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Former CIA Officer Reveals How to Get Ahead of Your Competition Ethical ways find out what your competitors don't want you to know.

By Stephanie Vozza

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To get ahead in business, entrepreneurs need a competitive advantage. Former CIA undercover officer J.C. Carleson says the key to getting ahead of your competition is thinking like a spy.

"Small-business owners can learn a lot from the world of espionage," says Carleson, who spent eight years with the CIA. She was surprised to discover that her undercover life had taught her more valuable, business-applicable skills than all of her previous corporate positions.

She put those revelations in her book, Work Like a Spy (Portfolio/Penguin, 2013), where she shares what she learned while traveling the globe in search of inside information.

Carleson says helpful information is all around you if you pay attention to it. Here are three tips from her experience to help you gain the advantage over your competitors. And don't worry, according to Carleson all of these methods are completely legal.

1. Study how the competition operates.
Although there are plenty of techniques and strategies in business, Carleson says most companies have standard modes of operation.

"Companies are often predictable," she says. "For example, they might always compete with price or quality." To find out what your competition is up to, get involved in your industry's community.

"Have an ear to ground," she says. "Attend awards dinners. Listen to the gossip; it often has a lot of merit. When you know your competition's strengths and weaknesses, you can beat or counter their offers."

Related: How to Outwit Your Competition

2. Notice when there's a leadership change.
Carleson says if your competitors recently hired new leadership, it's time for you to make a move. Whenever there is a major personnel change, there will always be vulnerability, she says.

"For every job that is filled, there is someone else who wanted it. This is the time when work can be disrupted," she says. "It's time to get aggressive in your own approach, because your competition is in transition and cannot act as quickly." Take advantage of the fall out, and approach new clients.

3. Build alliances.
Building relationships is part of business, says Carleson, but most business owners view this task as part of marketing and sales. She advises that you sould consider the intelligence value of relationships with suppliers, consultants, legal and financial representatives and any other organization that your company regularly comes into contact with.

"At a certain level within every industry, it becomes a very small world. Your vendor may have once worked with your rival's new CEO. The type of information that can be learned through industry alliances can provide a genuine business advantage," she says.

Related: Dominate Your Industry: How to Become the Best in Your Field

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer who has written about business, real estate and lifestyle for more than 20 years.

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