'I just called him by his code letter': Sally Walker, Britain's spy chief on her first boss
Sally Walker worked in national security for 25 years, and was the first female director of GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence agency, where she created and headed up the National Cyber Force. She was one of very few women working at the spy agency when she joined in the 1990s, so she also became GCHQ’s diversity champion and currently delivers women in leadership programmes for a range of FTSE 100 clients.
She is founding member of Human Digital Thinking, and also board advisor and non-executive director at workforce technology platform WithYouWithMe, a social impact firm which helps armed forces veterans and their partners find meaningful work in the cyber field after they leave the military.
When I joined GCHQ you didn’t even talk about the fact you worked there, much less who you worked for. So this has been a journey of reflection for me.
I joined the civil service in the mid-90s and therefore my bosses were straight (otherwise you couldn’t hold a security clearance), and almost exclusively white, middle class, middle income, highly educated and usually introverted. There were no married women in the senior management structure.
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On one level they were all the same, but of course they were incredibly different, all with unique personalities and brains. Whether they were mathematicians, linguists or computer scientists, they had been recruited for their brilliance.
They all used letters and titles instead of their names; not only were they not known to the outside, they weren’t known to their staff. It added to their mystique and authority, they weren’t just faceless but almost nameless. It was very unusual. They all looked and sounded identical.
I first started in 1995 straight out of university and had no idea about anything. I was an intelligence analyst and a lone female voice. I'm extrovert and interested in people, but this group of mysterious individuals were supportive of me as an outspoken, feisty girl with a view of how to change the world.
They genuinely didn’t know what to do with me and I kept on being promoted. I went first to a middle and then to senior management role in 30 months. They saw potential I don’t think they could possibly have understood. They recognised difference but didn’t quite understand it, and decided to go with it anyway. I think it's true to the spirit of GCHQ which dates all the way back to Bletchley Park.
I was in senior civil service by 31, which was 26 years ahead of my next, most rapid female counterpart as there simply weren’t any women in the organisation. It was totally unbalanced.
I sometimes worry that I’m the person who changed the direction, but if you go back to Bletchley, all of the superheroes during the War were unrecognised females. At the time, I didn’t think that being female was an issue. I was so out of the norm that I just got on with it.
That is until I got pregnant with my first child. I was now defined by being female and not part of the management structure. It became one of the things I can’t do, not the things I can do. Defining people this way is one of the most ludicrous approaches to human talent that anyone came up with, but we do it quite a lot.
There was maternity for senior civil servants but it was an uncomfortable period. The first comment I had when I revealed my pregnancy was, "I thought you were a career girl?" My response was, "So did I". What I learned over my time was how to treat people as humans, recognise that our lives are different, and asking people what they think and want was far more important than imposing your view of the world on others.
I finished as director of cyber operations, yet I left a job that I loved as I needed to do something different and see my family more. I stepped into a world of headhunters who saw me as an IT geek. "I do people, stand up organisational development and change programmes," I told them. My job description was reduced to the word ‘cyber’ and I probably got sifted out of jobs I could have done quite well in. I found it demoralising and challenging, all because of that wretched CV.
WithYouWithMe (WYWM) was set up by its founder after he found trouble getting employment after a military career, but it has grown into something much broader, it now broaches the digital skills shortage whilst also helping many different under-represented groups find a foothold towards meaningful employment.
In the jobs world there is a community looking for people with coding skills – which we are short of – while there is a requirement for everybody to think differently about the jobs and skills market of the future. WYWM is helping with both of those challenges.
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A healthy board environment is one that encourages transparency and is actively listening. As an advisor, the key is to be human, recognise the challenges and offer support or direction. It is about facilitating conversation and relationships, appreciating how much work and effort goes into running a start-up like WYWM, and encouraging people – as I hope I have done in all my work – to be open to learning and making mistakes.
Back in the days of my old boss, family and home environment just weren’t discussed. When I look back on the civil service of the 90s, I hope they would recognise progress. I see more women coming through now, and even one of the male directors took all of his nine-month paternity leave. At that point you realise that the world has changed and that’s a good thing.
Six major UK employers have become the first to sign WYWM initiative 15,000 Futures to help armed forces veterans and their partners find meaningful employment in tech and digital roles after leaving the military.
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