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Former head of MI5 shares her thoughts on being effective in a changing world

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Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of Britain’s Security Service, MI5, gave the opening keynote at the APM Conference in London and shared her thoughts on how to adapt, work smarter and perform in an era of change.

Setting the scene for her presentation early on – and in an amusing fashion, Eliza quickly dispelled any myths about her role being similar to those acted out across the James Bond, Spooks and The Bodyguard television series. She also indicated that no one drives an Aston Martin on MI5 budgets and revealed that most of their staff use Boris bikes instead! 

She went on to talk through her role at MI5 (2002-2007) which covered a period of substantial change in the wake of 9/11 and the threat from Al-Qaeda. During her time at the helm, MI5 doubled in size, opened eight new offices and altered its approach to the professional development of staff with the establishment of a training academy.

Eliza explained how they adapted to new approaches quickly whilst under enormous pressure and implemented a complete rethink about how they recruited staff, ran operations and reported – challenging everything to see what could be improved. Following reviews and plans, Eliza secured double the agencies funding budget in order to protect the UK.

Leading changes by involving the whole organisation Eliza flagged that the best ideas often come from lower down the ladder – from people who are more willing to challenge the norm and ask the why/how questions. She went on to talk about how the approaches she took were perceived and how she project managed the growth – delivering actions within a specified timeframe.

5 key takeaways from Eliza’s presentation:

  1. Learn to manage and mitigate risk – it is essential but also dangerous. Recognise that very often threats that materialise are often never on your agenda and can’t be accounted or planned for. There will be times of reasonable failure.
  2. Humour is important – don’t take yourself too seriously; having humility is really important.
  3. Encourage diversity – make sure your team consists of people with different strengths and when appropriate bring in outside experts to challenge what you’re doing to bring fresh perspective and new skills in.
  4. Leadership needn’t be lonely – it only happens if you put yourself on a pedestal. Even at the top, you don’t know all the answers, but colleagues will help you. How you behave with your colleagues is also critical. You have a responsibility to look after them and give praise and thank them for good work and contribution.
  5. Always challenge the norm and question why things are done a certain way. But a word to the wise, don’t try to change everything at the same time – you’ll drop the ball.

Eliza concluded the session with some further sound advice about listening, assessing and judging intelligence, which can often be incomplete. She cautioned that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have a complete picture so the need to work collaboratively is crucial. She added that it would be foolish to think that you’ll never make a mistake – and talked about critical reviews being important.

Above all she advised attendees to apply key learnings and to remember that we’re all human and are not infallible, concluding that owning up to mistakes is healthy.   


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