Dame Inga Beale on business and diversity
As CEO of Lloyd’s of London, Dame Inga Beale wrestled to modernise an institution with centuries of history. Looking back on the lessons of her career, she tells Laurence Eastham why good business and diversity go hand in hand.
Dame Inga Beale is one of the most recognisable names in financial services. With nearly 40 years in business under her belt, Beale’s position as a leader in the field was cemented by a five-year tenure as CEO of global insurance market Lloyd’s of London. Since freeing herself from the constrictive diary that accompanied the role, Beale has taken on a portfolio of non-executive appointments and is focused on coaching, mentoring and sharing her knowledge of the sector.
In late June, she was announced as an advisory board member of the newly established Centre for Corporate Governance. Set up by the Institute of Directors but operationally independent, the body will investigate the governance issues facing boardrooms as businesses begin to emerge from them Covid-19 pandemic.
Now in what she calls the “last chapter” of her career, Beale admits that there wasn’t a masterplan behind her success. In fact, she may have never entered the world of insurance to begin with. With a talent for mathematics and “anything logical”, Beale was offered two jobs upon leaving school.
“Back in the 1980s, jobs [in finance] seemed to be plentiful. I was offered two at the same time – to be a trainee trust accountant for the Civil Aviation Authority or to join the Prudential as a trainee underwriter. I chose the Pru because they were going to pay me a few hundred pounds more a year,” she recalls.
“Some people gave their career a lot of thought – I didn’t. I’d grown up in a small market town. The bright lights of London were so appealing, I wanted to work there.”
Taking on Lloyd’s
Fast forward from the 1980s to December 2013 and a media flurry was created by the announcement of Beale as the new CEO of Lloyd’s. The institution, which had never appointed a woman to the top spot in its more than 300-year history, was increasingly accused of being culturally and technologically outdated in comparison with its international competitors.
Lloyd’s was still using pen and paper for much of its business and, as other sectors became more inclusive, the market was developing a reputation as the last bastion of male dominance in the City of London.
Beale already had first-hand experience of Lloyd’s and its growing pains. She had spent the previous two years heading Lloyd’s insurer Canopius Group, developing a deep understanding of how the market operated. Rather than acting as a deterrent, seemingly gargantuan tasks accompanying the CEO role that convinced Beale to tackle them head-on. “I wanted to modernise Lloyd’s and take on the challenge of introducing technology where decades of attempts had failed,” she says. “To me, there’s something very precious and special about Lloyd’s and the service it provides and yet it will be a museum if we don’t modernise it.”
Some of the changes that Beale introduced seemed like no-brainers. She banned lunchtime drinking and relaxed the market’s strict dress code – men had previously not been allowed in the Lloyd’s building unless they were wearing a suit and tie. Beale was surprised by the ensuing controversy: “I didn’t realise it would cause such a revolution. To me, it just seemed like the right thing to do, particularly to show the outside world that we’re modern, progressive, and we care for our customers and the products we’re delivering for them. There was huge pushback. It probably wasn’t the alcohol or the dress code per se, but there’s something bigger about your identity and what you stand for being attacked in some way.”
Despite the fierce opposition at the time, Beale feels she could have done more as CEO to shift the behaviour of the market. The subject causes her to pause for a moment: “The only thing that we didn’t move far enough with was the culture, in terms of the behavioural aspects. I thought there was enough momentum on changing behaviour and stopping inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment. Looking back, I should have perhaps been a bit more forceful on that. We did introduce the inclusive behaviours pledge – we got about 100 CEOs in the market to sign up and say they do not tolerate inappropriate behaviour. Somehow, perhaps we weren’t tough enough.”
Beale is referring to the fresh controversy that broke two months after her departure in January 2019. Following interviews with 18 female employees at the market, an investigation published by Bloomberg Businessweek described Lloyd’s as having an “atmosphere of near-persistent harassment”. A culture survey was soon rushed into action by management, finding that 8% of Lloyd’s staff had witnessed sexual harassment and 22% had seen a blind eye turned to inappropriate behaviour in the past year alone.
