Joanna Lumley’s ability to connect with people could teach many business leaders how to connect with their people. Dan Matthews chatted to the Absolutely Fabulous actor about her increasingly diverse CV
You’d be forgiven for asking how Joanna Lumley came to be profiled in a business magazine. She is a globally recognised actor with a career spanning six decades.
As we talk at a table in BAFTA’s London headquarters in Piccadilly, she admits her commercial experience is limited and that she’s hopeless with tax: “Thank God for accountants,” she sighs. “I have to be advised on everything about money.”
She owns a company, Chrysolite, named after a reference in the Shakespeare play Othello and meaning a gemstone in 17th-century parlance. She formed it in the late 1970s on the advice of her accountant at the time, while playing Desdemona.
“I was told to form it so I could account for expenses. But the tax authorities don’t seem to allow me many expenses so it’s a waste of time and I pay an immense amount of tax anyway. I’m stuck with it now.”
Hasn’t she considered one of those clever offshore tax companies in, just thinking out loud here, Panama? “I can’t bear tax evasion companies. I’ve always said I don’t want to dodge anything. It isn’t worth it, not for me. I’m not particularly greedy.”
In terms of formal business experience, this is about it for Lumley, but don’t give up on her yet; she has communication skills that are the envy of even the most ingratiating marketer. Throughout her long career a slew of commercial organisations have sought her out when they needed a charm offensive.
Her CV ranges from sitting on advisory boards for Friends Provident and Marks & Spencer to forming a charitable trust and appearing in commercials for Asda and Sky, as well as numerous gigs presenting at private-sector events.
Today, she’s at BAFTA for Grant Thornton’s latest Inspiring Business event and later is in conversation with BBC presenter Juliet Morris, giving an alternative view on what it takes to be successful and happy in life.
“I like meeting people who are not in my line of work,” she explains. “I do a lot of award ceremonies and usually they want me to talk for 10 or 15 minutes beforehand. It feels like a crowd of un-met friends.”
Business audiences have changed over the years, sometimes in disconcerting ways for a speaker. Lumley describes one occasion where she lost the crowd to their phones. “I came off and I said: ‘I’m so sorry, they were all looking down.’ Then they showed me this great big list of tweets. It was a relief but it’s fairly disconcerting on stage because you don’t get anything back from an audience on social media.”
Lumley might be surprised at her very genuine business credentials, but what company wouldn’t be interested in hiring her for a top communications job, such is her ability to connect with people.
Her credentials were on display in two high-profile campaigns to which she lent her backing: the Garden Bridge in London and, most famously, as a media figurehead in the campaign to give a fairer deal to Britain’s Gurkha regiments.
Other projects have rumbled on for decades with less press attention: her support for a free Tibet and compassionate world farming. Now, people make unsolicited approaches for her support. “People come to me a lot and it’s very hard to say no, but I have to sometimes because I know I won’t be able to do what they want me to.”
Before she became the face of the Gurkha Justice Campaign in 2008, progress towards winning full settlement rights had been slow. Before 2004 they were not allowed to live in the UK. During that year stringent qualification criteria came into force, which eased the situation only slightly. Lumley, whose father served as an officer in a Gurkha regiment, hassled, jockeyed and bullied ministers, including Immigration Minister Phil Woolas, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to improve the terms.
Eventually, they agreed that all Gurkhas with a service record of four years or more would be granted residency. It was a masterclass in getting a job done, in this case with help from a sympathetic media with who Lumley formed a strategic alliance.
“The press weren’t really caught up in it initially,” she recalls. “They’d take the odd snap but as the campaign went on we used to beg them to come along without much success – and then something happened.
“One day I came out from parliament with the latest lousy proposal and I was pretty upset. I sort of stamped my foot and I said: ‘I want you, whether you write this down or not, I want you to hear this.’
“They began to listen. When a paper gets hold of something and the journalists make it their own cause it’s a huge help because they push it out to the whole country. You can’t reach the UK without the media.”
Working with the public and private sector
A similarly comprehensive PR job has seen London’s Garden Bridge project green-lit, despite continued objections from niches within the public and press. Work is due to start this year and finish in 2018. Lumley has worked on hundreds of private sector projects, won over a sceptical public, fought powerful adversaries, made a fortune, championed causes, travelled the world and, in among it all, raised a son.
A business guru? You’d better believe it.
Images: Matt James