How To Cultivate an Asset

By Jon F. Merz

In the world of intelligence, relationship building is one of the most critical skills an operative can possess. As a case officer, handler, [insert term here], you cultivate “assets” by first developing a relationship with your target and then gently steering them into the role you would like them to play. Whether you use them to gain access to someone else, get access to information they turn over to you, or a variety of other actions, you cannot simply approach a would-be asset and kick things off by demanding they perform Action A. That’s a bit like approaching a complete stranger and asking them to sleep with you…without any foreplay.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been astounded by the number of messages and emails I’ve gotten from people that I either don’t know, or have had one interaction with, that have basically done exactly that: the message opens with someone like this: “Hi Jon, I need such-and-such, so can you do that for me?” The amusing thing about these messages is that, with the exception of one, they have all come from people who study Ninjutsu – itself an espionage-oriented martial art. And yet they have clearly NOT taken the time to understand the first thing about cultivating an asset or building an intelligence network. (Such terms might seem a bit unusual if you’re not in the intelligence community, but think about your own life and your own path to success: you have certain networks around you – especially with social media being what it is. You are, in effect, running your own intelligence network – even if you happen to call it something else.)

So, let’s look at what you need to do to create a relationship and then cultivate that person as an asset.

Here’s the golden rule: don’t ask for something right away. In fact, don’t ask for something until you’ve given something of worth yourself. You certainly wouldn’t walk up to someone on the street and say, “Hey you, go steal the cash register out of that convenience store for me.” (Side note: well, you *could* but you would have to possess an enormous amount of leverage in order to convince them. That’s a subject for another post.) One of the emails I got last week did pretty much that: “Hey I notice you’re using [redacted] so how about telling me how to use it so I can profit from it as well?”

When you approach someone for the first time, you have to be open and honest (or at least give the appearance of being that). If they see you coming with an agenda, they’ll be harder to cultivate. A casual, friendly initial contact is always best – and always approach with a smile. It’s disarming. An email can serve the same function. “Hi, I noticed we have a few friends in common in our networks.” (Friends in common is an good icebreaker and gives you a bit of credence, even superficially.)

Before you make your approach, find out a little bit more about your target. Never go in cold if you can possibly avoid it. Research them. Look at Facebook, Linked In, etc. and build a picture of their life. Then try to find common ground that will help you build a bridge to them. The goal is to make them receptive to your initial contact. If you get the initial contact out of the way, then you can offer something they might find valuable. “Hey, just saw this article and since you’re in IT, I thought you might like it. Hope you’re having a great day!” That’s it.

Once you start a back-and-forth, you can work on expanding the relationship. Ask questions about what they’re working on, how their family is doing, that sort of thing. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, so it’s just a matter of expressing interest with as much sincerity as you can muster to make them feel worthwhile. If you see a Facebook status update that you can comment on without looking like you’re up to something, then by all means do so. Maybe even drop them a message. Have they lost a pet recently? Express sympathy for their loss. Have they gotten promoted? Send them a congratulations. Keep the number of contacts to a minimum – no more than one or two per week. You don’t want to come across as pushy or annoying.

You’ll notice that nowhere in these first steps of building a relationship have I suggested you demand or ask for something. Aside from asking them to connect, you’ve done nothing that takes away from them. All you’ve done is give. You’ve provided them with value. You’ve given them the control, but it’s an illusion of control. Because when you’re cultivating an asset, one of the key ways to bring them to where you need them is to produce a sense of obligation. If they feel like you’ve been such a great friend, then they’ll be more willing (in some cases) to actually want to give you something in return. Most normal people don’t expect their friendships to be one-way streets. That’s exactly what you want them to feel – that it has been to-date, and when you finally ask for something, they’ll be all too willing to provide it.

Bear in mind, this doesn’t work for everyone. Motivations differ from person to person. But it is one technique that works well.

When it comes time to ask for something, do so in a soft-sell manner. Don’t demand. “Well, I’ve given you this-and-this, so give me this.” That’s a turn-off. Craft a nice, complimentary approach that enables you to work in your request without seeming too focused on it. Embed the request rather than focus on it. Bracket it amid other statements, but nothing too distracting. You still want them to see the request. So make sure you don’t ask too many questions in the email or else you’re likely to get everything else answered except what you asked for.

Once you get your first bit of information, you must make sure that you continue the two-way street approach. Don’t keep making demands without giving back. Relationships work in the intelligence community because of this back-and-forth. Usually, it’s a simple arrangement. The asset supplies information and you supply the cash, security, etc. It’s an even exchange. Outside the IC, you have to form a similar relationship. So always be looking to extend value into the relationship. The more demanding the request, the more value you must provide in return. The ratio depends on the target; some people are more giving than others. Some people will be reluctant to part with any information, in which case, you have to reconsider your approach and method of coercion.

I’ve seen three terrible examples of relationship building in recent days: all of them asked me to do something that would have taken time and potentially cost me money. All three requests came with no real relationship in place prior to the demand. In one case, the emailer asked me to give up names of contacts that I have in the film/TV business – information that has taken me years and cost me money to develop. And this was done after a throwaway line about me being successful selling ebooks on Amazon. No real effort put into the email; no effort made at building a relationship or offering anything of value. You can guess what I did with that email.

The Flip Side: Depending on your circumstances and goals, you might actually invert the tactics outlined in this post in order to get something. Take the example I just outlined in the preceding paragraph. If it turned out that the person who emailed me was someone I needed information from, had something of value to offer in return, etc., then I could very easily offer up that information he wanted and immediately get that person indebted to me – which I would then use to extract what I wanted. This works primarily by putting yourself out there as “bait” that people want to be associated with. So, if you are successful and people know that, they may want to connect with you. It’s the inverse of the relationship you’ve been building over the course of this post.

Take the time to build relationships the proper way and you’ll have a pool of people only too willing to aid you as you pursue your goals. Treat your relationships – your “assets” – like plants. They need water, sunshine, fod, love, and caring in order to flourish. Skimp on those things and they’ll wither and die. You won’t have a network and you won’t be successful.

PS: Remember: this is just ONE way to cultivate an asset. There are many others.

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