Lord John Browne, widely perceived as a business titan, crashed and burned this week resigning as BP chief executive amidst messy, tabloid headlines exposing his gay lifestyle. But as Businessweek columnist Jeffrey Sonnenfeld correctly notes, his personal life was not really the issue.
Browne’s problem was that he flouted his widely proclaimed corporate principles. Other Big Oil execs and, indeed, all corporate leaders should take warning.
Sonnenfeld writes, "This brilliant business titan’s fall likely is due to the conflict between how he actually managed the company and the public principles he claimed were the essence of BP’s corporate character. Tragic mishaps in safety, environmental lapses, and questionable competitive maneuvers—not his lifestyle—eroded the company’s self-righteous advertising image and Browne’s legitimacy to lead."
Browne was responsible for the $200 million image campaign claiming BP stands for "Beyond Petroleum." After examining actual expenditures, Greenpeace gave him an award for "Best Impression of an Environmentalist."
Actually his drive for cost cutting caused the Texas City oil refinery explosion that killed 15 and big oil spills in Alaska.
It was this great gulf between attempted public image and actual performance that did him in. The board of directors had already decided to send him off into the sunset early in July.
He was forced to resign this week not because of his personal life, but because on top of the early failure to match speech with action, he lied to a judge.
Listen closely, Big Oil execs: It’s not what you say; it’s what you do.