Antony Jenkins, 56, was group CEO of Barclays from 2012 to 2015. He is the founder and executive chairman of 10x Future Technologies, a fintech company. He discusses the appeal and drawbacks of the CEO role, as well as what led him to more entrepreneurial pursuits.
Jenkins believes that the glamour of the CEO job, while alluring, can come with a price—particularly when leaders lose sight of their own identity and interests in the face of the day-to-day pressures of the role.
Leading a large organization is a great privilege and certainly financially rewarding, but I did on occasion feel like an indentured servant at Barclays. It all looks very glamorous; the car shows up in the morning and drives you to work and to Heathrow, and you fly first-class. But you pay a price for that: you have to give up part of who you are. So I was always conscious of that trade-off, but I never felt defined by the role. In fact, I’ve never felt defined by any of the jobs I’ve had. I think that was an advantage in my transition, and it strengthened my hand when I stopped being CEO.
For some people, being a CEO brings a sense of self-worth, and that can disappear when they are no longer in the role. But, for me, leaving the job wasn’t as hard, because I wasn’t ever that concerned about the status that went with the job, and it wasn’t terribly important to me. It definitely helped that I had other things that I care about and other interests that I wanted to explore.
Of course, almost nobody gets to be a CEO overnight, and usually it’s the end of a career progression that has lasted decades, where you have bigger and bigger jobs, more and more responsibility, more and more demands upon your time. By the time you’ve gotten to that level, you’ve usually figured out, and I certainly I had, how to balance the workload and how to have downtime for myself, my family, or whatever else I was doing.
The demands on your time and the need to prioritize are immense. When I was running Barclays, there were 130,000 people in 60 countries and multiple lines of business. You could have 100 hours in a day and still need more time.
Did I feel under pressure? I think for me it was energizing. There were some very hard things that we had to do during that time, and there were problems that came up unexpectedly. Occasionally you would get physically tired, but I don’t recall feeling overwhelmed.
Whether a CEO’s departure is abrupt or drawn out, Jenkins says the challenges are similar.
I have friends who’ve been CEOs and gone through this transition in various formats. For some, like me, it was almost instant, and for others, quite prolonged. But I think the issues are essentially the same. You go from being incredibly busy to being considerably less busy. Former CEOs ask, “What am I going to do with myself?” But there are always things you can do because there’s a whole bunch of stuff you couldn’t do when you were CEO.
When you’ve gotten to that position, you’ve spent 20 to 30 years getting up every morning, going to work, coming home, and there’s a lot of structure. One of the hardest things about transitioning is that suddenly there is that lack of structure.
I decided that I wasn’t going to do what a lot of people do in those circumstances, and what a lot of people advised me to do, which is to go away for a year. I’ve got a strong work ethic, and I had a strong feeling that I still had something to contribute. Although the platform that I had was taken away, I wasn’t ready to hang up my boots. One of the things people fear, I think, is irrelevance and that people are not going to phone you up. That wasn’t the case for me.
Stepping down from the CEO role gives a leader much-needed time to plan and, Jenkins observes, become comfortable with new forms of uncertainty.
Suddenly, after 30 years of doing very intense corporate work, you have a lot of freedom. I describe this as the freedom to think and the freedom to act.
As you climb the corporate ladder, the choices in front of you are quite well defined. Either you move up to the next level inside your organization or you go and do that sort of thing somewhere else. You don’t go from running the credit card business to being a brain surgeon.
As a departing CEO, choices open in front of you, and you have to become comfortable with that. On the one hand, suddenly being faced with lots of choices can be a wonderful thing, and on the other hand, it can be hard. It takes time to get used to.
Also, once you’ve done that kind of role, you need to consider whether you would want to do it again, especially after being the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world. Would I want to do a big CEO role again? Never say never.
My focus as a CEO was to have a positive impact on the business. After I moved on, for me the question was what impact I wanted to have going forward and how I wanted to live my life. When I left, I thought I still had a point of view and something to add, so I needed to find the right platforms to do that.
