Think at London Business School
Julia Hamilton MBA2023 argues that the onus to drive change should be on organisations rather than individuals
By Rosie Parry
Inga Beale was never going to be a typical CEO. She struggled with authority figures during her school years and never quite got around to securing a degree. But by 2017, she had been awarded a Damehood for her services to the UK economy and was well-known for revolutionising the culture at Lloyd’s. Here, she details her extraordinary journey (a recording of her talk can also be seen here.)
When I reflect on my life and career, I can see how my experiences of feeling ‘different’ have impacted my approach to business and driving an agenda of inclusion. Looking back, I can see that those feelings started when I was young. I grew up in a very happy family in Newbury, about 90 kilometres West of London. I was the middle of three children, but I was born looking different to my brother and sister. They were both typically Nordic, with white-blonde hair (we had a Norwegian mother). I, on the other hand, had dark brown hair – my siblings told me I was adopted. I think that having to develop an independent streak at such a young age did help shape my career, because I was never afraid to do things my own way.
That said, I was also quite an angry child. I was angry about feeling like the odd one out, and I was angry with my parents for “selfishly” bringing me into the world – I felt like that was something they’d done for themselves, not for me. These feelings stayed with me, even until I was working in the 1980s. I mention these negative feelings because I feel that so often when we talk about inclusion we think about the big issues – but these seemingly small differences can impact people too. Sometimes we might not even realise we’re being exclusionary.
As a naturally rebellious person, I struggled to apply myself at school. In the end I was essentially asked to leave by our headmaster. He told me I needed to buck up my ideas if I wanted to stay, which I responded to by saying “well, stuff your school.” In the end, I finished my education at a local technical college. The bright lights of the city were calling me – so it was then off to London, where I started a university degree while living in a grotty bedsit with no heating.
I rebelled again and left university, yet still, I was determined to stay in London. I thought I would work for a year and then go back to university. But once I was in the world of insurance, right in the heart of the financial district in the City, I was too excited to go back to my studies. Again, not having a degree did sometimes make me feel like the odd one out – I probably did have a bit of a chip on my shoulder for a while. I worked with a lot of men and again felt like the odd one out. You have to remember, this was the 80s. Insurance was a very male-dominated environment, 34 out of our 35 underwriters were men.
During those first eight or nine years of my career, sports were my saviour. I was rowing a lot at the beginning, rushing to get out on the water in Chiswick with my rowing crew after work. Then I started playing rugby – I played rugby for Wasps for 12 years. Looking back, I realise now sport was so important to me because the playing field was the only place I felt like I really belonged. I was part of the team and I felt valued for what I could contribute. That support network enabled me to be able to come into work every day, even when I was feeling odd and out of place.
However, sports can be a mixed bag for LGBTQ+ people. A lot of the ‘banter’ which is defended by some people, can quickly become abusive. It’s this same kind of banter that causes LGBTQ+ people and women to leave jobs or feel unsafe in the workplace.
I experienced awful sexism in the workplace. When I was 27, some colleagues hosted a cocktail party for the Jamaican tourist board and decorated the walls with tourism adverts, which were all just women in wet T-shirts and bikinis. Weeks after the party, these posters were still up in the office. I was so proud of myself for working up the courage to speak to my boss and explain why they made me uncomfortable. At first, he was very apologetic, but I came in the next day to find the posters wrapped around my workstation. I was so angry I walked out of the office and went straight home. I was sure I’d never work in insurance or finance again – so I decided to go backpacking.
“Once I was ‘out’, I realised how much effort it had taken to hide my sexuality. I felt better equipped to do my job, because I wasn’t wasting all that energy”
While I was travelling, I ended up working for my first ever female role model. She was the first senior women I’d really been exposed to, and I found her so inspirational, I decided I would go back after all. I knew this time things had to be on my own terms.
It was around this time that I started to date women. I didn’t want to open up about my sexuality in that environment, but it was a strain. When you’re trying not to out yourself it makes sense to remove yourself from most office chit-chat, but this can make you seem distant or not very approachable. I was in the closet for many, many years. In fact, I didn’t come out until 2007. I remember it quite clearly: I was in Zurich in Switzerland, and we'd just been subject to a hostile takeover which we’d been fighting for months. It was becoming clear that we were going to lose, which of course meant my team were all petrified about their jobs. I had to be incredibly strong for them, even in the middle of a media blitz and through all this uncertainty. Once it was over, I was talking to someone at dinner and they told me they didn’t know how I’d survived with having no-one to go home and offload or cry to. In that moment I realised I’d been lying to all these people – so much so that they were feeling sorry for me when I was actually in a happy relationship. I told myself that was ending right then. At my next job interview I just blurted out that I was in a lesbian relationship. The man interviewing me just said that was great, and that he hoped to meet her one day. I got the job.
Once I was “out”, I realised how much effort it had taken to hide my sexuality. I felt better equipped to do my job, because I wasn’t wasting all that energy. Of course, not everyone was completely onboard. When I first became CEO of Lloyd’s in 2014, I was shocked by the culture – bear in mind they’d only been accepting females on the trading floor since the 1970s, after nearly 300 years of an all-male workforce. I remember walking through the trading floor and marvelling at how all these men – regardless of their age – looked exactly the same as each other in their suits and ties.
Not only was I the first female CEO they’d had, but I wasn’t afraid to use words that had previously been taboo. I started talking openly about not seeing many gay, lesbian, or bisexual staff members – I think some people thought it was all just too much for that audience. Despite the criticism, I kept going. I knew I was on to something, so I kept talking. Slowly, related employee resource groups started springing up. I hadn’t hired a D&I consultant, so these grassroots movements were really my only support. Finally, people were coming together and properly discussing LGBTQ+ issues.
I will always remember the night we formally launched our LGBT network. It was a real celebration and we even had someone from Stonewall speaking. I remember looking at her and thinking wow, we’ve got somebody like this in the Lloyd’s offices. A member of staff approached me with a tear in his eye and told me he never thought he would see a moment like that at Lloyds, not in his whole 30 years there. It was a moment of such joy – I was sure he was about to come out. But what he actually said was that his son was gay, and he’d been avoiding talking about it because he was afraid of people’s reactions. Conversations like that remind me how the things we do in the workplace can seep out into our personal lives.
Now, more than ever, businesses have a duty to drive progress. Not only that, but society actually expects businesses to do the right thing, and CEOs to have an opinion. Previously, CEOs were very corporate, and all their communications were managed by a team, but now they need to be able to connect with their customers to build trust. Our smallest actions can have an enormous impact. If we want to change the world, we need to visibly challenge the status quo and be prepared to be outspoken advocates.
I was also careful to pick spokespeople from across the organisation, so it wasn’t always only me talking about LGBTQ+ issues. No one person can talk from experience about such a broad set of experiences, and I didn’t want to be the sole focus of our conversations.
After my girlfriend and I broke up after 12 years, I ended up with a man. Suddenly I was labelled as being bisexual and was being asked to put myself forward for recognition as bisexual – which was strange to me as I never went out seeking labels. Still, I wanted to be a force for change, so I put myself forward. Of course, there were some nasty comments and who can say if Lloyd’s suffered because of my approach. All I know is that I’m immensely proud of how successful we were during my time there. We completely modernised out approach to technology, in part because we were able to hire a diverse mix of talented people, who felt comfortable enough to be themselves and just focus on getting the job done.
I would urge anyone working today, whatever your role, to search for the courage to speak up for what’s right. Whether that means calling out inappropriate behaviour or being curious enough to really listen when people share their experiences and embracing their perspectives. Be a bull in a China shop but be smart about it.