Apr 18, 2024 Nurole logo
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Sir Richard Dearlove, former Mi6 Chief - Intelligence: managing information, experts and the court of public opinion in the boardroom

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Sir Richard on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

Sir Richard Dearlove KCMG OBE is a former Mi6 Chief, Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, Advisory Board member at American International Group, and Chair at Ascot Underwriting, to name a few. In this conversation with Nurole CEO Oliver Cummings, Sir Richard covers:

  • How do you make sure you are receiving accurate information from execs? (1:41)
  • What lessons did you learn from the implosion of AIG? (4:16)
  • What are the most valuable lessons you can offer someone on a government board, based on your experience working with politicians? (7:40)
  • How can board members manage the court of public opinion? (11:30)
  • How can we make more room for risk-taking and mistakes? (13:17)
  • How have your best board members offered you support? (15:58)
  • What have you learned about getting your point across in the boardroom? (17:36)
  • How do you balance expertise with common sense? (19:10)
  • How do you assess risk, especially geopolitical? (24:36)
  • What do boards need to be thinking about when it comes to China and Russia? (29:20)
  • What lessons have you learned about crisis management? (33:40)
  • And ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡ (35:46) 

*This is an AI-generated transcript and contains inaccuracies*

Oliver Cummings: Sir Richard, a huge welcome and thank you so much for joining us today. 

Pleasure to be with you, Oliver, and I'm privileged to be asked 

one of the challenges I found as a board member is you don't always get the information presented to you in the way that at least I logically would want to see it and often when you try to ask for it in a different way, organizations often struggle for one reason or another.

The FD doesn't want to do it in that way. The CEO doesn't want to do it in that way. They run their business in a different way. And so sometimes [00:02:00] it can actually be quite difficult, even as someone who's quite literate. in the financials to really get your head around that. And it's very easy to be lulled into a sort of a state of blindness. What do you do to avoid that? 

Richard Dearlove: Well, basically talk to the key people in the company. Try to get a clear understanding from them of what their interpretation of the figures is. Plus, at least, Reading, okay, I'm not skilled at doing it, looking at the balance sheets quite carefully and looking at financial projections.

Look, I was on the advisory board of AIG when Henry Kissinger chaired it, and after Hank Greenberg had just retired, and Martin Sullivan was the CEO of AIG in the United States, and I remember very clearly the board, And it was a meeting between the advisory board and the main board of AIG, OK I'm on the advisory board, when Martin gets up at a dinner in New York and says to the assembled forces that AIG [00:03:00] has the first trillion, trillion dollar balance sheet.

ever in its existence. I've still got the printed copy of the AIG financial statements published for that board meeting, which I've kept as a souvenir. That was eight weeks before AIG went belly up. And if you look at the accounts, there's not one thing in the accounts tells you the company is sitting on the edge of a financial cliff.

Okay. That's an extreme example. And it was all to do with. This trading organization that AIG had set up in London, in which the company apparently had no control. It's a fantastic story in terms of portraying how ridiculous a situation can become without the board having any clue. Okay, I mean, since then, I've just tried to make sure that, but it's very difficult to do.

There isn't something in any company I've been involved with. But one doesn't at least have some sense [00:04:00] of where the risks financially might lie. And okay, if you're not in a trading organization in your university, it's quite basic and the accounts are much easier to understand. But there is a huge lesson there for someone who is not super literate financially, 

Oliver Cummings: as 

Richard Dearlove: I, 

Oliver Cummings: I'm not.

Well, what is the lesson? I think that's an amazing example and terrifying every sort of non execs nightmare. I think about this a lot now as an operator, having formerly been an investor, I'm constantly trying to triangulate the health of the business. And I'm able to look at the cash flows. I have access to any information I want, but it's always a sort of triangulation of different things.

And obviously. The scale that we're doing that on is completely different to the scale of something like AIG. How, with the benefit of hindsight, was there anything that those board members could have done to identify an issue like that? When, as you say, there was nothing there in the financials presented to them that on the surface of it said, by the way, in eight weeks you're going to explode.

Perhaps having, if you'd been [00:05:00] doing some scuttlebutt and spending time on the floor. You might've sniffed it out, but in reality, if someone really wants to hide this stuff, they're going to do it. Like what did you take away from that as a lesson that someone listening going, gosh, what should I be doing to minimize the chance of ever experiencing something like that?

