General Sir Richard Barrons
General Sir Richard Barrons, 59, retired as the United Kingdom’s commander of Joint Forces Command in April 2016 after 3 years in the role and a 40-year military career during which he saw active service in places including Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, and Northern Ireland. He provides insights about transitioning out of military leadership and finding a niche that allows you to build a relevant portfolio.
When Sir Richard retired from the military, he felt ready to move into the commercial world. He has since discovered that there is no clearly defined path for senior military leaders to transition to an equivalent role in business.
On April 5, 2016, I woke up for the last time as commander of Joint Forces Command, and on that day I commanded 23,000 people. My budget was £4.3 billion a year, and I had to bring it in on a sixpence. I was supported by a headquarters of 150 and had a personal staff of 8 people.
On the afternoon of April 5, 2016, suddenly that was all over, and there was just me and an iPhone.
As you step out, you are predisposed to think that all that experience is going to be useful to somebody. The level I felt I would be most comfortable at would be CEO or chairman, but I eventually worked out that I was not going to be CEO of anything anytime soon.
If you’ve spent 40 years in a military environment, you obviously become somewhat conditioned by it, and only with hindsight does it become clear what the transition involves and what the obstacles to it are. I’ve had to learn how this world works. As someone with a military career, you have no profit-and-loss experience you can show to a chairman or shareholders that would give them confidence that you are going to deliver a dividend.
The fact is that it’s very hard to make the transition, and I now know why it’s hard. If you aren’t easily convertible into an executive role, then you are going to end up doing advisory work and building a portfolio.
What I have learned is that this will take time. My advice to others would be, if you have enough money to live off, don’t panic.
From day one, Sir Richard was dead set against any role that would play to historical stereotypes of the retired military man as a sort of sage or ornamental presence.
Working is about self-esteem, purpose, and value; it’s not about money. I am capable of doing another big job because I like working and I plan to work into my 70s. If we are all going to live longer, we are all going to be looking at a second career.
I’m never going to starve or freeze, and some people would wonder why I am bothering and why I don’t go off and play golf or something. Well, for one thing, I don’t play golf, and for another, I didn’t want to go into a military twilight zone where jobs involve wearing tights or a hat with feathers in it. I’m not psychologically predisposed to doing that, but I accept that, by not choosing to go and fluff up regimental events, I made life harder for myself.
There was a time when firms in the City [of London] would have people like me schmoozing visitors and telling war stories. Those roles don’t really exist anymore, but some companies still hire [military veterans] as a bauble on the board. That’s not for me.
Instead, Sir Richard is finding business relevance in particular skills related to his military service, among them cyber and digital innovation.
In assembling a portfolio, I have to consider what people think I can offer. Mostly I find they are interested in senior military advice, whether it’s about the geostrategic context or the nature of conflict. I assembled a portfolio that I thought would keep me busy, and that has been instructive.
In my case, the business of intelligence is where my heart is. I led a proposition called Warfare in the Information Age about digital innovation, and I delivered cyber for the armed forces, both defensive and offensive. There’s a technical background that, perhaps uniquely, I can draw on, and some are interested in that. I have formed my own partnership focused on cyber and digital innovation, and my partners are a sort of band of brothers who have worked together on the digitization of our respective bits of the public sector. We are learning to convert what we did into an enterprise.
I am also a senior associate fellow at the LSE [London School of Economics] Global Strategies Programme, a senior associate fellow at RUSI [Royal United Services Institute], a senior visiting fellow at LSE, president and colonel commandant of the Honourable Artillery Company, and a regular media commentator—all of which keeps me in touch with my old world.
The next stage in my evolution is to connect myself to the right level of senior leadership because I can genuinely help at that level.
You have to keep going and find a way forward. By taking on satisfying advisory roles at the right level, you’re looking for the opportunity where you create the confidence that will enable you to move into something more substantial.
So where I am now in this transition is that I have gone through a learning experience to create this portfolio. It’s a work in progress.
Although Sir Richard sees many parallels between being a leader at the highest level in the armed forces and in the commercial world, he recognizes that there are some significant differences.
The role [of a military leader] is similar to that of a commercial CEO. Both are responsible for the daily operation and the future direction of their enterprises. In a senior military role, you’re responsible for a lot of money and a lot of people. You’re used to operating up to the prime ministerial level; you maintain a host of international relations with US and NATO partners and with the chiefs of defense, so you have a role in defense and diplomacy. And you are very used to making strategic and operational decisions about combat and conflict and managing all the complexities.
The lifestyle is also similar. As a career armed forces officer, for me there was no separation between life and work. Whether I was in operations, in a staff job, or in a command job, I lived to work, and my whole life revolved around it.
The difference is a CEO’s understanding about commerce and about value propositions. In business, you are accountable for profit and loss; it’s ultimately about money and cash and talent.
Sir Richard is concerned about an apparent lack of understanding about the military world in the United Kingdom, which leads UK businesses to miss out on valuable experience and talent.
The United Kingdom has little precedent of taking up a retired four-star officer and putting them in an executive role running an institution or a government agency. I’ve seen my American colleagues, my peers, move into senior posts in government or step into a multinational company’s board quite naturally. It’s partly cultural—the United Kingdom’s public- and private-sector leaders are not as disposed to take on senior military people as they are in France, Germany, or the United States. But the United Kingdom also has restrictive legal rules governing former senior public servants taking on commercial roles.
There are also cultural misunderstandings about how the military operates. People think that it’s all about hierarchy and that we are all automatons, but that is absolutely not true. You cannot get people to die for you on the grounds that you have told them that is what they have to do. It simply does not work like that. Just as in any other sphere of life, getting ordinary people to do extraordinary things is about personal relationships, trust, and purpose.
Nonetheless, Sir Richard argues that senior military personnel are often poorly prepared for life in the commercial world and that more bridges should be built between the two.
It wasn’t long between when I decided to retire and when I stepped down, so I had no real preparation for leaving. And while there’s actually quite a good system for the majority of military personnel who leave, that’s not true at the most senior level. When you are a career officer, you live in a bubble. I’ve seen it among my peers: when that world of military service comes to an end, there is a whiff of panic. There needs to be a more systemic approach from the armed forces, so the people who are two years behind me in their careers understand how the world of business works.
I run into tragic cases of three-star officers from all three services who’ve retired and cannot network, because they’ve been conditioned out of it in the roles that they’ve had. They think they’re going to find a full-time job by responding to an advertisement, but that hardly ever works.
People like me could come and talk to them so that they don’t leave with the same preconceptions I did. That’s mostly about therapy and helping my peers not have quite such a painful ride. In most cases, opportunities for me have come through relentless networking through defense and industry, and quite often it’s a result of speaking at an event where someone finds what you said interesting.
Another useful approach would be forums that help build personal relationships between senior military leaders (from the two-star level upward) and chairmen, CEOs, and those people who make commercial appointments, so that we establish a pathway into commercially facing roles. The solution must surely be to do a much better job at connecting captains of industry with captains of the armed forces earlier so that they have personal networks as they step out.
This excerpt was drawn from Leaders in Transition: Perspectives on Leaving the Top Job, a compendium of interviews with senior leaders who have moved on from a CEO role. For the full compendium, click here.