Only one in 1000 applicants will land an espionage job at the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Meet its reclusive director-general.
Current role: Director-general, Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)
Previous roles: Deputy secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; director, Defence Intelligence Organisation; deputy chief of the Australian Army; Australian commander Middle East
How do you define good leadership?
In an organisation like this, good leadership is sharing success with gusto. And when things go awry, good leaders stump up and take responsibility – in doing so, though, they ask a range of questions and instil a learning ethos inside the organisation. Good leaders are curious about their people and about how to do the work better, more efficiently and more effectively.
At ASIS, where you can’t actually trumpet your success publicly, is it even more important to celebrate it together?
It’s really important and I think we go that extra mile in taking time out to thank people and to commend them for their work. The social part of our work at the end of the week is important. We share stories because once people leave the building, they can’t.
So does this place turn into a party on Friday night?
We have a very active social club. A lot of our people are deployed overseas – we’re an overseas espionage service – and there’s a longstanding tradition that before you head overseas, you let your friends know. So, yes, there’s a very important, enjoyable social dimension to working at ASIS.
Are rituals an essential part of working here?
We’ve had to design our own rituals over time because it’s such a closed organisation. People who work here are attracted to the mission. They’re attracted to the judgements that they have to make – really fine decisions to achieve an outcome – and they drive themselves very hard. There must be balance in the workplace; there has to be time set apart for some fun.
You’ve been in the role for two years. What changes have you made?
Complex, difficult choices are made inside the organisation and we’re spending more time on them. We’re putting a lot of effort into building the data and evidence upon which to make good decisions. This is not a criticism of the past, just a reflection of the fact that we’ve refined structures so the right people have a voice at the table.
How do you approach decision-making when the group is divided?
I’m a general by background. I believe in the mantra that we’re here to defend democracy, not always practise it. On occasion, the leader has to make a choice. Sometimes I make a decision on the spot; sometimes I like to peel it away and think about it. Probably 50 per cent of people are going to be happy [with the decision] and the rest unhappy. That’s just the nature of the business. But indecision has a cost.
What’s been the biggest surprise in the role for you?
The issues are more intense and are of a greater velocity than I appreciated. I think you’ve got to have moral courage, endurance and personal characteristics that allow you to remain level-headed.
What’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to do?
I’ve had to be very strict on some issues and people for the good of the service. I’ve found that difficult. None of us like confronting hard problems; we’d prefer to find other ways around them. But I wouldn’t be fulfilling my responsibilities if I took the easy way out.
In 2013, ASIS had some issues with the conduct of intelligence officers who were said to be abusing alcohol and fraternising with Australian Special Forces troops. Is that the kind of behaviour you’re talking about?
No, no, not that. I’m not in a position to give exact examples but we are undertaking high-risk activities in a very disrupted world. We do so with a government and policy agencies that understandably have a real thirst for the intelligence that we can acquire – and only we can acquire. So in the nature of that business, issues will arise where I find myself in quite a complicated set of circumstances. Decisions have to be made about whether or not we proceed with something or we pull someone out. We’ve got very good people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Sometimes you need that satellite view and a CEO has to say, “It’s time to pull back” or “It’s time to adjust one way or another now.” Sometimes those conversations are not as comfortable as you’d like because people get caught up in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
What sort of person makes a good spy?
Let’s talk about spying in the modern age. There is a range of skills that are required: the ability to use technology – there’s a lot of big data and a lot of techniques that ASIS, MI6 and the CIA use. We need people who have an array of capabilities to gather the information or the intelligence that we seek. But of course, at its heart, it still relies on human-to-human contact, the development of trust. What makes a good human intelligence officer? Someone who is authentic, who has good human skills and is able to convince someone to betray the secrets of their nation for whatever motivates that individual to do so.
I understand that one in 1000 candidates is successful.
That’s true. We set a very high bar. Some other intelligence organisations around the world can adopt a little more risk with their people but because we’re small, we’re reliant on our people being high quality and well suited to the work they’re doing.
