Mike Rees, 61, was deputy group CEO of Standard Chartered from March 2014 to April 2016. He trained as an accountant before moving into banking, and he joined the company in 1990, holding a series of senior posts, including nearly seven years on the company’s board. Since transitioning, Rees has found a passion in start-up commercialization, among other pursuits—a far cry, he says, from the traditional financial services world.
The pressures on public-company board members are so great, says Rees, that they can become almost institutionalized and thus create a risk that executives will focus on regulation, compliance, and process to the exclusion of what is going on in the outside world.
Getting to the top of a large organization requires conformity—which is a potential problem in a world that is changing radically. You don’t realize what’s happening when you are going through it, but the temperature is rising one degree at a time, and suddenly you’re the proverbial “boiled frog.”
It can be very enjoyable being part of the corporate machinery. You are aware there is a different world out there, but it might as well be in a different universe because you don’t have the time or understanding to connect with it.
Everybody becomes focused on the here and now; they are managing for shorter and shorter time horizons, and few people are looking two, three years out.
Part of it is a result of a complete change in the world of compliance, regulation, and conduct, and although banks are at the prime end of that, this is not just about financial services. The attention of regulators, shareholders, and media on public companies creates an intensity that puts the focus on short-termism and self-protection. Irrespective of whether you’ve built the company for the long term, if you miss two quarters of earnings goals, you’re history. When you’re in those kinds of roles, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
It’s only when you leave and go through a type of detox process that you realize you’ve been in this cozy cocoon. One of the first things I had to go through as I readjusted was to realize I had been one of those boiled frogs.
The first stage in transition, says Rees, is to be self-aware about who you are and what is important to you—but even so, transitioning can be a difficult process.
The thing about that corporate world is that the water feels warm and comfortable at the time, so it can be a shock when you come out of it. The institution gives you some boundaries that help control your emotions, and when you leave you don’t have those institutional boundaries and support. The journey can be tough, so it’s important to have people to support you because it can be an emotional roller coaster.
For me, the transition was easier than it might have been. I had agreed to stay on for a year before I left. I had people around me at work and at home who supported me through the process. And fortunately, part of my role had involved responsibility for the leadership program, and as a result I’d done a lot of work on self-reflection, which is very important in a transition. That program triggered me into asking questions about who I am, what I want to do, where I can add value. It caused me to go back and revisit how I might play to my strengths and what it is that motivates me.
Think of self-reflection as a journey. There can be no journey if you don’t know where you’re starting from and where you’re trying to get to. For me, that journey began when I started to realize how little I felt I knew about the world. You’ve got to take time to reflect on the changing world and the speed and enormity of that change because it’s in that world that you are trying to find a role.
You’ve also got to strike the right balance between curiosity and patience. Some people have a finite appetite for curiosity, and they can be driven by anxiety about getting a structured role or job in place. And it can be difficult to sustain the energy you need to be patient. For me, a good week is when I have been curious and learned a lot, and then it is easy to manage the patience; but if you have weeks when you don’t learn a lot, it can be more difficult.
Understanding what he did not want to do was as important to Rees as discovering new avenues he wanted to explore.
From the start, I didn’t want to just retire. I want to make a difference, and I know I’ve got the energy and ability to do it.
I had things to keep me busy in those first few months, and during that period my wife, Neena, helped me draw a chart with me at the center, mapping out all the strategic themes I was thinking about and all the networks I was following. You look at a chart like that and you can see the connections, often from having cups of coffee with a lot of people, building a network, and being prepared to learn. Some of the networks were less relevant than others.
For some people, going to a public board may be the right thing, but I decided early on not to take up offers to go on to public boards, because I didn’t want to be part of that governance world. There is a momentum that will recycle you into being an NED [non-executive director] at another public company, but if you don’t want to do that, you’ve got to extract yourself from it or you will be driven back into that world.
