Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.
Ling Guo is a decision support analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of Booz Allen Hamilton.
What led you to pursue a career in intelligence? And what led you to pivot to something else?
I was first introduced to the intelligence analysis career field through a university-government talent pipeline program called the Intelligence Community Centers for Academic Excellence. I was drawn to intelligence by three factors: 1) The idea of becoming a subject matter expert was a tangible and imaginable career to me as a young undergraduate student whose professional experience and knowledge were limited, 2) I saw this as an opportunity to serve and contribute something back to a country that welcomed my family, and 3) I’d read just enough spy novels to be intrigued by the secrecy of the field.
After about 6 years as an intelligence analyst—and during the pandemic when many were reevaluating priorities and careers—I decided to pursue a full-time master’s program abroad to study political sociology. That time and distance from my job gave me the space to reflect on my career path and interests. While I had loved the intelligence profession, I was increasingly recognizing there was much more to learn and explore. By the time I finished my degree, I decided I wanted to learn more about strategic policymaking. I realized that no matter what I pursued, even if it turned out that I hated it and wanted to return to intelligence analysis, it would only help make me a better analyst. That reasoning gave me confidence to make the leap out of my comfort zone.
How has mentorship influenced your career?
Throughout my career, I have benefited from having wonderful and impactful mentors. As a first-generation immigrant, I had countless family role models when it came to building a strong work ethic – but few points of reference when it came to traversing higher education or the white-collar workforce. In university, I sought out mentors by attending professors’ office hours and later, I joined professional mentor programs and requested coffee chats with leaders at my company. Mentoring conversations gave me glimpses of others’ career paths and experiences which often helped me decide in little and significant ways how to navigate professional decisions.
Mentorship has been central to my career. If not for the high school teacher who encouraged me to attend Girls State, I might not have discovered an interest in political science. If not for colleagues who candidly shared their first-time manager missteps, I surely would’ve stumbled into many similar pitfalls—not to say I didn’t make several rookie mistakes as a young leader! Mentorship also continues to help me hone invaluable leadership skills that can’t be learned in a classroom. My mentors often share tips on providing actionable and meaningful feedback as well as personal branding. As a mentor myself, I continue to work on my active listening skills and on how to effectively advocate for others.
What advice do you have for someone who is early in their career?
My advice is to pursue your interests in the near term and pursue your values in the long term. Your interests could be a subject matter you want to study more deeply or a hobby you want to invest more time in. The interests could be a direct result of the professional work you are doing or have done, but they could also have no direct connection. Those interests can be equally worthy of your pursuit if you maintain a curious mind and find a way to make the journey fulfilling in and of itself. Each time I’ve taken on a new role or made a significant career decision, I was driven to do so by a curiosity to learn something new or dig deeper into a topic or skill set. This has led to jobs and fulfillment I couldn’t have planned for if I tried.
Oftentimes, the further out you look in your career, the harder it is to know how your decisions today will define your career later. Pursuing your values is what will help you know you’re on the right path in the long term.
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