Richard Dearlove: Basically, I would avoid getting involved in a company without so many capillaries that you didn't know they existed, if you see what I mean. Look, if you can't understand something or you think you've not been told the whole story, avoid it. I guess I'm, I'm being rather basic, but I would hate all the organizations and boards I'm involved with.

I, I 

Oliver Cummings: understand. But are there not some organizations, in fact, any organization of scale, I would guess, you know, an organization like MI6, you wouldn't have understood everything. And I mean, okay, I 

Richard Dearlove: mean, MI6 is a very complex organization. It's not huge, but it's complex. It has many capillaries. And what I used to say to my senior staff, I almost, as they came [00:06:00] to brief me and meet me before board meetings, I said, look, I almost know, for sure I know about your successes.

And I said, what are the five things that I might not know that are keeping you awake at night? And I want to understand the underbelly of your job, because I may certainly understand the rest of it anyway, because you're keen for me to know about it. But the things that you might not be so keen for me to know about, it's really essential.

I mean, in a leadership position, we said to people, I don't want to be surprised if there's going to be a crisis. I want to have known at least something about it before it's too late. Breaks or happens 

Oliver Cummings: and how did you go about getting people to open up like that? Because it's a really difficult thing to do to get as a board member to get executives to feel that sense of trust that they could really share their dirty washing their unfiltered messes with you.

Do you have a particular sort of Technique for enabling that I think you've got 

Richard Dearlove: to be an engaging and convincing [00:07:00] individual with a high degree of trust in your relationship with your senior. And I think integrity and trust is so important and running an organization like MI6 what really made me fed up living close to politicians.

It was the mendacity and ill discipline with which many of them. conducted their lives, whereas they would expect me, as the head of an organization like SIS, to behave with absolute integrity, whereas they didn't. And we had Draconian rules about integrity, and that sort of contrast between those areas of government strike me as, maybe it's not surprising.

Oliver Cummings: What are the most valuable lessons you can offer someone working on a government board from your experience of working with politicians? 

Richard Dearlove: I suppose I'd say straight away it depends what sort of board or what sort of organization it is and in what part of government because there's such a vast variety of, let's say, arm's length [00:08:00] organizations or ones that are intimately involved.

I was referring to let's say the notorious bad behavior of lots of the politicians that we know or have heard of. On the other hand, there are a number that are self disciplined. I think if you think about boards and organizations, you do expect amongst the people that are setting the strategic direction of the organization, taking the important decisions about its future, that they do have a sense of responsibility, a sense of self discipline, and You know, a sense of restraint, maybe in their behavior.

And I just find that the juxtaposition of what's expected in public life, let's say of people like myself, if you're on a government board, particularly if you're on a sensitive one, and then the way that some politicians disport themselves in their arena. However, having said that, I don't know. Do you think if you're a public servant or you're holding office in a [00:09:00] governmental organization, it is a different role from being a politician and being representative of the people?

So you have to try and think across that gap and try and understand why these two cultures are different and exactly the nature of their meeting and their interface. Which is also a very important area, inevitably, I wouldn't say you've got two cultures, but you've got two people who are thinking rather differently about their roles and what 

Oliver Cummings: they 

Richard Dearlove: represent.

Oliver Cummings: It feels to me, and maybe this is a sign of me getting old, that something has been lost in the way that people in roles like you are sometimes treated by boards. And you occasionally see it where boards try to stand behind a CEO who's got something wrong. and then the court of the public opinion sweeps in and blows boards trying to stand behind people away.

What's your take on that? Have we lost something? Well, 

Richard Dearlove: to an extent. We live in a world without deference, and [00:10:00] although in a way that's extremely healthy because it makes challenge easier, it can also create huge difficulties. And I think the blame culture when things go wrong is is so overdeveloped that Unless you've actually acted, you know, criminally or completely negligently, things do go wrong.

Uh, and it isn't necessarily an individual, it might be a set of circumstances. We have a culture which wants to pin the blame on individuals. But these are complex issues because obviously if you look at the base office situation as it's now playing out, there was some awfully bad behavior and Really awful decision making and a total lack of accountability at crucial points in time.

