of illegal undercover agent. Let us agree that in this context “quickness of intellect” is synonymous with “fast thinker” – not necessarily “smart person”. A person who possesses quickness of intellect will arrive at a decision much faster than average, but there is no guarantee that the decision will be a good one.
Why did the KGB put such a premium on quick decision making? There is a famous quote by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, chief of staff of the Prussian Army in the 19th century and one of the most respected military leaders in history, that says: “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. That goes double for the highly unpredictable world of espionage. Back in Moscow we spent hours and hours developing a detailed plan on how to become a fully functioning, well-integrated member of American society. Because of ignorance, faulty assumptions, and unpredictable reactions by others, that plan was doomed to die a slow yet unavoidable death . In the end, the only real value of the plan was its existence. It gave me the backbone to tackle a task that had a high probability of failure.
Quickness of intellect allowed me to adjust almost instantaneously to situations that were not planned and could not have been foreseen. In one instance it saved me from detection and a very early end to my career as a spy. One of my early tasks was to acquire a genuine American passport in the name of Jack Barsky. One day I made my way, as planned, to the passport office at Rockefeller Center in New York City. After a half-hour wait in line, it was my turn. I handed the official behind the counter the required documentation and an application I had filled out at home. All that was left was pay to the fee and the passport would be on its way, right? Wrong! Instead of walking away with the elation that goes with another task well done, I was faced with one of those unexpected moments on the battlefield. After studying my application, the official turned to me and said: “Mr. Barsky I have some doubt regarding your identity. Please fill out this questionnaire.” Still confident, I took the questionnaire and went to a table near the wall. As soon as I read the first question, a cold chill came over me: “Where did you go to high school?” Busted!? Not quite – my quick reaction saved the day. I walked briskly back to the counter, cut in front of the line and huffed: “I don’t need all this nonsense”. With that I grabbed my application and the documents that were still on the counter and stormed out of the office. This was the only action that prevented an investigation into my persona.
WHEN QUICK THINKING CAN’T SAVE YOU
I eventually resigned from the KGB and embarked on a career in business. Even though I was not aware of it, quickness of intellect followed me wherever I went, and it was both an asset and a liability. The ability to make quick decisions without consulting anybody, including your boss, is critical in a crisis. It so happened that I had the opportunity to put this asset of mine to work more than once.
The biggest challenge presented itself when I was put in charge of an IT infrastructure team of a major healthcare provider. That team supported the backbone of the entire company, and it was falling apart. As I walked onto the floor the first day of my assignment, a top-notch technician handed me his resignation. On day two another resignation followed, and the next day I got another letter. The bloodletting had to stop to avoid major damage to the company. I had to think and act quickly, and so I decided to crash the staff meeting of the Chief Information Officer of a Fortune 100 company. I briefly stated my case and received what I needed, significant leeway in making hiring decisions. The immediate effect was that there were no more resignations. My action had shown the team that I had a passion for this assignment and that I would support them in every way possible. In the long run, I was able to fully rebuild the team and hand my successor a stable high performing infrastructure group.
The downside to quick thinking? It can be hard to cope when things slow down. I had management positions in six companies, but I did not last long past my fourth hiring anniversary in all of them. If there is no fire to put out, no crisis to manage – the pace of the organization becomes excruciatingly slow for my taste. Every major move had to get analyzed and discussed many times before making a decision. More often than not, that decision was to stick with the status quo. My restlessness and search for action became a nuisance to the organization. During my first year, peers and superiors attached the label “breath of fresh air” to me. By year four that fresh air had become a foul odor that had to be eliminated. So, I went on my way in search for another crisis.
Some advice to all, whether quick or slow:
- This applies to life, in general, and not just the workplace: When two walk together, one slow and the other fast, the only way for both to be in harmony is for the fast one to slow down.
- When it comes to communication, quick thinkers MUST NOT jump the gun and give an answer before the slower paced individual is able to finish the entire question. Regardless of whether you are sure you know where the question is going, such behavior is rude and condescending (note to self: pay attention to your own advice).
- Spend some time to reflect and determine whether you are the fast gunslinger or the slow deliberate type. Seek employment and tasks that fit your type best. You will be much more successful, and your career will be much more rewarding.
- If you are a quick thinker and you like a fast pace, consulting (short but important assignments) may be the best way for you to go. Startups are also a good place to consider.
- For folks who like to operate at a slow to moderate pace, long term employment with a sizable and stable company is advisable. Note that some of the largest organization like to call themselves “dynamic”. They really do not know any better. To find out the corporate reality, ask probing questions in the interview, or better yet, talk to somebody on the inside.