Bobbi Pickard, a Project Manager at BP who also heads up Trans in The City, tells Lotte Jeffs about empathetic leadership and ‘blowing the bloody doors off’ trans awareness at BP
Who was the first person you came-out to and do you remember how that felt?
I was in my early 20s and I told my wife at the time. It felt hugely stressful. In those days – the 1990s – there was no internet, no information at all on what transgender meant. The word wasn’t even in popular language. So, it was really difficult and there was a huge outpouring of emotion over one really intense evening. I’ll never forget it.
How did the long process of acknowledging your true self and coming out as transgender effect your career?
Ten years after I came out to my wife, I came out to the first of my work mates. People might think that coming out is one event – boom and it’s done. My coming out story is a gradual progression over 30 years. Undoubtedly not being out affected my work. I was very successful and I was very good at least at some of the roles that I did. I think I did a reasonable job of being a leader, but I was carrying a huge burden and looking back I think I was almost certainly suffering from some kind of depression. It absolutely effected my performance and self-esteem. It still effects my self-esteem now.
I’m very aware that the career I had in senior management and banking was very much down to the fact that I was expressing as a white male at the time. I don’t think I would have had anything like the career I’ve had unless I was expressing in that way.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
I’ve always had an empathic leadership style. The real difference is in the past I had to temper that empathy and leading in that way with not betraying that I was transgender. When I came out it had two effects – first I could react openly in those times when I knew empathy could help a situation. There are times when you’re a leader that you have to be straight down the line and show people where you need to go, but there are lots of other times when you can get that empathy returned and that’s how you really build a team that really want to work together rather than individually.
In what ways has that changed since you’ve been out as trans at work?
Since I’ve been out and I can be open about my journey and how I feel, I’m more open with my reactions and that’s helped other people come out and talk about struggles they’ve had with their parents for instance, or their own mental wellbeing. When you know more about people you can work out the path to get the best out of them.
Tell us about the work you do for Trans in the City and how it helps people.
It became clear to me that very few organisations had any real trans awareness, and they were all competing with each other on diversity. So the idea was to bring all those companies I knew had trans role models or had done some work in that space together to all work as a single entity. We started with seven companies three years ago and now we’re up to 250. I put a huge amount of my own time into it. It’s important because I see so much abuse online and in public forums and that’s not the reality of the situation in organisations. I think it’s a very useful and controlled way to get the message out. We are positive and not confrontational. Organisations are hugely keen on diversity and inclusion and the advantages, but lots don’t have that one bit of knowledge or awareness to kick off trans inclusivity.
Have you experienced much opposition to the work you do in this space?
Very little direct opposition. The biggest challenge is the same one that every ‘diversity’ faces in a large organisation and that’s ignorance and apathy. These two things that really hinder companies becoming properly diverse and properly inclusive. People that don’t know and don’t care are the biggest enemies of any diversity programmes. People have different priorities and interests and stuff they’re dealing with themselves. Sometimes it’s a lot to ask people to listen to what I’ve got to say when they are dealing with a whole load of stuff in their lives.
That’s a generous way of looking at it!
I think, you’re right, it is. But that’s because you can’t go through a whole load of rubbish in your life like I have without understanding you’re not the only person who has suffered. But the only way to really beat people’s opposition is to work like hell. You just have to put in hours and hours of work.
On that subject, is there a sense that if you are a minority you have to be excellent in everything you do. You can’t be mediocre and black or gay or trans?
Yes absolutely. I’m quite privileged at having both sides of the view – three main perspectives really. First, looking at it from someone who previously lived as a supposedly straight white male. Then I get the perspective of looking at it as being a woman in industry and also as someone who is part of the LGBT community. There were times when I was expressing as a man that I was going for a role internally (at another big company not BP) where they essentially said, ‘I know you can’t do the job but I’ll give you a punt and see how you get on. And I absolutely guarantee that if I was being me in that situation that wouldn’t have been the conversation.
What are some of the other differences you’ve noticed since expressing as your true, female, self at work?
