MI5 boss talks leadership, change-management and decision-making
Kicking off the opening keynote on the first day of Tech Show London 2023 was former director general of MI5 baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, who quickly put paid to any notions that the security service was full of attractive young people solving impossible problems in the space of a 40 minute TV show.
“It’s not quite like that,” she said to delegates gathered at London’s Excel centre. “MI5 collects intelligence. All it is is information – but it’s information that people don’t want you to get hold of – so they take precautions to prevent you from discovering their plans,” she added
Within MI5 there are around four sources of intelligence: the interception of communications, microphones – placed strategically so you can hear them, following people and watching them, and recruiting human sources who risk their lives to obtain information.
“People like to think that intelligence is clear, it never is,” she said. In recent years, artificial intelligence has been used as a new source of intelligence to analyse data, “but what you’re left with is very rarely a full picture.”
In her time at MI5, Manningham-Buller revealed that she faced uncertainty and ambiguity daily. Uncertainty about the choices that had been made, about where the priorities were. The most difficult decision she added, was the ‘decision’ itself.
“At the time you make them you absolutely know it could be the wrong decision because you don’t have enough information to be completely confident that you’re making the right one”, she said, “and that’s something I’ve had to explain to ministers”.
“You can’t do everything. You cannot follow all the people who cause you concern, you have to decide where you think the priorities are. Too many people think ‘if I get a bit more data it’ll be clearer’, and it isn’t, so the challenge is to navigate, not a shortage of information, but far too much.”
According to the former security chief, this is something that the intelligence agency looks for when it comes to recruitment. She added that it seeks bright, young people with interpersonal skills who would be capable of talking to a terrorist and forming a relationship with them… “but also people who could be comfortable with knowing that there was no possibility of stopping everything done by people who were going to do us harm”.
“There isn’t such a thing in my world as 100% security and therefore you’re looking for people who are prepared to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, and also challenges.”
Managing change, post 9/11
Manningham-Buller took over as head of MI5 a year after 9/11 when four coordinated terrorist attacks were carried out by Islamist extremist group Al-Qaeda on New York’s The One World Trade Centre.
Before 9/11, Manningham-Buller said that Britain and the US had already anticipated the biggest terrorist attack Al-Qaeda had ever mounted, “we had intelligence to say that”. But what they didn’t have was the intelligence to suggest where it would happen and who was going to carry it out.
“And that’s a very common experience. You go to bed, worry about what was going to happen the next day, the next week, the next month, and you’ve done all you can, or you think you’ve done all you can to pre-empt it, and you can’t.”
“I went the next day to America to see our colleagues, which is not a trip I’ll ever forget. Flying up the eastern coast of America with US air force planes on either side of an elderly RAF airliner with smoke coming up from New York.”
Following the global catastrophe that claimed 2,996 lives, it was clear that what MI5 had witnessed was different to anything that Islamist terrorists had done before, and it was time for major change.
“Change can have a bad press for those who are nervous about it, who feel insecure about it, but the most exciting things for me in my career has been instigating radical change in various areas,” she said.
MI5 spent a while deciding what it was going to do to better protect Britain in the years ahead, and Manningham-Buller found that some of the best ideas came from some of the newest recruits.
“I was convinced that it was really important to hear throughout the organisation ideas about what we could do better.”
She also sought external advice, including the public sector, overseas services and among business leaders and the tech communities.
After MI5 had formulated a strategy, Manningham-Buller went to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to ask for a budget increase, and not a small one.
“It’s not thought to be good behaviour as a public servant to ask for double the money,” she said, “you’re meant to ask for 3% or 2%. And he said yes.”
Landing a budget increase was the easy part, she continued, the challenge was to make sure they didn’t end up creating “a second MI5” in the process.
She continued: “We looked at everything: the way we recruited people, trained people, reported intelligence, installed microphones, dealt with data and so on.
“We also asked ourselves ‘is this possibly the best way we can do it?’ And people said, we’ve always done it like this, to which the answer was, ‘that may still be the best way to do it but let’s not presume that, let’s challenge ourselves completely’.”
According to Manningham-Buller, M15 doubled its operations within two to three years “and we didn’t just have a duplicate organisation, we had an organisation doing five times as much, to a higher standard, with double the resources.”
Manningham-Buller added that during the consultation period it was equally important to recognise what advice to ignore – including the words of a senior businessman who told her not to try and change too much at once, as it was likely she would drop the ball.
“It’s precisely when people feel there’s a crisis that they feel under pressure, when they feel that there’s an awful lot going wrong that you need to put right that you can do radical change.”
“My recipe for dealing with challenges like this is to make sure you are maximising the talent of your people and not just listening to senior people, that you learn from other people and keep asking yourself ‘is my interpretation of what’s happening right? Have I got this wrong?’
From Manningham-Buller’s keynote it was clear that, in intelligence, you rarely have all the data to hand and your own judgement and the judgement of your trusted team members is vital, which is perhaps something all leaders can relate to.
“You have a quarter of the jigsaw if you’re lucky, and you have to keep asking ‘is there a completely different interpretation to this?’ And if your staff are encouraged to be flexible and adaptable and critical of themselves and their judgements, and you test those judgements against other people, you can, I think, get through very tough times.”
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