What leaders think
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Breaking through the Glass Closet

At our recent HR Directors’ dinner we were honoured to welcome Lord Browne of Madingley, former Group Chief Executive of BP. Lord Browne gave our cross-sector audience an astonishingly moving and candid account of his life in business, of coming out as gay and of what modern business can and should be doing to promote diversity and inclusion.

Expressing his pleasure in speaking in the presence of a group of individuals who dedicate their professional lives to the pursuit of getting the best out of people, Lord Browne began by reflecting on his early life.

“Inclusiveness is a precursor to engagement and engagement is a precursor to success.”

Lord Browne told our audience how his mother, a key influence in his childhood and an Auschwitz survivor, gave him two key pieces of advice which he followed for the majority of his adult life. The first, never tell anybody a secret as they will surely use it against you. The second, never be an identifiable member of a minority, as when the going gets tough the majority always hurt the minority.

Following this advice, Lord Browne decided very early on that nobody would ever know he was gay and he would stay firmly in the closet and never tell anybody who he really was.   Lord Browne began to lead what he called a ‘double life’, a business life where he successfully progressed through BP both in the UK and internationally and a much smaller private life, working out how he could be gay with no one ever finding out. He remarked that when he was young, that this ‘double life’ was quite exciting. He had his public persona and then the reality and never must the two collide.

As time went on, Lord Browne was becoming quite well known, people would say to him “you may not know the people in this room, but they know you” and he realised very quickly, that because of that, he could not continue to lead this ‘double life’, he needed to take some precautions. This is when, as he said to our audience, he began to make some badly judged mistakes. He decided that the only way to find someone, was to use a primitive website, to try to form a secret relationship.

“You can certainly set the tone that inclusion matters, it is the only way to break through and you can’t only do that once, you need to repeat it.”

In 2006 this all unravelled; someone whom he had formed a relationship with had decided to sell his story to the Daily Mail, who were understandably eager to buy it. Lord Browne did his utmost to stop the story, taking out a super injunction against the Daily Mail.   However, he made a fatal error, he made an untrue comment in a witness statement and although it was a civil case and he corrected it very quickly the damage was done. Lord Browne could not bring himself to tell his lawyers the truth about how the two men had met. After plenty of appeals, a number of legal manoeuvres and at huge cost the injunctions were lifted and the story broke. Lord Browne felt the only thing he could do was resign from BP and after a long and successful career (and without consulting anybody) he simply sent the Chairman a letter and left the company. He walked out of the front door to be greeted by the world’s press.

“Never tell anybody a secret as they will surely use it against you.”

Lord Browne went onto tell our captivated audience how at that point he felt that being ‘out’ would result in him losing all his friends, that he would not be taken seriously in business and that he would no longer be able to work overseas in places like the Middle East and Russia.

He quickly realised however all this was completely untrue.  These were things he had created in his head over a lifetime of keeping his identity a secret. When he eventually left his apartment people greeted him warmly and some stopped him in the street saying how they were “right behind him.” Even an old colleague from the oil and gas sector said “we all knew you were gay, but none of us were brave enough to tell you!”  

“Never be an identifiable member of a minority, as when the going gets tough the majority always hurt the minority.”

To Lord Browne this said everything about the foolishness of trying to be anything other than yourself and that what it all boiled down to, for him, was a fear of not being safe. He went on to say that the first and most important thing organisations need to do for their employees is to create a safe environment, both physically and also an environment where people feel safe enough to be themselves.

In doing research for his book, Lord Browne told our audience about a female engineer he met who was a lesbian, when ‘coming out’ to her colleagues she brought them all into her office and said “I want you to imagine taking off your wedding ring, having to lock your family photos away, needing to change she to he and he to she when talking about your family life and having to avoid going out with anyone from work on the weekend, just in case they find out who you really are.” She went on to tell her colleagues that’s exactly what she had to do to feel safe at work.

The second thing Lord Browne advocates is that most studies agree that the profitability of a company increased relative to the level of engagement of the team. When you witness it you know it, a team is working in sync, all are well aligned to the direction of the business and as a result, profits rise. So Lord Browne asked leaders what they were doing to improve engagement, “well, we pay them more” was the response he received. Lord Browne disagreed and paying a team more was not the answer. He felt engagement was a litmus test of whether you can include everybody because if you can’t then people are not willing to be engaged. Inclusiveness is a precursor to engagement and engagement is a precursor to success.