Deciding what he didn’t want to do was as important for Jenkins as deciding what he did want to do, and it took time to work out his priorities.
Over the months that follow leaving a CEO role, you have to figure out what’s important to you, recognize that for the first time in your professional life you have this high degree of choice, and try to understand what matters.
For me, it really came down to being interested in technology, financial services, and education and what role I could play in those arenas. What would I find personally satisfying, and who would I want to work with in that space? I had the opportunity to look at new areas I hadn’t had time to look at before, so I spent a lot of time looking at venture capital, private equity, and fintech and ended up talking to the government about doing various things.
The first few months [after departing the CEO role] were both odd and, on occasion, difficult because you find yourself in all sorts of strange parts of the world talking to people you hadn’t talked to before. It’s both fun and disconcerting. It took time to coalesce into a point of view, an organizing principle.
My motivation for not pursuing another big CEO job was primarily because I thought I’d already done that. I wanted to try something different and do something more entrepreneurial, something where I had the ability to help change an industry at scale in fintech.
You can be a caretaker, or you can try to change things. I am not a good caretaker.
Jenkins believes that being a CEO of a large organization and being an entrepreneur running a start-up require many of the same qualities.
I have to say that my work life now is extremely varied, very stimulating, and largely devoid of the sort of nonsense you have to put up with in large companies. Starting a business from nothing is not an easy thing to do. There are lots of ups and downs, but on the whole I find it very gratifying.
An entrepreneur is somebody who sees that the world can be different, as opposed to a lot of people who see the world in a particular way and just want to optimize it.
I suppose I’ve always been an entrepreneur in some ways. I remember one of the first performance reviews I got early in my career where I was told that I was “a bit of a maverick,” even though I was usually right. I wasn’t a perfect fit for the job. There’s always been a part of me that wants to do transformational things, and, in a way, that is the heart of an entrepreneur.
For me, it was quite a natural transition. As CEO you can become institutionalized, and while you end up doing things that most people think are glamorous, they aren’t necessarily that enjoyable.
Building a team around you is the hardest thing in any business. It doesn’t matter if there are 130,000 people or 10. At its heart, it’s all about getting people to put in discretionary effort. You want people to be passionate about the mission, to care about it more than themselves, and to put in that extra work.
My business has gone through a period of hypergrowth, and we’ve packed into a year what would take most start-ups three or four years to achieve.
I think I’m fundamentally the same kind of leader now as I was at the bank. The challenges of business, whatever the size, are always about getting stuff done, marshaling the resources, focusing them, leading a team.
One of the great illusions about being CEO is that you have all this freedom. You actually don’t. I have a lot more freedom now. I’ve chosen to use that freedom to think and act. So I’m energized, and I’m less constrained.
Jenkins advises former CEOs to start by defining what is important to them and develop a sense of purpose.
It’s very hard to generalize because a career is intensely personal. After leaving the job, you probably—for the first time in your life—have an enormous amount of choice. So choose wisely based on whatever is important to you.
What I find sad is the people who are so burdened by the past that they can’t make that transition. You have to let that go, difficult though it is. For most people I know who’ve been through a similar experience as former CEOs, there are lots of different things they can do, but they may not feel these new opportunities fit with their own sense of status, given their former roles.
There are loads of organizations out there that need leading and leading in different ways, and one of the things I think is underestimated is just how helpful a former CEO can be as a chair or an executive chair to an organization and how fulfilling that is. You don’t have the same operational responsibilities, but you’ve got a great deal of valuable experience. And if you can be a generous and supportive chair, you can have an enormous impact on an organization.
I would always say to people to find your passion first. For some people, that may be buying a vineyard, but, for me, it happens to be doing the things I am doing. So, while it looks like I’ve reinvented myself, all I’ve really done is to continue to work on what I really care about.
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.