Browne: CEOs need better work/ life balance

The ex-BP boss tells MT it's hard to strike a healthy balance when you're at the top. He should know.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Would Lord Browne still be at BP if he’d spent less of his time as CEO working? Seems a bit counter-intuitive - but when MT caught up with the former BP boss this week, he suggested that the mistakes in his personal life that ultimately led to his downfall happened partly because he was too absorbed by events at work. ‘I always like to think it’s possible to run a business and maintain a sense of balance,’ Browne told MT. ‘But I haven’t met a large number of people who run big or very big companies who can.’ Although since he now has about eight jobs, is he really practising what he’s preaching?

Browne freely admits that his preoccupation with all things BP bordered on obsession – whether he was in Kazakhstan eating sheep’s eyes, meeting Colonel Gaddafi in a tent in the middle of the desert, or visiting San Agustin in Colombia under the protection of armed guards. And he certainly had plenty to worry about towards the end of his tenure, with the fall-out from the fire at the Texas City refinery and the oil spillage in Alaska. But at the same time he failed to deal with issues in his personal life: a disgruntled ex-boyfriend outed him in a national newspaper, prompting the court case and lie under oath that eventually forced him to resign. ‘I think I probably didn’t see it coming,’ he admits. ‘There was Texas City, Alaska, all these sorts of things going on – the reality was that I was occupied with business.’

Browne doesn’t believe you can separate business and personal values entirely, however. A good example of this was his determination to push an environmental agenda during his time at BP – a stance that was largely unprecedented at the time, especially in the energy sector. It may not have won him many fans in the industry, but he spoke at Harvard on the subject and spent time with fellow proponents (including the likes of film-star-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger – we’d have paid good money to witness that meeting).

He’s now playing an active role in green energy as MD of Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm that specialises in renewables. In fact, this is just one of the many roles he’s taken on since leaving BP – he also sits on four boards, is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, chairman of the Tate galleries and chairs an independent cross-party panel on the financing of higher education. So that’s eight jobs, at least. Phew. ‘I prefer my life now but only because I’ve had the past experiences,’ Browne explains. ‘I love the life I have at the moment. The balance is just right.’

BP shareholders may hope that Browne’s successor Tony Hayward does a slightly better job of getting that balance right. But the omens aren’t necessarily good – Hayward was a protégé of Browne’s, part of a mentor group known as the ‘turtles’ (so-called after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, believe it or not, because they had a knack of immediately appearing wherever and whenever they were needed.) Let’s hope he’s not a chip off the old Splinter.

Beyond Business by John Browne, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

In today's bulletin:

BT's giant pension deficit will take 17 years to plug
Diageo sales flat as drinkers shun premium brands
Thomas Cook cashes in on dodgy Redknapp advert
Browne: CEOs need better work/ life balance
Editor's blog: The not-so-beautiful game

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