The Lord Marshall Memorial 2017: Authenticity in Business

Lord Browne discussed his life and work as one of the world’s most prominent businessmen, in conversation with Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck.

L-R: Professor David Latchman (Master of Birkbeck), Professor Philip Powell (Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics), Lady Marshall, Lord Browne, Professor Joanna Bourke.

On Monday 3 July 2017, the Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics was honoured to host Lord Browne of Madingley FRS FREng, to deliver the Lord Marshall Memorial in conversation with Professor Joanna Bourke.

Professor Kevin Ibeh, Head of the Department of Management, began by welcoming the guests, in particular Lady Marshall and her daughter Anna Birkett. He paid tribute to Lord Marshall’s lasting influence on business and society; “This lecture series is a way to celebrate the legacy of Lord Marshall, who most know for his contributions to aerospace engineering. But his work at British Airways [where he was Chief Executive] is just one of the important contributions he made to wider society.” Lord Marshall also devoted much time and expertise to public service duties, especially championing British interests around the world, and as Chair of Governors at Birkbeck.

Speaking in the College’s Keynes’ Library, Professor Joanna Bourke posed questions to Lord Browne on a number of themes – his upbringing, sexuality and the importance of accountability in business.

Lord Browne began by discussing the influence of his family and early life. His mother, a Hungarian Jew who had survived Auschwitz, had imparted two pieces of advice to him: “she taught me not to tell people secrets because people always hold them against you, and she taught me about minorities… how when the going gets tough, majorities always pick on minorities.”

Browne, one of the country’s foremost businessmen, began his career as an apprentice at British Petroleum (now BP) after reading Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He was given a post in Anchorage, Alaska and attended community college in the evenings in order to become a state-registered engineer - an experience which has given him a lasting appreciation of lifelong, flexible learning of the kind offered by Birkbeck.

He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually serving as CEO from 1995-2007 during which time he transformed the business into one of the world’s largest companies. But this was not without difficulty. Browne recounted the tragedy of a fire at a BP refinery in Texas in March 2005, which led to 15 deaths: “The only way to address something like that is with complete honesty and accountability. Companies so often make statements in language no one can understand, and these are designed to limit what people know.”

Two years later, he resigned from BP suddenly when a former partner sold his story to a newspaper, outing him as gay. “Thinking back to my mother’s advice, I had always kept my private life pretty private. For days [after being outed] I was hounded, and I had to decide what to do next. I resigned from everything and decided to start again.”

He went on to acknowledge that he also found a significant amount of support from the business and LGBT communities, as well as complete strangers. He noted that “two-thirds of people who are out at university go back into the closet when they join the workforce…more progress is needed,” adding that there should be no room whatsoever for bigotry in the workplace, and companies should always provide an inclusive, open place for their staff. 

Browne now serves as Executive Chairman of L1 Energy, Chairman of Huawei UK, the Tate Galleries and Donmar Warehouse. He is the author of a number of books including his memoir Beyond Business, popular science book Seven Elements that have Changed the World, The Glass Closet - a commentary on the acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people in business - and most recently, Connect, about how companies succeed by engaging radically with society.

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