And it's understandable there should be a public outrage about that. But some of the things I've been involved in, it's very hard to apportion blame. Let's say a terrorist incident in London, the bombing of the buses and the tubes. And there's an immediate wish to [00:11:00] blame law enforcement for not stopping it.

To an extent, it's important to understand How they might've failed to stop it. But on the other hand, it's not necessarily a massive failing. Do you see what I mean? And they want somebody who they can point to and say, he, she, or that group are responsible because they didn't do their job properly. And I do find that the way that's applied to almost any crisis now, it can be very depressing.

And very difficult for the people involved. Many of whom may well have been people of goodwill who were trying to do their best. 

Oliver Cummings: I think that's absolutely right. It feels to me that the court of public opinion is often guilty of what I'd call resulting, where they look at the outcome rather than the risks being taken.

And if there was a 1 percent risk that something might happen, that's a risk that people might judge as well risk worth taking. When it then happens, that doesn't mean they were wrong. That was 1 percent risk. It's just that one in a hundred, it can happen. What broken boards? do to and board members do to better navigate that because it does feel mad that every time something like this [00:12:00] happens people get publicly crucified and you lose all that incredible experience and and good people and as you say those involved who have good intentions are then you know less inclined to take risks and do the right thing.

Richard Dearlove: I'm not sure in you know the world in which we now live the world which we've created with social media and The extent to which minority opinion can express itself or find like minded people, I think it's just a condition of modern life with one almost has to accept. And it's very difficult for balance and proportionality to be maintained during a crisis where things have gone wrong and people have suffered.

Even if there's a good explanation for what happened, it is, we do live in a very difficult environment in that sense, if you're, if you hold responsibility and you are a decision taker. Boards can sit down and think about some of this, but you're never going to anticipate every Possible problem that's going to come across your desk and in a manner of speaking, that situation, I think it's getting more [00:13:00] complicated and getting worse in a way.

And that's why I think there are more and more people who are reluctant to be non execs, who are reluctant to carry board responsibility. And of course, the cost of DNO insurances paying up exponentially, and it rather reflects those concerns and worries. 

Oliver Cummings: It feels a real problem if it echoes a similar, it seems to be a similar thing has happened with politicians, like who would want to be a politician now, given what they get exposed to and the same with board members, the risks they take.

I had a really interesting discussion recently with a chair of a sort of reasonably public organization working with an amazing individual who's very entrepreneurial and basically the sort of shareholders. are backing that individual but some of the risks they're taking are unquantifiable and they're betting the ranch and that chair was wrestling with should I, you know, I'm trying to steer them but the reality is they're taking big bets here and that's what the shareholders want but if it blows up I'm going to be the one who's going to get lynched and it feels to me that someone and I'm not sure who it is needs to somehow [00:14:00] allow for that because otherwise what you end up with is a whole load of bureaucratic non value adding boards Where everyone is just covering their, their backsides.

So do you see us, how can we change that? Or is, is it, you just got to accept that is where we are and we're on this downward spiral? 

Richard Dearlove: We do live in this culture where people love to turn around and make judgments about what you've done, what you've said, how you've behaved, for the benefit of hindsight. I remember very clearly a conversation with, I'm going to do a bit of name dropping here, because I knew him very well and had quite a close relationship with him, Henry Kissinger.

Um, Henry. Was a very controversial figure, very great statesman, but even his obituaries reflected the vast differences of view about him as a person and him saying in many of the crisis I was involved in, you don't have the luxury of not taking a decision, you have to take a decision and you take a decision which is dictated by the timing of the crisis.

Not by the state of knowledge that you're in at the time that you take the decision. And [00:15:00] it may well be that 24 hours later your state of knowledge is completely different. And therefore you've taken the wrong decision or you've taken a decision which looks bad. You can, and I think that shows, I find that Discussion with him reflected tremendous wisdom on his part.

And he said he was thick skinned enough to live with the consequences of things he had done. A lot of people say bombing of Cambodia, you're an international criminal. I can, I can't get into detail cause it would be trespassing on some real sensitivities. But I remember during the crisis in the Balkans and the bombing of Serbia, that whole issue of bombing the Serbians.

And trying to explain government policy and support the government over why they took that decision. Oh, it's very difficult. And there was a desperate pressure for it to stop and a real sort of pressure on, on me to produce information, which would stop it if you see what I did. But some of these issues can be really complicated and difficult to handle.

