Jim Brooks is the CEO of Seerist, an augmented analytics solution for threat and risk intelligence professionals.
I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in nearby Pasadena. My parents purchased our family home the year I was born, and it was where I spent my entire childhood. The safe, quintessentially suburban environment shaped my upbringing.
I attended a small, private Catholic school for my first eight grades, primarily taught by Carmelite nuns. This parochial education provided a clear sense of right and wrong, and the consequences of crossing that line. It laid the foundation for my values, even though I didn't fully appreciate it at the time.
For high school, I spent two years at an all-boys Catholic school led by Franciscans who emphasized charity, benevolence, and selflessness. Although I barely made it through those two years, their teachings left a lasting impression. I finished high school at a public institution.
My dad worked his way up to senior management roles in the Macy’s group. He worked long hours and endured a lot of stress, but he was careful to shield the family from that when he came home. His example instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic and sacrifice but also the criticality of open communication, a trait I knew I had to develop.
As the youngest of three siblings, I had always been fiercely independent and adventurous, probably more than my mom appreciated. The usual path of entering college straight after high school didn’t appeal to me—I had other ideas in mind. Although there was no military tradition in my family, I’d always had a fascination for the armed forces. In seventh grade, I even asked my parents to send me off to a military boarding school.
Approaching high school graduation in 1990, I started researching the various branches in earnest. One day—to my parents’ shock—I brought home a military recruiter who explained what I was going to do.
I knew I wanted to be in an elite military unit so I chose the Navy and a quick-track path to the SEAL program. After eight weeks of boot camp and another six weeks training to be a Quartermaster, I flew to Coronado, California for BUD/S (SEAL training).
My training cohort numbered 130 when we started. Twenty-six weeks later, I was one of 13 who made it through. I had always been a decent athlete, especially running and swimming, but it’s mental strength that’s a far more decisive factor in SEAL training. The instructors relentlessly ratchet up the pressure to identify and push each candidate’s weaknesses. They wanted to see what happens when each candidate is at their breaking point. I learned then that the mind can be a powerful friend or foe.
Resilience—which I came to see as crucial for personal and business success—was simply the ability to accept whatever is happening in the moment and to not lose focus on the bigger picture. Easier said than done when you’re being pushed to your mental and physical limits day in and out over six months.
After BUD/S, I went to parachute jump school, then SEAL Tactical Training before joining my SEAL platoon and ultimately my first overseas deployment.
Most of my six years as an active-duty SEAL were spent on counter-narcotics operations in Latin America. While I worked in almost all countries in Central and South America at one point, I had longer stints in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, deployed from a forward base in Panama. The main goals were to disrupt or shut down the supply of cocaine coming north to the U.S., either directly or through training and equipping other countries’ forces.
We had success in disrupting supplies but it was like whack-a-mole. We’d shut down one lab and another would pop up. The two constants outside our control were the demand in North America and the lack of economic opportunities in South America. Later, as a targeting officer in the CIA, I was able to work on the issue from a more strategic perspective, disrupting the cartels’ leadership, logistics, and financing.
I left the SEALs to attend college at UCLA with a major in International Relations. I was fortunate to join a co-op program at the CIA and started doing targeting work for the agency 6 months into my time at UCLA.
After graduating, I was offered a role as an Operations Officer and went through Clandestine Services Officer training at “The Farm” in Virginia. I worked globally, mostly focused on collecting human intelligence in high-risk locations. My focus shifted from the drug trade to other world events, including the Balkan war, proliferation, and terrorism.
My work in the CIA taught me to step away from my own biases and view the world from different perspectives. I also realized that while individual actions were often decisive for the success of an intelligence operation, that was only enabled by the strength of the teamwork and collaboration behind you. It taught me the importance of creativity and spontaneity in figuring out solutions to challenges that were rarely black and white. These perspectives have been central to the way I approach working in the private sector.
My biggest challenge in making the transition from government to civilian life was the lack of a clear roadmap and resources at the time. My first role after leaving government service was in commercial real estate. I quickly realized it was not for me. The industry was internally very competitive but I felt it lacked teamwork, collaboration, and purpose. I realized that after a decade of mission-driven work in the SEALs and the CIA, I needed to find a similar sense of passion and purpose in the private sector.
I found that sense of purpose in the world of global risk management. I joined Control Risks and helped lead an exciting period of growth over two decades from 100 employees to around 4,000, and an expansion to 36 countries. Once I had found that passion and purpose, I found that all the leadership skills, wisdom, and cultural experiences from my government service became business strengths. The ability to be creative and flex into new challenges was especially valuable in the earlier, more entrepreneurial years. As the business grew, I found my experience helped me build empowered and aligned organizations, develop people to reach their personal best, and foster a collaborative, team-based culture.
Seerist, the company I now lead, was formed last year from a merger of a Control Risks division with Geospark Analytics. We combine in-location human intelligence and vast open datasets with AI models to deliver fast, actionable insights to governments and companies operating across the globe.
I’ve been fortunate to have many great leaders over time who knew when to give advice and when to listen. I’ve probably read about every book on leadership, but I find them more interesting than instructive. It’s hard to teach leadership. I believe it’s something you have to experience—good and bad—to develop your own style.
One piece of advice from a former commanding officer after I got into some trouble during training has always stayed with me. He told me that you need to instill a tolerance for failure in order to constantly learn from mistakes and improve. You can never lose that perspective in leadership. Failure is an important part of the learning cycle and critical for innovation.
As strange as it may sound, my other great teachers in life and business have been my now-adult kids. Through being a father, I learned there are high-pressure times when you need to give close direction but also times when you need to lead by listening generously and embracing different ideas and opinions. You have two ears and one mouth—use them that way.
In business, there’s a tendency over time to resort to managing rather than leading. You have to remember that the latter is empowering, while the former slows organizations down and impedes growth and innovation. You need to be clear on the mission and vision, empower the team to make decisions even with imperfect information, stay curious and never stop learning or you’re going to get left behind in today’s fast-changing world.
Balancing work with family life is very important to me. To be a great professional, I believe you need that support and purpose you get from family—whatever that looks like. I’d like to be remembered as someone who was generous with their time, resources and capabilities. I think the best leaders are player-coaches, always showing up for their own work but also constantly helping others to be better.
Jim Brooks, CEO of Seerist