It is interesting. When I started to transition – people always said to me almost jokingly, you’re going to experience things differently. But I absolutely did. For instance, I used to be in meetings as senior PM and if I started talking people would stop talking and listen and do that respectful questioning thing. These days if I’m in meetings and I start talking, normally halfway through someone will talk over me. That’s something that became really evident to me about a year ago, the time that I really started looking and dressing like me.
Overall, what was the experience of coming out as trans at BP like?
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I reached the stage where I knew I had to transition. I was fairly convinced that I’d have to leave – BP was very inclusive but had no trans awareness at all. I went in to see my manager – he’s an amazing chap called Simon Hodgkinson – and we were having a conversation around BP Pride when I told him. He just looked at me and said, “You need to be yourself. We always say bring your whole self to work, so bring your whole self and if you have any problems, I’ll be here to sort it out for you”. And he absolutely was. I don’t think a week went by in those first couple of years that he wasn’t checking in on how things were going.
What would your advice be to someone considering coming out as transgender at work?
The first thing to do is talk to your closest work colleagues and make a little support bubble for yourself. Explain everything to them and if you don’t have the information yourself, go to someone who does. Hopefully if your company is even halfway decent they will have an LGBT group – go and talk to them because they will be your friends, and they will be your allies. After that, talk to your manager and HR. You might not know where you are heading or what you want to do. Hopefully the company will have some transitioning guidelines which will spell out the expectations on your manager and the expectations on you. Look at them together. After that it’s really entirely up to you. Once I reached that stage, I took the approach of finding the biggest rock I could and throwing it into the tranquil waters of BP to create the largest splash. I had a phrase for that first year – I wanted to blow the bloody doors off trans awareness in BP.
How do you respond when a colleague or work associate miss-genders you?
I didn’t correct people when they misgendered me at first. Because I did that evolution of expression, I was very tolerant around pronouns as there was a long time in my early transition when I was expressing androgynously. And to be really honest, after 48 years of being addressed as ‘he, him, Mr, sir’ it probably felt as weird to me as it did to everyone else to start being called ‘she’. It took me a bit of time to get used to it and that surprised me. When I became more comfortable as ‘me’, now just about everyone refers to me as female. Normally when people refer to me as ‘he’ now, it’s clear they are doing it in an insulting way so I normally diffuse the situation by saying, “you can call me whatever you want, I don’t care”. If I start getting offended with people using the wrong pronoun for me in a malicious way, then that gives them control over me. And I’m not going to let them do that. If they try to use that as a lever against me, I’ll diffuse it.
Have you always felt welcomed by the LGB community?
It’s rubbish that there’s a mystical split between the LGB and the T. I’ve never come across an organisation that hasn’t been supportive of every single letter.
What does it mean to be a good ally?
People might think to be an ally you have to know everything about being gay or lesbian or black or differently-abled or trans. But it’s absolutely not the case. Being a good ally is just saying “I support you to be you”. And that’s the only thing you need to know, or say.
Who’s your biggest inspiration?
Simon Hodgkinson, the manager I came out to three years ago. I’ve known him 20 years. He’s one of those managers who just gets people’s respect and everybody loves him. He’s so straight down the line. You always know what he expects and where the boundaries are. He’s also so empathetic and remembers so many details about people. Within a week of starting he knew everybody’s name and something about them so he could walk past them in the corridor and say “Hi Jim, how’s your wife’s foot?” or whatever. And what I learnt from that was that you don’t have to be this really strict, know-it all, driving force. You can be empathic, hold your hands up and say you don’t know, be interested in your staff. And still command respect.
What could your alternative career have been?
If I wasn’t in this business, or in diversity and inclusion, if I had been more confident, then I would have been a session musician. I play guitar, and bass, double bass and ukulele. I’m trying to play banjo but I’m really bad at it. I did have a band until Covid came along, but I still record songs.
What are you most proud of?
I don’t do proud actually. Honestly, my self-esteem is so low after so many years I never feel that anything I do is good enough. I just feel that I should be doing more. That drives me on and keeps me going.