Oliver Cummings: But one of the things that often strikes me [00:16:00] about the most highly regarded board members is that balance they strike between challenge and support and the best ones are really good at giving support. But what I'm always really interested in is how do people give support? Were there any examples that stood out for you in your executive role where board members did something where you just thought, wow, that was really special the way they did that?

Richard Dearlove: Yeah, I think You know, I think the quality of one's human relationships in a situation like that is important, both to be able to empathize, support, to express appreciation, to understand the value of the contribution, similarly, when things go wrong, to be pretty direct and forensic and express your view, I think that One of the lessons I learned professionally over my whole career, and I'm not just talking about leading MI6, is the importance of actually listening to minority opinion, and not necessarily agreeing with it, but being aware that you can [00:17:00] have a group who disagree with what the clear trend and decisions of the organization are, but who might have some very valid arguments.

And taking account of their views, perhaps modifying some of your decisions in the light of them. The problem in a democracy, the majority is utterly autocratic, or it can be. And I, I think listening to minority opinion carefully and understanding where it does add value is really an important part of leadership and decision making.

I'm making a very clear distinction here between leadership and management, as it were. 

Oliver Cummings: One of the other common challenges board members wrestling with is what I've labeled Cassandra syndrome after the Trojan precess who was cursed by Apollo to never be listened to despite seeing truth She predicted the fall of Troy and it's where board members spot issues coming up But then struggle to take others around the board table with them.

Are there any lessons that [00:18:00] you've taken when navigating complex situations? 

Richard Dearlove: Yes, I think that's something I've quite often encountered. I think you have to make a clear judgment as to whether it's a neurosis and an exaggeration and something that you can literally push to one side or whether it's something that needs to be taken account of.

Going back now, I'm thinking of the Y2K issue. You're a bit too young probably to remember Y2K. I remember it well. I thought, and I still think, that the whole thing got madly out of proportion. The amount of money that was spent on Y2K, it turned out the most of it to be totally unnecessary. And you had lots of so called gurus and experts saying that if one wasn't prepared, this would be the end of the world because computer programs would all collapse because they haven't taken account of Y2K.

And this struck me as complete rubbish at the time. I couldn't go along with it. I couldn't get my colleagues to agree it was rubbish. We were forced, as it were, to take the preparatory [00:19:00] prophylactic measures to prepare ourselves. But of course, it turned out to be a complete non-issue, or not a, but, but very much less important than it was built up to be.

Oliver Cummings: When, when you retrospect that and think about why weren't you able to take your. colleagues with you when you had that clarity of understanding that this was not an issue. What do you know now that might have helped you reach a different outcome then? Debate about 

Richard Dearlove: the validity of the views of super experts and the extent to which, you know, they, they got it right.

And another issue I've been involved in, but not in a board context, but it could have been in a board context is this Question of the origins of the pandemic, where you had all these world class virologists signing up to the Chinese narrative. 

It was absolutely clear to some of us right from the word go, and I'm not a scientist, but the likely explanation, and I think it's now not proven, but let's say 95 percent true, that This was a [00:20:00] chimera that escaped from a laboratory, or chimera, and it was a result of an accident created by gain of function experiment, experimentation on viruses.

And it's incredible how these super wise scientists, the thing is actually quite scant if you look back on it, and the pressure that was created by the experts to say, you don't know what you're, and people like me were told, you don't know what you're talking, you're not a scientist. And clearly, there is a point at which well informed common sense is a powerful argument, and I'm still appalled by what happened in this debate, which has slightly gone to ground now.

It's still there in the background, but people are not really arguing about it anymore, probably because the evidence is so strong in one direction now. 

Oliver Cummings: So it sounds like that is a recurring Pattern that you've identified where people miscalculate risk where they see an expert and they just take them at face value And you're saying that actually sometimes common sense should trump the views of [00:21:00] experts. Are there other other patterns like that? 

Richard Dearlove: We've, I recently had, I did a podcast recently on AI, which I didn't realize that provoked quite a lot of attention because I was arguing that the, the wilder predictions of the AI cognacente about the dangers to humankind and the end of the world seemed to me to be disproportionate to the issue.

