May 19, 2020Read More
When you think of the James Bond film franchise, a lot of images come to mind. Diversity isn’t one of them. White men typically carry out the main actions of the storyline. The women are too often portrayed as damsels in distress. Even some of the tougher female characters eventually give up their headstrong ways and fall for the charms, or even force, of the suave and rugged spy. The incredibly fictionalized life of Bond fails to capture the true nature of intelligence work, yet it manages to reflect, painfully, one inescapable reality: a visible absence of diversity in the trade. The issue has become so pronounced that Alex Younger, chief of Britain’s MI6, agreed to his first interview with a national newspaper to address that problem. We often write about how the lack of diversity erodes business performance. Younger reminds us that it’s also dangerous. His observations offer a powerful lesson on the need to champion inclusion, avoid groupthink and actively recruit diverse professionals.
With deference to Ian Fleming, who created Bond, the protagonist appearing in the original novels is decidedly grittier. He operates, by and large, within the mechanics of the Secret Service. The films with which Bond is more widely associated run to the fanciful. At their worst, they’re just campy. Consider “Moonraker.”
In the movie, a crazed industrialist named Drax builds a sort of ark from a space shuttle, which he populates with a genetically engineered “master race.” He wants these elite men and women to sire a new population aboard an elaborate space station. Pretty wild stuff. In the novel, Drax is also a wealthy industrialist. However, he’s an ex-Nazi who is working with the Soviets to develop a nuclear missile capable of destroying London.
Clearly, the book falls in line with the contemporary geopolitics of its day and speaks more accurately to the nature of espionage. Spying, then and now, is what it sounds like: observing, identifying risks, collecting intelligence and reporting that information to the resources tasked with responding to threats. In his interview with The Guardian, Younger admitted that the James Bond image attracts candidates to MI6. He also said that James Bond probably wouldn’t make the cut:
“But that is not really what we are looking for. We don’t want to be the SAS. The brand has attracted a lot of good people. But it has also put off equally fantastic people. There is a perception out there that we want Daniel Craig, or Daniel Craig on steroids. He would not get into MI6. We need to get that message across because it is so embedded, and we have to get around that. We are between a rock and a hard place – between trying to be innovative, while protecting the secret stuff that keeps this country safe.”
Diversity, Younger asserted strongly, is the path to that goal. And yet the James Bond characterization, which inadvertently became an unofficial marketing channel for the agency, has not only prevented some top candidates from considering intelligence work, it’s also hindered diversity. Last summer, for example, a rumor circulated that Idris Elba could be tapped to play the next Bond. He would have become the first black Bond. Many fans celebrated the idea. And why not? Bond himself is an anachronistic, hard-to-define, inconsistent character. He never seems to age much, yet he’s been slogging it out since the early days of the Cold War. One could easily make the case that “James Bond” isn’t a person; it’s just a codename – a role that top spies assume at some point in their careers. So of course he could be black.
There were critics, however. No matter how they danced around it, color seemed to be a concern. An author of the current novel series even stepped into controversy when he said Elba “is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond.”
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with the real MI6. Well, for good or ill, Bond represents a depiction of the agency’s employment brand to many people – one that is neither inclusive nor diverse. And as Younger reminds organizational leaders, regardless of industry or business, there’s no place for this perception in the modern world.
The global intelligence community, despite the aura of intrigue and adventure, has many of the same talent needs as any business. To Younger’s point, they don’t require a cadre of Bonds to trot around the world and shoot up villains with guns disguised as ink pens. They don’t need underwater cars or jetpacks. They are seeking coders, data scientists, analysts, programmers, encryption specialists, surveillance experts and a host of IT and engineering professionals. Their world, like ours, has become digital. Cyber threats are more pressing than demented billionaires mutating sharks and installing lasers on their heads.
And even the more traditional physical perils, such as terrorism, have expanded across countries, religions, ethnicities and cultures. To overcome security deficiencies and capitalize on opportunities, intelligence departments need diverse talent. So, if the goal is prevent a region from being destabilized by a terror cell, an agency would need staff who understand the area, its people and its attackers. What are their needs? What are their goals? What values or beliefs are in conflict? What the cultural drivers that will affect a positive or negative outcome? Can we communicate in the same language?
In business, the requirements are similar. To expand our offerings to wider audiences and solve their pain points, we must comprehend that audience. Talent are living marketers. By tapping into the backgrounds and experiences of diverse talent, businesses are better positioned to market their products and services to a broader demographic of consumers: racial and ethnic minorities, women and customers who are gay or transgender, as a few examples.
Although Younger publicly called for an increase in “black and Asian officers” to “finally dispel the image of British spies as the preserve of a posh, Oxbridge elite,” he spoke to the heart of inclusion – that a broad spectrum of talent fuels thought diversity.
“We have suffered from groupthink in the past,” admitted Younger. “We have to get the maximum [number of] differentiated points of view in the room and for people to have the confidence to say what they think. Even if it’s not the popular thing to say, even with people like me.”
“Simply, we have to attract the best of modern Britain,” he added. “Every community from every part of Britain should feel they have what it takes, no matter what their background or status. We have to stop people selecting themselves out.”
As we wrote in November, there are tremendous benefits to be found in an employment culture that welcomes differences of thought and approach.
Younger told Nick Hopkins of The Guardian that high-caliber prospects are “selecting themselves out” of a career with MI6, officially known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The applications they receive, though numerous, reinforce the theory that candidates have the wrong idea about the role. Younger also said they need to attract a wider range of backgrounds to select the best talent. To do that, he is returning to the fundamentals of personalized recruiting.
“I’m quite passionate about this,” Younger explained. “We have to go out and ask these people to join us. Before we were avowed as a service, that was the only way of recruiting people, a tap on the shoulder. That was the way I was recruited. We have to go to people that would not have thought of being recruited to MI6. We have to make a conscious effort. We need to reflect the society we live in.”
And this is precisely why the recruiting profession remains critical to contingent workforce programs. We’re seeing more and more automation in talent acquisition. And that’s a great thing. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are instrumental tools for recruiters. Yet, we’re also witnessing a trend toward absence – where self-service platforms and overly mechanized processes are pushing critical human elements away. Emotional intelligence, Younger stated, is paramount to successful hiring. The technologies we deploy should be enablers of a human process, not the process itself.
And even if greater levels of automation assume more duties of traditional recruiting, diversity is an area where staffing curators will always shine. In the contingent workforce, I could even foresee the role of staffing leaders evolving into consultative specialists.
Diversity has long been a hallmark of staffing providers. As the doors to global communities open, creating unprecedented levels of mobility and integration, more employers should consider reaching out to elite staffing partners who can help them find the diverse talent they need. More importantly, however, we have an opportunity to expand the idea of diversity and corporate culture to incorporate truly diverse thinking, which will drive performance for our clients through fresh ideas, perspectives and ways of working.