Career counselling comes in many shapes and forms but what do senior leaders think? Here, Dr Mary Haigh, CISO at BAE Systems, reflects on her own professional journey and shares some tips for success
I’m 16 years old, and in something of a cold sweat.
I’m in a dark auditorium but lit up by a bright spotlight and I could just about make out the first few rows of a large audience, all of whom were looking directly at me. I could have sworn they could hear my heart racing over the orchestra.
Now this sounds like the stuff of nightmares but it was my first ever solo as a choral singer. In the build-up I couldn’t have felt less comfortable but I got through it and have since gone on to do many more, though oddly the offer of a record contract hasn’t – yet – been forthcoming. I wouldn’t ever say it’s been easy but that’s not the point. You should never feel comfortable going into a new role in your career so the earlier you practice taking risks and being uncomfortable the better.
In my case, making the jump into cyber security wasn’t comfortable. I knew absolutely nothing about it and was suddenly product manager for a business area making decisions about its direction. But I reminded myself that if I could learn about quantum mechanics I could probably learn about cyber security. It was about getting out and talking to people, to listen and to learn.
And look, being a CISO isn't ever comfortable. I’ve been in this role for just over a year now and it goes from being fantastic fun to, at times, being absolutely terrifying.
But how did I get here?
Back to the beginning
Prior to my current role I was director of cyber security at what was the Applied Intelligence division of BAE Systems – which recently became Digital Intelligence – and have now been at the company for six years. I joined from QinetiQ, working my way up after joining as a physics graduate and then hopping into cyber security around 12 years ago.
Personally, I’m not one for mapping out your career meticulously. You never truly know what’s round the corner do you? Who’d have thought the past couple of years would have witnessed a global pandemic and now a war in Europe? It’s beyond comprehension.
So rather than mapping out your career by five or ten year plan, I think what’s more important is to make sure that a new role brings you some new skills, as well as stretching and intriguing you. Beyond that, just make sure it has a good mix of stuff you know gives you energy, and has less of the stuff that saps your energy. Notice I don't say ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ – I don't find that's as helpful way to think about it.
It’s also important to only start looking for a new job when you're bored, or when you hit a sticky point. Far better to nurture a network of contacts and relationships outside of your team who you can turn to get different perspectives. This helps you do your job better because you're getting alternative ideas and you are getting yourself known outside of your direct team. That way, when a role comes up they might think of you.
About six years ago I had a manager whose values and behaviours were off-kilter. Instead of listening to my conscience I copied some of those behaviours, spreading it through my teams. It was the most stressful time of my career because it went against some deeply held values. Once I'd got through that and reflected on it I realised how much it taught me. I understand that good behaviours are non-negotiable and to trust my own judgement more – I think my Dad would have agreed.
He died two years ago and when he was ill he received a whole load of letters from his old team at Nestle, where he’d worked as R&D director, thanking him for things like the family and friendly atmosphere he’d cultivated, and how he’d always taken the time to teach and coach.
This reminded me in a very visceral way that how you do it matters as much as what you do. I doubt, for example, that anyone would write in an epitaph or a letter memorialising “the time you made us an extra million or you got the project in on time”.
Of course, performance matters, delivering on time and making a profit matters – it’s what propels you onto the next interesting role – but never forget that, in time, all that endures is how we treat each other. So that really matters. Make work a better place to be, a respectful, safe, fun, and happy place.
Now all of this takes practise – self-awareness is vital. You have to take a bit of time to reflect when something uncomfortable happens or you get angry about something. You also need to seek out feedback so never sound defensive or challenge it when you get it. In fact, the more senior you are the more you need to ask for it.
There’s obviously much more I could say but I’d like to conclude by passing on the best career advice I’ve been given. It’s about having that coffee, building that network and gaining that different perspective. Make getting different viewpoints and ideas a habit.
To paraphrase a quote from the wonderful Ted Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental. I like that.”
I like it too.
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About the author
Dr Mary Haigh is Chief Information Security Officer at BAE Systems
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