And I'm by no means. an AI expert. But the last time I was challenged about this as a party, I said it spontaneously, but I rather floored the person who said it to me. And I said, if AI is so powerful, why can't AI control AI? It's a human creation. Therefore, can't we use AI to control AI? Which may sound like a crazy thing to say, but if you think about it, there is, I think, an essence.

Of truth in this and every time there's a huge step forward scientifically one has to sit down and think about the downside. And the obvious example is nuclear energy and [00:22:00] nuclear technology. We know it can destroy the world, but we also know it can be the means to provide us with clean energy indefinitely and very cheaply.

Uh, so I think this sort of juxtaposition of views. Okay. It's part of the human condition and part of the human debate. But it seems to me that when we're faced with these extraordinary technological advances, we're almost inclined to see them, or there's always a group who, who, you could say the Cassandras, but then they're more powerful than Cassandras because they're usually mainline saying, this is going to destroy us if we aren't careful, obviously we do have to be careful, but I think some of the debate about AI has been tremendously exaggerated.

Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm being complacent. 

Oliver Cummings: How do you think that comes to be? Because I think that is a really difficult one as a board member, where it does resonate with me that sometimes there are occasions where common sense just tells you something, but it is also quite a thing to go up against the world's leading experts.

who are spending all their time [00:23:00] thinking about something, hopefully with a scientific mindset, but obviously we will fall into the trap sometimes of not doing that. How do you know, what's your way of figuring out if you are getting it right and you're seeing something that they're not and how it can, how in your mind does it come to pass that so many experts can be so wrong?

Richard Dearlove: I think The explanation probably is they're thinking and working on an extremely narrow gauge, but they assume that their narrow gauge is all embracing because the, let's say, the dominance of AI in their mind covers everything. But since I retired from MI6 in 2004, I lived largely in academia with lots and lots of very brilliant people.

And they are brilliant, and their minds are extraordinary. They do amazing things. They write wonderful essays. Is their judgment better than, as it were, the people I previously rubbed shoulders with who were not so academically distinguished, but were people who lived in the real world? No! I would have, I would even go as far as to say say that if you look at academia, the ability for good judgment is somewhat [00:24:00] sometimes rather further away than one might expect.

Cleverness and good judgment do not necessarily go hand in hand at all. 

Oliver Cummings: Reminds me of, I once did a, it was the the external party for a review of a, one of the leading universities business departments where they had some sort of world leaders on organizational excellence. And I've never seen a more dysfunctional.

Richard Dearlove: There's no simple answer, but I think wisdom accumulated over a long and varied career can be just as value valuable as a sort of innate cleverness or brilliance. 

Oliver Cummings: Do you have mental models? that you've built up over time that help you think about risk assessment? 

Richard Dearlove: Yeah, I think my view of risk assessment, we all sit on companies, you go through the risk register and you, they're pretty banal documents.

Maybe they help to clarify the categories of risk. Do they provide an absolutely clear road map [00:25:00] for, for dealing with the risk? No, I don't think they do. I think I gave you the last example. Gave you the example of sitting on the AIG advisory board. This insurance company's life is meant to be at risk.

And six weeks later, the company had gone belly up. That's an extreme example. But I, I think the way that I have preferred to deal with risk is to sort of divide. Risk in my head in two, and there's what I would call common everyday risk, which is built into everybody's jobs and your workforce should be able to think and work that out without too much problem.

So there's a sort of established framework of everyday risk, which is largely what your risk register covers, which isn't too problematic, but there is a boundary out. There's a framework and the really. Life and death risk for companies, usually particularly big organizations, it's on the outside of the framework.

So the important thing [00:26:00] is for your senior management team, your senior leadership team to understand when they're looking at something, which is on the outside of the framework, not on the inside of the framework, the inside of the framework. You've got a routine method for dealing with it and what you're expecting from your top people in business is to understand when there's something on the outside, which you've got to sit down and think about and work out how to deal with.

And it's identifying as it were, what's the, where the edge of the map is, where the age of the risk map is. I think the best boards have the sort of quality of intellectual analysis to, to identify those. sort of exceptional areas and then sit down and work out what to do about them and how to deal with it.

I've been on the board of this energy company, and in fact what happened in that company, which was very interesting over a period of time, it moved from frontier exploration, which is a bit like [00:27:00] dartboard, and if you're lucky and good at your job, The rewards going back 10 or 15 years were massive, but as the energy world has changed, the whole business of frontal exploration has become extremely tenuous.

