Each quarter, we feature a past participant of the Rising Leaders program in a section we call "Leaders on the Rise." For this installment, we spoke with Ryan Colley (RL ’20) the purpose-driven, visionary CEO of Colley Intelligence. When you think of an investigator you may picture something out of a Raymond Chandler novel, but after learning about the changing nature and focus of international corporate intelligence, your perception might shift.
What are some of your key takeaways from your experience in the Rising Leaders program?
For me, the Rising Leaders Program was instrumental. I learned how important it is for leaders to understand their leadership style and the effect that it has across the organizations they lead, whether it is identifying more effective strategies to communicate or developing alternative approaches to manage the fallout from difficult conversations. I graduated from the Rising Leaders program with stronger self-understanding and a great network of leaders who have an impact in the Boardroom and the community.
How did you get into the intelligence field?
Intelligence is really in my DNA. In the 1980s my mom was working as a court clerk in Columbus, Ohio. She started working as an investigator, which she did for a few years before launching her own business. She built it organically from $100 out of our house while raising myself and my siblings. She built the business up and expanded to offices in Columbus, Cleveland, New York, and Washington, DC. We also have been serving clients from around the world since its inception.
Like any family business, I never thought that this was what I wanted to do when I was growing up. In 2008, while I was working on Capitol Hill, I was looking to make a transition into the investigative field and searching for an opportunity, I decided to join Colley’s DC-based team to assist on a rather large matter they were working on at the time. In doing so, I realized there are a lot of ways to be an investigator and I sensed the investigative profession was undergoing somewhat of a change from the tv-style gumshoe of cheating spouses and insurance fraud to unearthing a competitive advantage for an investor, preserving digital evidence for trial, or identifying undisclosed allegiances in negotiations. So, I was very interested in that and felt like it was a better fit for me than a badge and a gun. I loved the work so much that I decided to join the firm full time and have since developed and worked my way into the C-Suite.
It is so clear now that this career path was a perfect fit for me. I am excited about waking up in the morning and going to work. I love being able to work with interesting people and navigate complex challenges. I see our impact as we are helping people and companies.
So much has changed about people’s work and lives over the past year. What are some of the most fascinating or exciting aspects of your work lately?
Like everyone, when the pandemic started, we were in shock and our clients were in shock. Because our work isn’t tied to one vertical, sector, or geography, we are very grateful that throughout the pandemic and today, we were able to find this “next normal”. We even have seen some growth and are evolving. For example, in early 2021, we launched a Digital Asset Recovery practice that gives us the ability to trace funds and identify digital assets like Bitcoin or Ether on the blockchain. This helps investors understand someone’s assets before they make an investment, or an adversary better understands the opposition when there are challenges in a relationship or during litigation.
We have also had some notable cases throughout the pandemic. The first case that stands out in my mind is we got a call from a General Counsel for a major US hospital system. They had purchased about $4 million in PPE from a source in Southeast Asia. They were unsure of the source and as it turns out, the group they sourced the supplies from had ties to organized crime and child sex trafficking. Opaque supply-chain issues aren’t new to us, but that is when I knew that working during the pandemic was going to be different.
Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve had a range of interesting projects, some of which have been more traditional pre-investment or dispute work, but maybe involve an emerging industry like cannabis or fintech and have seen an uptick in white-collar defense work defending individuals or companies targeted by regulators or law enforcement. We have worked on several complex, cross-border cases which have involved fraud or damages in the billions-of-dollars and I think that’s what keeps me in the profession, the fact that we have an impact every day, but no day is the same. We stayed busy, learned a lot, and grew collectively and individually throughout the pandemic. Frankly, the last 18 months have been a wild ride.
There can be a lot of confusion amongst executives about web presence and background investigations. How has your industry changed regarding background investigations for organizations or litigation?
The way people can access information has changed drastically since my predecessors and mentors came into the field. Much has changed about the way businesses operate. One common myth or misconception we see a lot in the pre-appointment vetting process for corporate boards, or for executive hires, is that a person’s entire history can be found online or through a database. While these are certainly helpful in identifying an individual, they tell you very little about how they manage difficult conversations, what their views are on a particular issue, or how they manage subordinates. Companies today have too much to lose, with corporate culture issues, financial pressure, and activist bloggers, the reputational cost of a mistaken appointment or poor hire, is too great. Our clients don’t just need a primer on someone’s identity or tenure, they need to understand the circumstances of a departure, previous disputes or conflicts, or learn more about undisclosed allegiances or donations. So in our view, conducting a proper background check on someone is not one source, or even three, and it goes far beyond what is available online.
Depending on the industry, geography, and role, you may have to engage resources that most people don’t even have access to, like the deep web, or industry-specific materials. Our open-source intelligence desk is staffed by analysts who identify, package and preserve social media content. Or they are looking in the deep web to track, trace, and preserve.
What are some of the trends in your field and how do you see those playing out in the services you provide?
We get a lot of relationship understanding and integrity questions from clients. Investors wanting to get to know someone before making an investment, corporations looking to make a key hire, and law firms seeking information on individuals and entities entangled in disputes with their clients. But generally, we are seeing a greater emphasis on proactive compliance, transparency, and accountability.
More broadly, the way we consume, preserve, and share information is so different now, whether it is social media, Reddit, or elsewhere on the web. My predecessors and mentors in the field used to only rely on traditional research. Now we have information on individuals and businesses indexed in a structured way, that helps start an investigation quicker. We have an in-house computer and mobile forensics and mobile practice that can recover or collect and preserve data. Those things are all great resources, but generally, the most valuable (and damaging) information is not in a database somewhere and most mistakes don’t happen because of a computer. So there will always be a place for “boots on the ground” in our field.
What is the one thing we should be thinking about differently now in terms of intelligence than we did a year ago?
We are seeing an uptick in companies looking to protect their brands and focusing on making the right hires the first time. We are seeing a growing need for companies to stay ahead of social and human rights issues as it relates to their operational and strategic decisions. Companies want to ensure that they are sourcing their supplies through partners that have ethical business practices and integrity.
My message to any leader -- whether your team is 50, 500, or 5,000 -- is to trust but verify. The criteria and rigidity in which investors and consumers make decisions have shifted greatly. It’s easier and cheaper to adjust and adapt in advance than it is to react and respond after the fact.
To learn more about Ryan’s work, visit the Colley Intelligence website here.