Dame Inga Beale: “I was told I didn’t deserve to be alive”

The former CEO of Lloyd's of London reveals the leadership lessons that shaped her career as one of the most powerful women in the City.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 21 Jan 2020

Dame Inga Beale was the first woman to lead insurance giant Lloyd's of London and one of the most powerful figures in the City. In 2015, she topped a list of 100 leading LGBT executives - the first woman and the first openly bisexual person to be ranked number one. She stepped down from Lloyd’s last year following a campaign to drag it into the modern age, which was met with stiff resistance. She reveals her career journey, her toughest moments, coming out at work – and why she’s campaigning for more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

On rebelling:

As a kid, I was a loner and a bit of a rebel. I was the middle child with two siblings. Both had blond hair. I had dark hair. They teased me that I was adopted. I used to go on long cycle rides so I wouldn’t have to be around them. Even at seven, I’d cycle off on my own.

I was smart but I’d often get detentions at school. I got thrown out of history class because the teacher thought I was so unbearable. If I liked a subject, I’d get top marks. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother and I’d get zero. 

On her early career:

I grew up in Newbury and was desperate to move to London – it seemed so glamorous. I planned the move all on my own; I found a little bedsit in Crouch End and got a place at uni (it was a polytechnic back then) but the course was dull and boring, and all the other students seemed so childish. After a few months, I quit. I needed money so I bought an old bicycle and cycled around, trying to find a job. I ended up working in insurance in the City. All my colleagues were men. Before long, I was drinking pints of beer at lunchtime in The Lamb in Leadenhall Market. I was treated like one of the lads.

On promotion:

I started working for the insurance division of General Electric (GE). They had a proactive talent management programme, which meant managers were required to promote women and people from ethnic minorities. I was “the woman” (the one and only woman) but I turned my first promotion down. I didn’t think I was capable enough and I was petrified. At that stage, I’d been working for 14 years and I hadn’t managed a single person. After taking an assertiveness course for women, I eventually said yes to that promotion: it was my first role in management – and my first company car. It was all very exciting and I started to understand how satisfying it could be to manage and develop other people. I took every opportunity that GE put in front of me and my career took off. If I hadn’t worked for GE, I don’t believe I would have become CEO of Lloyd’s. 

On her darkest moment:

In 2006, I took over as CEO of Swiss reinsurer Converium, becoming the first woman to run a financial services institution in Switzerland. I was 43 at the time – and I’d never run a plc in my life. We turned the company around and doubled its market cap. I couldn’t have been happier; I felt like I’d nurtured this baby back to health. Then along came a hostile bid from a French company – and I hit rock bottom. It felt like my entire world had been taken away from me. I was crying, screaming and hysterical.  My girlfriend had never seen me like that – I’d always been so strong. After that night, I never shed another tear over work. I learned that we’re just pawns in this world. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are as an individual; if you can’t manage the politics, you’re nothing.   

On coming out:

I was always out in my non-work life but I kept my sexuality hidden at work. After the hostile bid, my PA Sheila and I left the firm. One Saturday night, she took me out for dinner because she felt sorry for me, thinking I was on my own. She didn’t know I had a girlfriend. She asked me how I was coping with everything and I thought, “I’ve deceived this woman. This is absurd. My girlfriend should be here. I’m not doing this anymore!” That was the trigger point. When I went to an interview at Zurich Insurance, I told the CEO upfront: “I’m with a woman. I hope that doesn’t cause a problem?” He said, “No.” It wasn’t an issue at all. I wondered why the hell I’d been quiet about it for all those years.

On abuse:

When I was the boss of Lloyd’s of London, the Financial Times featured me in its list of influential LGBT+ execs. I was sent hate mail: letters and emails telling me I didn’t deserve to be alive. They were rude, sexist and homophobic. I ignored them and threw them all away. With hindsight, I wish I’d kept them – but that was my coping mechanism. Sometimes I feel like the Terminator: I keep going no matter what missiles are aimed at me.

On equality:

We’re fighting against inequality all the time. We have to support equal benefit for all, regardless of gender. As to how we achieve full equality, the answer is still very elusive. It seems overwhelming, too big an issue to address. But we have to try. We have to aim for it.

Dame Inga Beale was interviewed by public artist and Agent of Change Martin Firrell at Management Today’s Inspiring Women conference and in his book Ugly Sweaty Men.

We will be showcasing the country’s remarkable, talented, visionary and ground-breaking businesswomen of all ages, at every level and across all sectors, and those companies and colleagues that are helping them to succeed. Enter the Inspiring Women in Business Awards here.

Image credit: Martin Firrell (quote: Inga Beale)

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