You're talking about the whole future of the company. So the company was able to reorientate itself. To no longer doing frontier exploration, i. e. drilling out existing known oil fields and gas fields, but using their skill and identifying where they hadn't been properly exploited and explored really changing over 10 or 15 years.

This whole business model, you're changing its business model to prepare itself for a zero carbon world where fossil fuels eventually lose their value. And it's interesting if you look across the oil and gas. sector to see which companies are doing this successfully and which ones are not. But I could give you, I'm sure, other explanations.

In an [00:28:00] intelligence organization, the outside of the framework is geopolitical. 

Oliver Cummings: The geopolitical is probably a risk that's on most organizations risk register somewhere. Since the 

Richard Dearlove: financial crisis of 2008, geopolitical risk has come back. In spades, you cannot now run an international company without a proper assessment of geopolitical risk because of the global situation.

And it's rather weird for people like me, who are pushing 80, who find their expertise, because I've been living with geopolitical risks since I was, 21 years old, I started, I started work when I was 21, way under the permitted age, but no, I'm worried about that then when you could join the intelligence community.

And interestingly, in the cold war, the lines of geopolitical risk were rather clear cut and identified. And okay, there were points of crises, of course, and points of tension, but generally speaking, you were traveling across a relatively predictable landscape. Okay, all [00:29:00] that's disappeared. And we are now in a world of upheaval looking for a new international security situation, new international security, uh, framework.

And it's made companies that trade globally or are in the commodities market, all the different companies, hugely vulnerable to geopolitics. 

Oliver Cummings: In one of your podcasts that I was listening to you and person you were speaking with were highlighting China as the big risk relative to Russia, that Russia was a sort of the near ground, but ultimately it was China that we should all be really worried about.

What does someone sitting on the board of a sort of mid cap business need to be thinking about? in that context in your mind. Put it like this, if you try to 

Richard Dearlove: articulate threats to the West and you look at the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party and its stated intentions, China is likely to behave in a very aggressive and difficult fashion and has a vision of itself becoming the dominant political and [00:30:00] economic global superpower.

So understanding how that's likely to evolve, understanding what impact that's going to have, I think is a crucial part of business planning. What I would say is, however alien we may feel that China is and China's intentions, I can't imagine a global security situation which doesn't take account of China.

We can't, China's too big, too important, too populous to be ignored. It's also trading. nation. It's a mercantile nation. What is the new, if you, if you wish, international framework going to look like over the next 10 to 15 years? How are we going to trade and interact with a country like China? At the moment, we're going through a process of completely reassessing.

our relations with China. A lot of foreign companies are dissing, they're reciting manufacturing from China elsewhere. They are putting a different valuation on those [00:31:00] assets they have in China, which they can't take out. There's a lot going on. 

Oliver Cummings: I remember looking at some investments in the rare earth space probably 10 years ago and being shocked by how China had obviously just completely taken control of that market and owned all the key assets, which had And, and has now huge implications for various industries in terms of their access to supply and various other things.

Are there other things like that, that you can foresee that businesses and organizations need to be getting their heads around and preparing for? 

Richard Dearlove: Obviously the rare earth example is, is a primary one and a topical one, and the West now is looking desperately hard for alternative sources of supply, which exists, but have to be.

But there are other aspects like belt and road policy of China and how that has affected international development and how the Chinese are building themselves a vast blue water navy, a very large. Mercantile trading fleet, building [00:32:00] port facilities that will only take Chinese ships because the specification will be different from those used by Western companies.

So there are all sorts of issues which are in a state of not being entirely resolved. But you take a country like Australia, which I think has played a very clever role in relation to China. It still has this sort of, it's been one of the first countries to challenge China's aggressive policies and to suffer for doing so, but on the other hand, it still has a very close relationship supplying Chinese industry with much of its commodities in terms of raw materials.

So, I mean, it is possible, I think, over time to find an answer. To these questions that we hitherto have been incredibly naive in the way we've treated China. We've been far too indulgent towards them strategically. Letting China into the World Trade Organization perhaps was a fundamental mistake because they don't play by the rules, but they reap all the advantages.

