Stella Rimington, Open Secret reviewed

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A portrait of Stella Rimington wearing green jacket

Stella Rimington was MI5’s first female chief. Brendan Walsh takes a closer look at her bestselling autobiography and unearths valuable lessons for business leaders operating in a new era of transparency…

Dame Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5, knows a thing or two about keeping a ship straight in uncertain times. She is considered the real-life M, the brusque, tight-lipped character who keeps a watchful eye over Ian Fleming’s freewheeling spy James Bond. Whether or not that depiction is true, Rimington’s career in the secret service has shaped the organisation as it is today. Joining in 1969, she rose from junior assistant officer to be the first female ever appointed as director general in 1992. A year later, she was the first MI5 chief to be publicly named.

Open Secret by Stella Rimington

During her career, the end of the Cold War and the miners’ strikes provided a turbulent backdrop for a phase of internal change within the service itself. Rimington oversaw its change to a “modern, accountable and respected organisation, clear about its role and responsibilities, and professionally competent to carry them out with probity, imagination and drive”.

The cover of Open Secret book by Stella RimingtonIt is this period  of change that she details in her autobiography, Open Secret. Since then, she has held board positions in organisations including Marks & Spencer and BG Group, and has become known for her advice on leadership. Bridging the worlds of corporate and public service with ease, her experience managing change in such a large, closed-door organisation has particular value for business leaders today.

Just as business has been thrust into an era of transparency, so too was the secret service, slowly emerging from behind what Rimington describes as the “veil of secrecy”. As DG she implemented a programme of openness, launched controversial projects that involved collaborating more closely with other intelligence services and welcomed legislation that led to the interrogation of secret service files by Whitehall. Crucially, these actions were underpinned by confidence in the quality of work MI5 was doing, “…in the integrity of procedures”. With public trust in business reducing, this is a lesson that leaders should hear loudly and clearly.

In joining the corporate world, Rimington claims she was “very surprised… by the style of some of the men who run British businesses… autocratic and based on a conviction o their own rightness”. Instead, she describes her style as collegiate, based on delegation and encouragement of autonomy within the “talented, enthusiastic teams” around her. But she claims this style “is one that comes more naturally to women, who are more able to look for and create consensus”. She argues that enabling trust between leaders and their teams relies on listening. “There are still too many around who think that in order to lead, it is necessary to know all the answers to all the questions immediately; that listening is a sign of weakness.”

Why diversity matters

With this movement towards collaboration, the service became more diverse. Rimington claims that the recruitment of younger, more open-minded people, the increase in the number of women and the abolition of the taboos on what they could do “led to a greater connection between the service and the outside world and a more open management style”.

She argues that greater diversity and this connection with the outside world not only leads to better culture, it should also improve decision-making. She tells leaders to “try and surround yourself with people whose opinions you value, and who are not exactly like you”.Rimington borrowed strategies from business, paying attention to developing internal culture, improving management styles and, notably, turning MI5 into an organisation savvy in both marketing and PR. Having strong relationships within a company, a diverse and autonomous workforce and a clearly defined mission is the only way to weather a storm – whether a corporate PR disaster or an imminent threat to national security. If a secret service can move towards openness, big business should have nothing to fear.

Brendan Walsh is Executive Vice President and Head of Global Corporate Payments, International.

Related: Women as Leaders 2016 conference

Some of the country’s most inspirational business women will be speaking at the IoD’s Women in Leaders conference in London on 17 June. Hear fascinating stories, learn how to implement lasting changes in your company and leave motivated to accelerate your career. Find out more on the IoD website – click here (opens new window)

About author

Brendan Walsh

Brendan Walsh

Brendan Walsh is Executive Vice President of American Express Global Corporate Payments, Europe, and Chair of American Express's European Governance Board.

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