About five minutes into my interview with Lord Browne, the former BP boss loses the otherwise calm and controlled demeanour for which he is known. It is only for a second and he quickly regains himself for most of the rest of our time together, but his brief stutter seems to demonstrate his passion and frustration.
‘I don’t agree that by talking about a subject you make it worse,’ he said. ‘This is a piece of reality.’ The topic in question is the same as that of his new book, The Glass Closet, in which he sets out the case for businesses to do more to make lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) staff feel comfortable enough to come out to their colleagues.
When The Engineer recently published an article making a similar point about engineering firms, it received many comments from readers arguing workplace homophobia was no longer an issue — that nobody really cared about sexuality these days — and that raising these concerns created problems where there were none. Browne emphatically disagrees.
It’s easy in almost anything in life [to say] that a problem is solved until it smacks you in the face
‘There is a gay acceptance issue, which is different from homophobia,’ he said. ‘I think it’s easy in almost anything in life [to say] that a problem is solved until it smacks you in the face. And that I think creates a series of tragedies all over the place when you deal with individuals.’
The main thrust of The Glass Closet is that LGBT people who conceal their private lives for fear of discrimination, harassment or creating an uncomfortable working environment waste a large proportion of productive energy. The book is a compelling tract backed up by numerous and often moving personal stories of LGBT businesspeople who are terrified by what coming out could to do their careers — and of others who have a new lease of life now that they no longer have to hide.
And of course there is Browne’s own story, which some might see as the kind of individual tragedy to which he refers. His decision to conceal his sexual orientation obviously didn’t hold back his ladder-climbing at BP, where he became CEO in 1995, or his appointments as a cross-bench peer and president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. But when, in 2007, a newspaper threatened to reveal details of his four-year relationship with a male escort, he lied in a court document in an attempt to prevent the story going public, eventually prompting his resignation from BP.
In business, people bring their whole personality to bear to be able to do it well and that includes their private life
When you consider the lengths Browne went to in order to maintain his privacy — and where it finally led him — it’s not surprising he has little truck with the argument that people should keep their personal lives completely separate from work. ‘Does that include straight people talking about their wives or husbands, and showing photographs of their children on the desk, or even wearing a wedding ring?’ he asked, when I put the point to him. ‘In business, people bring their whole personality to bear to be able to do it well and that includes their private life, because business is about human beings, it’s not about machines. I know, as an engineer, I should say it’s about big rotating equipment. It’s not. In the end it’s about the people who make all these things.’
Engineering in Britain remains a male-dominated and in many ways traditional, even conservative industry dominated by an older workforce, in which LGBT issues have rarely, if ever, been discussed. Does Browne think that engineering has a particular problem when it comes to its LGBT workers? ‘If you have very male-dominated society it’s very possible to be not necessarily inclusive of anybody else and I think that’s a problem,’ he said. ‘Having said that, engineering is so broad that this probably doesn’t apply in parts of software development, or medical engineering… I think it’s a general tone and feeling.’
So what can engineering firms actually do to promote the welfare of LGBT employees — and give them the confidence to be themselves at work — when anti-discrimination and bullying policies are already standard in most firms? Big companies can set up staff networks and promote internal role models, but firms that may have only one or two LGBT employees rarely have HR departments large enough for specific activity in this area.
‘Actually I think the smaller you are, the more important it is on a very practical basis to get productivity up, because if you’ve got 10 people and one is working at half-speed it’s a very big delta,’ he said. ‘The CEO, the owner, has to say: “I want to attract everybody.” They make some statements at the Institute of Directors or the local business round table or whatever. Put it on the website — everyone has a website. But you’ve got to be seen to be doing it. People are smart enough to see straight through a bunch of empty words.’
Although no longer at BP or the Royal Academy, and now of retirement age, Browne has by no means stepped back from business to become some sort of elder statesman of engineering who writes books and gives after-dinner speeches. He is a partner in private equity firm Riverstone, which invests across the energy industry, including in the world’s largest renewables fund, and is chairman of Cuadrilla Resources, a company conducting exploratory fracking for shale gas in Lancashire.
Given the world’s imperative to reduce its use of fossil fuels (Browne himself was the first head of a major oil and gas firm to publicly acknowledge the seriousness of climate change) and his previous comments that fracking probably won’t lower UK energy prices, why on earth does he think Britain should be pursuing shale gas? ‘Of course we are all on an agenda to remove carbon from the energy mix,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be a long time. So the question is the rank order of carbon. [Coal has] double the carbon intensity of gas… So I’d prefer to substitute coal with natural gas.’
The world needs to be induced in various ways to produce less CO2
But surely the more fossil fuels the world takes out of the ground, the more it will burn? Fracking in the UK will only increase global emissions, just like US fracking has increased the supply of coal to Europe. ‘What we can’t do is just turn off the spigot because people will not agree,’ he said. ‘The world needs to be induced in various ways to produce less CO2. And the fact that we [extract shale gas] will not necessarily add to the sum of world reduction, but it will add an idea that may spread. If we can frack and produce gas here, perhaps we can do it for the rest of Europe and that would make a difference.’ So Britain embracing fracking will enable and encourage other countries to do the same? ‘Yes, but there needs to be more than that. In the end, we have to find a way of incentivising or taxing out some of the CO2, which is being generated.’
Even if I’m not entirely convinced by it, it’s the most compelling and detailed argument for fracking I’ve heard. Browne is also unusual among shale proponents for highlighting the need for carbon taxes. And, unexpectedly for an oil and gas man, he’s very sceptical about the potential of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is often portrayed as a way for the fossil fuel industry to keep operating across the transition to a low-carbon economy, preferring all-out investment in renewable technology.
But if Browne’s so supportive of a move to renewables and in favour of replacing coal with gas, why does his firm have US$2bn of investment in coal production and power generation? Wouldn’t it be better to set an example by getting out of coal? ‘I think setting an example would be rather empty,’ he replied. ‘If we can do it better than anybody else and do it well then we should be doing it. I don’t see a problem with that.’
Yet he thinks the UK could set an example by moving towards shale gas? ‘This is not in the UK; this is in the US,’ he retorted. ‘I think you have to be in context of the place you are working. Business has to be very careful not to set itself above what each of the countries it operates in is actually doing… To use an analogy, we’re not going to pull out of the UK because it might possibly not be part of Europe.’
This is the only time in our conversation that Browne appeared anything remotely like ruffled by my questions. In fact, for much of the interview he seemed incredibly relaxed for a man who has such a reputation for formality, reclining in his office chair as if entertaining friends at home. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when discussing the issues facing LGBT people he can now truly be himself. As he says in his book, coming out means ‘you will think bigger, aim higher and be twice the person you were in the closet’.
John Browne, Lord Browne
Chairman, Cuadrilla Resources
Partner, Riverstone Holdings
- 1969: BSc Physics, University of Cambridge
- 1981: MS Business, Stanford University
- 1966: Joined British Petroleum as an apprentice while still at university
- 1969 – 1995: Occupied a number of positions throughout the structure of British Petroleum, including CEO of BP Finance International and BP America.
- 1995: Appointed group chief executive officer of British Petroleum, later renamed BP
- 2001: Appointed a life peer in the House of Lords
- 2006 – 2011: President of the Royal Academy of Engineering
- 2007: Following resignation from BP, becomes partner in Riverstone Holdings
- 2010: Chaired the review of university tuition fees that eventually led to the current system
- 2011: Becomes chairman of Cuadrilla Resources