How many people work for ASIS?
I’m not able to reveal that to you. I’d be breaking the law if I told you.
Well, I don’t want you to do that. In the recruitment process, how do you ascertain whether someone has the mental strength?
There’s a range of tests we put people through and a number of different conditions that reveal the best and the worst of people. It’s not dissimilar in many ways to what I experienced in the military. In the first 12 months, it’s crucial to expose people to physical and mental pressures and see how well they cope. Unlike the military, my people are going out in very hostile environments, often by themselves, and they’re totally reliant on their wits, their antenna and their judgement. So our training regimen is extremely demanding. In effect, it has to assure us that if our people find themselves in a combative situation and there are fine judgements they need to make when they might be very tired or under pressure, they will cope well.
Has diversity in the ASIS workforce always been central or is that a new initiative?
If you go right back to the start of ASIS in the 1950s, there’s no doubt it was a creature of the military. The organisation had a particular look and feel to it. But that’s not the way we think today. We genuinely seek diversity across gender, race, everything. It makes sense because it makes it harder to identify who an ASIS officer is. We have some people in the organisation who have been very successful in business but then get to their 40s and 50s – both men and women – and go, “Is this it?” We’re very receptive to that because we can use their particular skills, experience and knowledge as the basis upon which we can build a profile for that person and for us in the service.
I understand you track venture capital money to find promising tech startups. Why is that?
We can’t allow ourselves to be flat-footed with technology that could enhance and enrich our operations. Or the flip side of the coin, to miss out on technologies that are emerging and could unravel what we do. There are lots of people trying to compromise our operations and they use technology as one method to do that.
Is ASIS creating technology itself?
If you turn the clock back to the 1950s and ’60s, quite a lot of innovations came from inside government or intelligence organisations. But there’s been recognition over the past 20 or 30 years that real innovation, as a general rule, isn’t formed inside government or agencies. And that’s why, in my view, the better agencies understand what’s going on outside, where technology is heading and how we can adapt it. We look at technologies that are emerging and turn our mind to how they can be adapted to meet our circumstances.
What keeps you awake at night?
We have a global footprint and at times people have to ring me in the middle of the night. I need to make decisions that are sometimes time sensitive. So that literally keeps me awake at night. More broadly, I’m always asking myself the difficult questions: am I doing everything I can? Are my people doing everything possible to help the government, political leaders and policy agencies in Australia understand the challenges they face?
Do you ever feel scared?
No, I don’t.
I’ve lived a different type of fear in my military career. I’ve lived through real dread but I don’t here. I visit our people who are in situations where fear is an issue or their safety is an issue but to a degree, it’s part of the life that I’ve led.
What’s the biggest threat to your operations?
The path that technology is taking us on. Australians, willingly or unwillingly, are consenting to massive commercial organisations learning a huge amount about them, their spending patterns and their interests. That’s the world we’ve moved into. Of course, inside ASIS we think about that very defensively because this trend towards biometrics and loss of privacy is a risk to us.
You’re two years into a five-year contract. Do you think there’s a tenure to this role?
I’m a strong believer that leaders should not stay too long. I think it’s essential that they work conscientiously to leave the place in better shape than when they arrived. They have to define that for themselves. But I think that fresh eyes and developing new ideas is a really important function. I know, in the commercial world, it can often be seen as a strength if CEOs stay for a long time. I see it differently. I see it as my job to prepare for potential successors, a range of individuals to succeed me.
What advice would you give a new CEO?
Listen, be curious, don’t take credit personally and share it with enthusiasm. Make it clear that if something goes wrong you’ll take responsibility but you’ll want to know inside the organisation what happened and do everything in your power, based on the evidence and data, to work out how to not make the same mistake again.
Have you failed often in your career?
I’ve failed on a few occasions and I think I’m better for it. So therein lies the great dilemma. If we all just proceed on this beautiful success story, I don’t know that it makes for the best leaders. I think better leaders have failed at various points in their career and they’ve dusted themselves off and rebounded in a better way.