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CEO Focus

Leaders in transition: Perspectives on leaving the top job

6/5/2018
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Research undertaken by Heidrick & Struggles found that only 13 in every 1,000 CEOs of publicly listed companies move on to a comparable position when they step down from the top job.1 So what happens to them when they leave? In this compendium, Leaders in Transition, we offer the insights of four leaders who have been through this process: Nils Andersen, Mike Rees, General Sir Richard Barrons, and Antony Jenkins. This is the first time that most of them have spoken publicly about their experiences since stepping down.

Leading a large organization requires a special set of skills. In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment, leaders need to possess a combination of exceptional intellectual agility, resilience, and drive. Consistently, the leaders we interviewed told us that the job is increasingly complex, with a need to balance many, often conflicting, demands. However, virtually all found that the experience of leaving the top job to be tougher than they expected, whether their exit was planned over a long period or a sudden departure. For some, this is a journey of transformation; for others, it is one of complete reinvention—whether by accident or design.

Traditionally, CEOs of listed companies have opted to extend their careers by serving as non-executive directors (NEDs), where they can bring their management experience to a governance role. At least one of the leaders interviewed for this compendium has built a fulfilling and rewarding portfolio of NED roles. For others, however, only an executive role will do.

What our contributors have in common is that the all-consuming nature of a top leadership role left little or no time to plan their next career move. When an exit is abrupt and unexpected, as for most of the leaders we profile here, the loss of purpose is further compounded by a sense of shock.

Little in the career of CEOs prepares them for a period of self-reflection. For CEOs defined by their former jobs, there is a temptation to withdraw from public life altogether, whether because of a sense of lost identity or fear that a change in status might, in some way, diminish them. Yet the months directly after stepping down from the top job can be a critical period, a point borne out by all the leaders we interviewed for this compendium. Engagement rather than withdrawal is the best path to reinvention, whatever its desired form.

Indeed, these leaders reveal that it takes considerable determination for former CEOs (or equivalent leaders at the very top of their organization) to reinvent themselves successfully, particularly if they wish to continue in a senior executive role.

Many people define themselves by what they do, and for those in top leadership roles, this is even more likely to be the case. When that role ends suddenly, finding a new sense of purpose, let alone a new career, is a difficult process.

While acknowledging the many privileges that a top CEO role brings, the surprising flip side of the coin is a perceived lack of freedom. While the appearance to the outside world is that the holder of the top job calls all the shots, the reality from a CEO’s vantage point often looks quite different. Every hour of every day is mapped out and accounted for—so much so that one former CEO described his life as being like an “indentured servant . . . you have to give up part of who you are.”

That leaves little or no room for maneuver when it comes to planning the next step in one’s career. Yet counterintuitive though this might seem, refusing to be defined by the role or the company is a valuable lesson to learn. Maintaining a certain level of detachment, although hard to do, pays dividends when it comes to making the right choices for one’s next role.

CEOs’ transitions have considerable significance for companies. When leaders of this caliber and level of experience disappear from the market, there is a loss to corporate life and to wider society. In effect, we are witnessing a brain drain. Although competition is fierce for the top positions, few people are equipped to deal with the enormous demands of the role. This loss of talent among proven leaders, therefore, has serious implications for the business world.

Seen through the lens of the majority of people, the life of a CEO appears to be a rarefied existence for which these leaders are generally handsomely remunerated. The effects of losing their job are mitigated by the fact that most will have financial security—a luxury in the 21st-century workplace. Our interviews with leaders showed us that these are a group of individuals not only driven by a will to succeed but also motivated by wanting to use their considerable talents to make a wider contribution to society.

Some of our contributors have already achieved their goal and have successfully transitioned to new and highly fulfilling careers—others are still on that continuum. All have found the process of transition, although challenging, to be revelatory and a time of personal growth and learning.

We are profoundly grateful to all the leaders who have shared their insight, wisdom, and experiences to contribute to this compendium.

Interviewees

NILS ANDERSEN

Chairman of Dansk Supermarked Group and AkzoNobel; former CEO of Maersk Group

MIKE REES

Former deputy group CEO of Standard Chartered

GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS

Senior associate fellow at the London School of Economics; former commander of the United Kingdom’s Joint Forces Command

ANTONY JENKINS

Founder and executive chairman of 10x Future Technologies; former group CEO of Barclays


For a particular interview, click on the names above; for the full report, flip through the interactive version above or click the download button for the PDF.


About the project team

David Boehmer (dboehmer@heidrick.com) is the global managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Financial Services Practice; he is based in the San Francisco office.

Jenni Hibbert (jhibbert@heidrick.com) is the regional managing partner of the Financial Services Practice in Europe and Africa and a member of the CEO & Board Practice; she is based in the London office.

Steve Mullinjer (smullinjer@heidrick.com) is a partner in the Hong Kong office and a member of the CEO & Board Practice.

References

From our global study of 6,128 listed companies between 2001 and 2016.

Related thinking

Podcast episode 8: Reimagining the role of the bank CEO

How to leave a job gracefully

Why you should—and shouldn’t—join a board


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