You have to learn that it’s OK to say no to things, but you’d better be pretty clear about who you are and what you want to be to work out what you do want to do. There is a legacy world, of which NEDs are a part, and there is a new world typified by private equity and start-ups. The latter, in particular, fascinates me. Every day is a different journey, and some days you think: What the hell am I doing? Why don’t I just go back and sit on a board and be comfortable somewhere? Why don’t I go back into that comfortable, warm water? Then there are days when you learn something and meet people and are completely inspired.
Relentless networking is the key to finding new opportunities, but it is not something busy executives have time for, says Rees. Since leaving his post at Standard Chartered, Rees has met individuals who have introduced him to opportunities in more innovative fields.
One of the interesting things about life on the outside is seeing new things and meeting new people. Networking is so important, but that is not always easy to do when you are doing the CEO job.
Having chosen to focus on executive jobs, I did not initially create that level of visibility for myself. Friends, for example, would ask me why I wasn’t doing more to network and create a bridge into the outside world. So, during my transition period, I spent time making sure that each week I started building networks out into the external world, trying to understand how these networks were different from my current world, as well as better understand the speed of change. That visibility was a big wake-up call for me because I realized that what I knew was largely built from conformity.
By having no particular agenda, I’ve learned so much just by going in and talking to people without wanting anything out of it other than to listen and be curious. In turn, they’ve referred me to additional contacts, and through that process I’ve met some fascinating people. From meeting people at Davos, for example, to later advising a friend at University College London [UCL] and looking at how the university could commercialize its research, I began to recognize how I could make a difference—so I became chairman of one of UCL’s start-ups.
Then I started getting involved in other universities as well, seeing a lot of start-ups coming out of universities and mentoring them. I feel that I’ve got good insight in terms of how the start-up process works. So I’m advising at the government level now to see how we can sort this stuff out, from the top down.
I’ve also been involved in looking at how people invest in public companies, and I thought it would be interesting to look at private equity. I saw about 40 private equity companies and started to realize there was a changing world going on there. Now, I wasn’t right for them, because they weren’t investing in financial services, but I learned a lot about the sector.
I also got involved in the world of family office money and also with the UK Treasury, looking at what needs to happen to create the right funds to grow UK business. I found a lot of great businesses and opportunities and a lot of people with great ideas—but also a huge amount of friction in the middle.
If I do nothing else, I’ve built a portfolio of interesting companies I’m involved in and investing in. If you looked at the latest iteration of my chart—the one my wife helped me draw up—you would see how it has changed. There is a whole set of stuff about university research and technology transfer that wasn’t there at the start.
If life is a series of S-curves, I’ve come off the end of one, and I’m now starting on the next one.
Not only do business leaders often not know how to move on to the next stage in their career, says Rees, but other leaders often do not know how best to use the experience of ex-CEOs.
The outside world doesn’t always realize what ex-CEOs have to offer. It took a while for me to appreciate what I’ve got to give, so how would the outside world know that if I didn’t know it myself?
I talk to a lot of start-ups these days about what they think it’s like being a senior executive of a public company. Many of these start-ups don’t understand how to deal with big corporations, because they just don’t know what’s going on inside them. They end up trying to sell their ideas to somebody who just doesn’t have the time to listen. I tell them that public-company CEOs are in constant crisis-management mode, the most precious resource they have is their time, and they are using that time to fend off their biggest crises. And I tell these start-ups that what they need to do is to give those executives back their time by solving the problems on their critical list. Unless you’re doing that, you’re not going to get a foot in the door. You need to have been inside that world—or talk with someone who has—to understand how to do it.
I’m passionate about helping people think through what they are trying to do, see the alternative paths to getting there, and identify what problems they need to solve on the way. And what gives me the most satisfaction now is making a difference and helping people understand the magnitude of the changing world and the opportunities out there.
When you start on this process, it’s like seeing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without having the picture on the box. But now I am starting to see how all the pieces fit together, and I know that I’m able to make a difference.
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.