Lessons From a Gay Business Pioneer: Oil Tycoon Lord John Browne
British oil magnate Lord John Browne is enjoying what he calls his “third chapter in the energy business.”
As Conrad Liveris wrote last month in The Advocate, the former CEO of BP, was outed in 2007:
“It was on the front page of newspapers around the world. What should have been a watershed moment for LGBT power became an embarrassment — he was forced out of the closet by the tabloid reports of a former lover and was nearly charged with perjury, and he eventually resigned from his position.”
Browne, 68, is now in the midst of a comeback as the executive chairman of L1 Energy, a relatively new player in the oil business backed with billions from Russia. He is at the helm as the entire industry contracts under the dramatic slump, readjusting as oil that used to cost $100 a barrel now hovers hovering in the high $30s.
But the former CEO of the controversial company once known as British Petroleum sees this moment as an opportunity for his new company and the energy industry as a whole: "Compared to the past, I think there is much better information and greater insights," Browne told the Houston Chronicle last month.
If there's one thing Browne has after decades in boardrooms of high-earning energy companies, it's insight into how much has changed in terms of business culture. He is the author of several books, including Connect: How Companies Succeed By Engaging Radically With Society, The Seven Elements, and his memoir about being outed and how “coming out is good for business,” The Glass Closet.
“I wanted to write a book which explained what I did, so no one thought it was a good idea to repeat what I did,” Brown told The Advocate with a smirk.
“We’ve got a way to go still,” Browne said in the interview, conducted just days before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, making marriage equality the law of the land. “No one should rest on their laurels and say, ‘We’re done,'" Browne cautioned. "We’re not done. There’s plenty to do.”
When The Glass Closet was published in the summer of 2014, The New York Times dubbed Browne “the first current or former chief executive of a major publicly traded corporation to acknowledge that he is gay.” Apple's Tim Cook followed in October 2014, as the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to come out.
A year later, in June 2015, Browne launched a media campaign that involved sending 150 business leaders, executives, influencers, business-school deans, and members of the U.K. Parliament a paperback copy of The Glass Closet. Then he asked them to publicly declare their commitment to LGBT inclusion in the workplace, reaching out to each representative via Twitter, using the hashtag #BeOutAtWork.
“Inclusion means people feel part of a team. And in order to feel that, they have to be themselves. They have to be respected for themselves,” Browne told The Advocate. “As you bring down the barriers, you make it safe. You make it safe for people to feel that they can come out. Then this extraordinary thing happens: people who are included are engaged. And when they’re engaged, they perform very, very well.”
Browne wrote about the value of leadership, authenticity, and what he termed “the hidden cost of hidden lives” in an article for CNN in 2014 titled “Six Ways CEOs Can Smash the Glass Closet,” in which he also described his regrets.
“I led two separate lives," he wrote.
"The first one involved being the public face of one of the world's largest companies. The second was my private life as a gay man.
“When I lied in a witness statement to protect my privacy, those two worlds collided, and I lost the career which had structured my entire professional life.
“I wish I had been braver to come out earlier during my tenure as CEO of BP.”
“If life were better, I would have come out earlier,” he told The Advocate. “I could have been a great role model, and I would have loved to have been. But the circumstances of my life were such that it never seemed possible to me. That’s what I would have liked to have done again. No doubt about that.”
While focused on advice and insight, Browne’s memoir is tinged with those regrets. The Times called it “a candid and unsparing book about his tortured life as a closeted gay chief executive.”
Browne told The Advocate that after he was outed, what surprised him was the outpouring of support from colleagues and friends, even people he didn’t know.
“Strangers would come up to me and want to shake my hand and say, ‘we’re right with you.’ It made the hair stand up on the back of my head. And I realized, after all this persuasion, that there was definitely a new life,” said Browne. “This definitely said, ‘the best is yet to come,’ to me. It was time to change my life. And for the first time in my life, I was openly gay, and proud of it.”
He wrote in his memoir that many had already guessed he was gay, but just didn’t feel the need to bring it up. One telltale sign: “A grown man bringing his mother to company events,” he wrote.
But he just couldn't wrap his mind around the idea that his colleagues would accept him for who he was.
“I was a child of the late 1940s,” Browne told The Advocate. “And when I was growing up both here [in the U.K.] and in the United States, being openly gay was not at all compatible with being in business."
“My mother had taught me, being a survivor of Auschwitz, there are two things to remember: one is, never tell anyone a secret. Secondly, if you’re a member of a minority, remember that the minorities always get punished when the going gets tough.
“In my head, I had all these fears: I’d lose all my friends, my business contacts, I’d lose my self-respect, I’d be regarded as a joke, etcetera, etcetera."
In his memoir he recalled that someone called out “gay scum” as he left BP, the company he had spent a lifetime helping to build.
He was cleared of wrongdoing in the criminal investigation, maintained his standing in the House of Lords and now has a new (but far smaller) oil company to run. More importantly, The Times reported that following his resignation, he decided to have coffee with a Vietnamese man who wrote him a fan letter.
Browne told The Advocate that the 34-year-old man is still a fan, and more. “I happen to have a partner of eight years standing, and I’m very happy with that,” he said.
Browne conceded that although his partner prefers to stay out of the limelight, his partner’s business has actually been positively impacted by all the attention. Browne also revealed that that he relies on this man for brutally honest critiques of his writing.
He chuckles. "The harshest critics are the people who love you, right?"