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MI6 Team Told Us What Is Essential In Candidates And You’ll Be Shocked

If you haven’t heard of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (or SIS), then you’ve most likely heard of MI6. As the title of the organisation would suggest, the organisation deals with intelligence, but more the ‘top secret information’ kind than full marks in your GCSEs. Yet it is safe to say that a high academic intelligence is a widely assumed prerequisite for being an MI6 officer. MI6 officials refer to their colleagues as Intelligence Officers, but what kind of intelligence are they talking about exactly? If you too were as curious as us as to what qualities you need to join, then read on as we speak to some of MI6’s current team to get their take on what is looked for in new recruits. 

It’s easy to think that an organisation called the Secret Intelligence Service is only looking for people with exceptional academic qualifications. Book-smart people at the top of their academic class. People who can learn another language whilst hacking a computer with both hands tied behind their back. With that in mind, it’s easy to look at roles at MI6 and think, ‘Yeah…I’m not smart enough for that.’

In reality, though, you’re likely far more qualified than you think. For a start, there are all kinds of intelligence needed at MI6 and the most important type is perhaps not what you’d expect. Here’s one of the current team to talk about that: 

“Honestly, emotional intelligence is the most important thing you can have here. There are other things you need alongside it, but if you haven’t got that, it isn’t going to work out. You’ve got to have empathy. You’ve got to be able to build rapport with others and have an understanding of a diverse range of personalities.”

More than that, you’ve got to have an understanding of yourself too. Emotional intelligence is both interpersonal – the understanding of what makes people tick – and intrapersonal – the ability to reflect on yourself, your behaviour, and the impact you have on other people.

That self-awareness is vital because you’ll be working with others a lot. One of the misconceptions about MI6 is that you have to be a one-person-band, and the James Bond films certainly maintain that illusion. Watch any Bond film and you’ll likely see the infamous secret agent gathering intelligence, speaking multiple languages, flashing the latest tech, and generally giving the impression that he can protect the nation with a smouldering look and a pair of speedos.

Unlike 007 though, who’s very much a lone wolf, the real-life MI6 is a diverse and diversely-skilled team of officers, linguists, data analysts, technicians and more. On any given day, on any given project, they’ll all pull together as one, relying on each other’s skills and supporting one another. To be part of an effort like that, you have to be big enough to ask for help. As one current Intelligence Officer puts it:

“You’ve got to be self-aware enough to recognise where your colleagues might be more skilled than you are. You’ve got to accept people have different strengths and weaknesses, take advantage of the talents around you, and accept that you can’t have every skill known to man. You ask for help, and that’s how it works.”

The important thing to know about emotional intelligence is that it isn’t something you get from a particular degree, or from advanced qualifications. Studying International Relations and working yourself to the bone for your Masters and PhD will not teach you how to treat other human beings. In fact, life experience can teach you as much about emotional intelligence as academic work ever could. 

Importantly, emotional intelligence can also come from anywhere. In the past, MI6 was known for its ‘tap on the shoulder’ approach to recruitment – and for that tap being mostly given to wealthy, white, male Oxbridge candidates. Again, it’s an area where James Bond hasn’t helped perceptions.

Today, though, that exclusionary attitude is no longer the case. The organisation welcomes and actively seeks out candidates of all genders, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and sexual orientations. There’s no particular degree you need or university you need to have attended. There’s no social group you need to come from, to demonstrate the skills the organisation looks for. And as one officer points out, that sense of inclusion makes the whole team stronger:

 

 

“It’s vital that we bring in skills from everywhere. We need to avoid groupthink; to recognise that we’ve got the best chance to succeed in protecting the nation if we’ve got lots of different opinions. If you’re trying to mitigate risk, you need to consider a plan from all possible angles.”

To encourage diversity – and diversity of thought – the organisation even operates truly blind assessment. If you apply to MI6 today, the people who consider your application won’t know any of your personal details, or which university you went to. And when you come to interview, your interviewers will know nothing about you at all. 

Emotional intelligence is a crucial factor to work at MI6 and that means no-one gets an unfair advantage. You don’t get a free pass if your interviewer happens to have gone to your school or your university. And conversely, there’s no prejudice about where you went or what you studied either. Everyone gets the same level playing field. As one current Intelligence Officer puts it, “I think people don’t believe us, but it really is just about putting an application in. Everyone’s treated the same, and no-one knows where you come from until the very end.”

There are some candidates, of course, who will find that emotional intelligence is something that does not come naturally to them – especially some neurodiverse people. While emotional intelligence may not always be a natural aptitude for some people, that does not mean the doors of MI6 are closed to them. There are plenty of roles other than IOs that candidates can apply for that will best suit their skill set.

Interested in putting in your own application to MI6? You can find out more about the organisation, the role, and how to apply here.