The market has since announced a raft of measures to tackle its seemingly endemic problems, including the creation of a gender balance plan and a culture advisory group. In November 2019, a “speak up” campaign that aimed to encourage the reporting of inappropriate behaviour targeted nearby pubs and bars as well as the famous Lloyd’s building on Lime Street. For Beale, now observing developments from the other side, the recent steps of progress are bittersweet: “It’s good. It’s just a shame it had to go through that negative period.”
Road to diversity
The mixed reaction is understandable. In addition to the modernisation measures she introduced at Lloyd’s, Beale ensured that she used her platform it was the to advocate diversity and inclusion initiatives on a global scale. She spent two years as a council member of LGBT charity Stonewall and is currently chair of the HIV commission at the National AIDS Trust.
Productivity improves if your employees are engaged. That means they’ve got to be respected and valued at work.
With trademark straightforwardness, Beale frames the benefits of improved diversity and inclusion as another no-brainer: “Fundamentally, the more diverse your team, the more successful you will be in going to new markets and the more innovative you are. That is proven by all the analysis that many companies have run around the world. You will not be successful in the future if you don’t take on board the need for these diverse voices around the table.
“I know how difficult it can be to manage diverse teams. People who manage homogenous teams like that it’s so easy – you all think the same and no one challenges anything. Managing a diverse group is challenging, but so much more interesting. There’s a huge personal benefit, as well as the business benefit.
“Productivity improves if your employees are engaged. That means they’ve got to be respected and valued at work. They’re going to want to do things and they’re going to be talking much more positively together in the workplace. If you have positive messages coming to you, you are much more productive. People don’t understand that the more included, valued and respected you feel, the better your output.”
The topic holds personal importance for Beale because of her own experience of navigating sexuality at the workplace. Beale now speaks openly about being bisexual, but she spent many years hiding relationships from colleagues and employers. It was in the late 2000s – before deciding to take on the looming machismo of Lloyd’s – that she eventually found the strain of living a double life to have become intolerable.
“I was in a relationship with a woman for 12 years. We moved to the US, we moved to France, we moved to Germany, we moved to Switzerland, and I still didn’t say anything. I would go to parties and leave my partner at home,” she recalls. “After a difficult time at work, my PA took me to dinner and asked how I had managed everything on my own. I realised that she, plus all the executive team, had probably been feeling sorry for me. I became riddled with guilt because of all the people I had been lying to. That was
when I decided to come out.”
This first-hand experience has helped inform Beale’s work on diversity and inclusion and strengthen her conviction in its benefits. She describes the experience of coming out at the workplace: “You’re not pretending and protecting. It’s easy to de-gender everything – you get very used to doing that. It is a wonderful feeling to be open about what you did and who you did it with.”
With the challenges of Lloyd’s and her personal life now in the past, Beale has settled comfortably into that aforementioned “last chapter”. In addition to the newly announced position at the Centre for Corporate Governance, Beale has signed up to be a board member at law firm Clyde & Co, a nonexecutive director at insurance services business Crawford & Company, and the Chair of private hospital group Mediclinic.
She says that, unlike many of her peers, she is well suited to the different pace of work: “I love the variety, the coaching aspect, and the freedom and flexibility it gives you. It’s a wonderful time. You feel you are better able to give back. You’re now sharing your knowledge in a way that perhaps you didn’t have the luxury of doing before.”
As Beale seeks to help steer her portfolio of firms – and the wider business landscape – through the choppy economic waters ahead, she advises that “transparent and authentic communication” will be key to keeping businesses afloat. With reference to the “huge pressure on budgets” at this time, Beale expects that the choices made by business leaders – and any reputational implications – will be increasingly scrutinised. “Ensure your people are at the heart of what you’re doing – some tough decisions will need to be taken and you will be judged on fairness,” she says.
“Consider this a marathon and not a sprint and that we are heading for a post-pandemic world that will mean we will have to make long-lasting adjustments.”
Beale isn’t yet certain what is next for her. She mentions a desire to work with “something really technologically advanced” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, “a company that hasn’t got a history to modernise”. It’s the same relaxed confidence that has served her well since the very beginning of her career.
She encourages those starting out to take a similar approach: “People think their first job is going to be really important and they don’t want to make mistakes. Life is much more interesting than that. Opportunities come along and, provided you’ve got the courage to take them, you’d be amazed what can open up for you.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of CA magazine.