“The first and most important thing organisations need to do for their employees is to create a safe environment.”

The third thing that business can do is to set the tone from the top, to show that inclusion is important right from the top to the bottom of the organisation. Inevitably that starts at the top, and it requires frequent repetition and measurement.

On ‘leadership’ he said there are a couple of points as to what makes a great leader, they are: 1. Committed, understand and keep pushing the purpose of the company as part of society, and 2. Committed to inclusion.

You can certainly set the tone that inclusion matters, it is the only way to break through and you can’t only do that once, you need to repeat it.

So where are we now? Lord Browne put to our audience. Following an interview with Lord Justice Fulford, the gay Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales, who said to Lord Browne “in this matter, constant vigilance is needed.” Closing his speech Lord Browne agreed, because often it goes backwards faster than it goes forward. This also means, rooting out any moment of bigotry and never excusing it. There is no form of performance in business that can make up for a bigoted act, so constant vigilance is needed and be true to your word.

We then opened the floor to a Q&A from our audience;

Q “Is there anything that BP could have done in your 30 years that would have made you comfortable sharing your sexuality with your colleagues?”

A“Probably not at that time. It is remarkable the events that you remember that just confirm your decision. I remember a party in New York, where a colleague turned to me and said I know that we are British Petroleum but these are all marketing people so I suppose its British Pansies. I thought to myself at the time, I get it and it just went further to confirm my views.”

Q“I have two extended members of my family who are gay and lesbian and I remember discussing your decision to resign with them at the time with some regret that you had chosen to leave and not be a trailblazer for the LGBTQ community. With hindsight and given the positive reaction of your friends do you regret leaving BP?”  
A“It’s impossible for me to reconstruct history with hypotheticals. At the time there were one or two people that advised me, I was the subject of a campaign by a newspaper and I felt it would have been damaging to BP for me to continue and very wearing for me too. In another place and another time things may have been different.”

Q“I have a very brilliant young female lesbian engineering manager who recently became engaged to her partner at another engineering firm, the fiancé feels very unable to express to people that her fiancé is a female. What advice would you give to a young engineer who finds themselves in that situation?”

A“Context is everything, if the fiancé feels uncomfortable and doesn’t feel safe they need to manage it until such a time as she does. I think it’s about managing it, ‘coming out’ is something that only some people have to do and it’s a very different process for everyone and it needs to be thought through. When you ‘come out’ and you are starting a career, of course you have to keep ‘coming out’ again and again as your colleagues keep changing and for some people it becomes exhausting.”

Q“I think we are all here with a common purpose and that’s how we can make people the best they can be. Looking back on your career, as someone who has delivered a consistently high level of performance, if you had been open about your sexuality, in what way do you think your performance would have been affected?”

A “I think performance isn’t just about what you do on the job and I think, had I been open, I would have perhaps tended to another part of my life with much more performance drive.”

Q “I was interested in your comment from the interview with The Lord Chief Justice, when you said that things could slip back. In the UK it seems things have moved forward dramatically, do you really see that as a danger, that UK society could fall back?”

A“Yes I do and maybe I could say something from my experience. Sitting here in London, I feel everything is great and when I go to New York things seem very good too. However, I find myself wondering, I wonder what it’s like in the central valley of California or how about Midland, Texas. The level of change is very different and people move to where they feel comfortable so they reinforce the outcome. I don’t even think it’s right to equate parts of the shires with parts of London and so we have to work on making it all safe.”

Q “Do you think it’s important to have LGBTQ networks both in and across companies, and do you feel it contributes to people sense of inclusion?”

A“I think it depends, I used to be a non-executive director at a major investment bank and when I first published my book they asked me to come and present it, and I spoke to a number of networks there who are fairly advanced in their thinking around inclusion. However I remember noticing that the networks generally involved back office staff and very few front office. This is not good, and ends up missing the point. It is also worth noting that inclusion is not just a problem for LGBTQ people but for all people so networks need to be diverse.”