And we need to recast that relationship. The only good thing that [00:33:00] Trump's administration did was to make The world, or the West in particular, think about China and how it was dealing with China. And as a result, we're still rethinking all of this. Interestingly, Biden's foreign policy with regard to China has been more militant than Trump's, which shows that there is a need to reset.

And we've been particularly guilty in the UK, where we had Massively overenthusiastic attitude by Cameron and Osborne. I question Cameron's credentials in becoming a foreign secretary because he's just got China so utterly wrong. Okay. Maybe he's learned his lesson. For me, that's not a good qualification for him to come back as foreign secretary.

Oliver Cummings: Brings a nice leap to what we were talking about earlier of being the unforgiving court of public opinion. One other topic I want to just cover with you before we move on to the lightning round is around crisis management. I'm interested to hear about your lessons from having navigated crises.

Something that came up in one of our recent community events that was [00:34:00] focused on risk was that those who'd experienced a risk, so for example a cyber security attack, had a very different approach to it. and preventing it in the future than those who hadn't, which I thought was really interesting. The implication being that until you've actually experienced it, you'll never fully grasp the enormity or implications of that risk.

What have been your lessons of crisis management? 

Richard Dearlove: You need to reconstitute. You need to reconstitute a unit to deal with the crisis, and then you want to pick the group that's going to do it, that are calm headed, not going to panic, they're going to be considerate, they're going to look closely, they're going to think things through, and just get on with it on a day to day basis.

And I think In a crisis, control of your team is very important. Issues like communicating with the media, trying to control the narrative, making sure your business or your organization has a unified approach to what's going on. It does turn into almost a full time job. I knew possibly the board maybe has to [00:35:00] take on a bit more of the executive function, having said, I don't believe the board should do that, but I think you need to get hold of your best, most experienced brains, form a small group and basically work together very carefully, frequent meetings, frequent discussion, frequent.

Checking on what you've achieved, what you haven't achieved, certainly forming a small special group, particularly if it's a life threatening situation, life threatening in terms of the organization, oh, it's fundamental. In the aftermath of 9 11, my working day was, as head of MI6, was very different from what my working day had been like before it happened, and a very tight focus, very disciplined, very disciplined. Highly organized, with a clear assignment of responsibilities. 

Oliver Cummings: So Richard, time has flown by, which means it's time to go on to the lightning round. So first up, I think you'll find this one easy. Boardroom behavior that irritates you most. People who talk too much, think too little, and think they're [00:36:00] executives.

The best book every board 

Richard Dearlove: member should read, and why? Oh, God. Something by the philosopher David Hume. Why? Because no one has been more intuitive about human nature. Your most significant professional 

Oliver Cummings: insight? Take account of minority opinion. What have you changed your mind on about boards over time?

Richard Dearlove: There are no magic answers and solutions. Hard work, hard grind, good understanding. So you used 

Oliver Cummings: to think there were magic solutions? 

Richard Dearlove: I used to think when I was less experienced that institutions were more, were stronger than they actually are. What I've discovered is that as you go through an institution and reach the top of it, which I've done in a number of extraordinary ways, the way my life has turned out, the institution is named more than a group of individuals. There's nothing magic about institutions. 

Oliver Cummings: And finally. What should listeners take away from this podcast if they take away nothing else? 

Richard Dearlove: I don't want to say what Michael Gove said, beware of experts, but, because that [00:37:00] would be wrong. I value expertise enormously, but have the confidence in the light of the material around you to make your own judgment calls. I think that's, that's important. Really important. 

Oliver Cummings: So Richard, that has been an absolute privilege. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to have this discussion. Thank you so much for taking the time. Oh, 

Richard Dearlove: I'm not sure I've matched up your very proning questions. I hope it makes a good podcast. I'd like to know what the feedback is.

Oliver Cummings: If you found this conversation interesting and would like to be involved in similar discussions, join the Neuroball community. Community Membership gives you access to 24 hour discussion threads on boardroom challenges and opportunities like those we've been discussing, as well as Q& As with senior board members, smart online networking events, one to one career sessions with our headhunters, third party board roles, and a find a mentor service.

We're running a limited offer of a two month free community trial for Enter the Boardroom listeners. Head to community. newroll. com and apply the code NBC2MONTH.

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Sir Richard on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

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