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Mar 10, 2021

Ellen McCarthy is a highly accomplished and distinguished executive whose career started as a junior analyst and ended up reaching to the very highest echelons of the US intelligence community. In this OODAcast we explore lessons learned from her journey, capturing insights that can inform actions for those at any stage of a career.

Ellen’s career began at the office of Naval Intelligence. She then moved to Norfolk and the Atlantic Intelligence Center (where we first met). She moved back to DC and would later lead all intelligence activities for the US Coast Guard as their director of intelligence, then joined DoD’s office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence working strategy and human capital management.

Later she led the non profit public private partnership INSA (the intelligence and national security alliance), helping make that organization what it is today.

She returned to government service as chief operating officer of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), then later led the firm Noblis as its president.

Ellen was then appointed the Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR), where she lead an organization famed for the highest quality of analysis in the US IC.

We examine her leadership style, which was informed by exposure to several types of leaders early on in her career. Over time she developed a knack for creating visions that could help others form up on a unified purpose. She also thrived in the domain of executive action, which could come in incredibly handy when appointed to the number three position at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA). We discuss examples of her decision-making and tools any of us can put in place to optimize our perspectives. This includes the strong recommendation to know history. In her case she benefited from a deep dive into the history of one of the great transformational leaders of the intelligence community, Wild Bill Donovan, creator and leader of the Office of Special Services (OSS), a forerunner of the organization she would later lead, the Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research.