Nils Andersen, 59, was chief executive of Denmark’s Maersk Group for nearly nine years until his departure in July 2016. A former chief executive of Carlsberg, he is currently a non-executive director of Unilever and BP and chairman of Dansk Supermarked Group and AkzoNobel. He offers advice to ex-CEOs considering a range of next steps, including board service.
Stepping away from an all-encompassing role can be profoundly unsettling at first, notes Andersen, but the process of renewal can begin quickly as well.
I think all CEOs who leave such a demanding job go through a sort of detox phase. There’s no point in denying that, and you may go through several stages of it. Some people may feel sad or a loss of prestige. If you really value flying in a private jet or being put on a pedestal, I think it might be a difficult situation, but those things have never been important to me.
For me, the job was always super exciting. I loved it every day. It can also be a lonely place, and you have to work very hard to achieve anything resembling a work-life balance. It’s great if you have a stable family as a safe harbor, have friends, and lead an active lifestyle. In that sense, I was probably better positioned than most.
When you come out at the other end, you hopefully get to the point where you feel reasonably satisfied with what you have achieved in that part of your career. But when it’s over, it’s over, and you just have to accept it. You must regroup and reorganize and find something to do. This is a new phase in your life, and you are trying something new—which is a lot of fun to be involved in.
The biggest change is accepting that you can be productive without being busy all the time. It’s very important you don’t fall into the trap during the detox phase of taking on five or six or seven projects just to feel busy.
I don’t think you can plan for what you will do when the job stops. I guess the closer you get to that time, the more you think about it. I was fortunate in that I got advice from family, friends, advisors, and headhunters, so I was in dialogue relatively quickly.
CEOs devote their time to planning and strategy on a grand scale, but it leaves them with little time to plan their own careers, says Andersen.
Realistically, if you run a big company, you are spending 60 to 70 hours a week on the job. It shouldn’t be your whole life, but it takes up a lot of time—and in fact, your time is not your own. You arrive in the morning and you are busy all through the day, you go home, you read papers in the evening, you read on the weekend.
The truth is, if you spent time thinking about yourself during the period when you’re CEO, you’ve got your priorities wrong. The responsibility is too great; in my case, I was responsible for more than 100,000 people, and you need to give your all to that. You just have to accept that you are a full-time CEO and that’s your focus, and it’s only when you’re not doing that anymore that you can start thinking about what to do for yourself.
That said, I don’t think a CEO should be walking around being afraid of losing his job, as long as he believes he is doing the right things.
Although he relished being a CEO, Andersen is not convinced that he wants the same sort of role again. He suggests that ex-CEOs avoid jumping into an opportunity unless they feel truly engaged.
I think being a CEO is a tremendous experience, and if you have the chance to lead a couple of very large companies, like I’ve had the privilege of doing, it’s a very rewarding and fulfilling way to spend your career.
Of course, the role is stressful; the CEO is responsible for everything that goes on—things that go well and also everything that goes wrong in the business. You are under pressure every day, and you have to enjoy that; otherwise, you should not do it.
[After leaving Maersk] I explored a couple other CEO roles, but when I was offered one, I found that I didn’t really feel that engaged about it. I think you have to go with your gut instinct. If you want to take a CEO role in a large company, you have to be fired up every day when you go to work. It takes a lot of energy, and if you are not super motivated to do it, then you won’t feel that energy.
Whatever you take on—whether it’s a board seat, a CEO role, or something else—if you don’t feel this is what you want to spend six to seven years of your life doing, and it doesn’t make you feel engaged, you shouldn’t take it on, because you will end up feeling frustrated.
In the same way, if you want to go plural [take on a portfolio of roles], you have to be sure that that is what you want to do.
Having spent a career in the world of large corporations, Andersen has developed a strong perspective on the roles of both management and the board—and how former CEOs can contribute to each.
One of the decisions I made while I was a CEO was to join the board of Unilever, because I think the company is interesting and thought it would be a useful experience and good preparation for a possible future career on boards. As a CEO, you go to all the board meetings, but it’s a different sort of priority. When that board work is your job and you can take your time, it becomes extremely interesting, and you get a lot out of speaking to your fellow board members and people in the industry.
When you have a background as a CEO of a large company, you bring something to the table on boards of other big companies that relatively few people can. There’s a unique set of skills involved in running a large organization. I have enjoyed working with small companies as well, but other people can probably do that better than me.
I also believe that the board of every company over a certain size should have some ex-CEOS to be truly effective. If you have run a global company, you have seen a lot of the world. You know a lot about markets, you know a lot about government, about geopolitics, and, hopefully, quite a bit about business as well. Most CEOs will appreciate advice and a prudent steer. That’s where the ex-CEO comes into play; the current CEO might turn to someone who has tried to navigate disruption, who doesn’t panic when things go a little bit wrong, and who can provide advice based on experience. A seasoned manager can give advice on how certain things should be handled and what opportunities look interesting.
But you’ve got to be mindful of how you apply that experience. As part of the detox process, as an ex-CEO, you must learn how to manage your energy levels, because if you come onto a board at “CEO speed,” you are going to be difficult to have in the room. You need to be comfortable slowing down from your CEO pace and recognize and understand the change in your own role.
Further, most companies today are under some threat of disruption, but you shouldn’t look to an NED [non-executive director] to create change in an organization. As a chairman, focus on giving strategic input, managing the board, and being a good sparring partner for the CEO. Let the management run the business.
Stepping away from the busy life of a CEO has given Andersen the time and perspective to better understand his own motivations, a key step in any transition.
As a CEO, you go through a period in which you are extremely focused on your company, and you have the advantage of being acutely aware of what is relevant to your business. You’re engrossed in the daily agenda, and even when you have a strategic agenda, it’s in the areas in which the business operates. But that focus also has the disadvantage of leaving you less open to other things.
What I have found great after leaving the CEO job is that suddenly you have the opportunity to broaden your horizons—I feel it’s been a very exciting period for me. You can dig into different industries and start looking into technologies and areas that may not have been relevant to your previous company. You just sort of open your mind.
I’ve looked at new opportunities—such as private equity positions—and going through that process I’ve learned a lot about what turned me on and what turned me off about a given role. I’m not 60 yet, and I still have lots of ambition. For me, it’s important to have an exciting business life for the next 10 or 15 years or so and also to use my free time to experience things I didn’t have time for before. For some people, that might be climbing Mount Everest or doing an Ironman challenge. I respect anyone who does that, but for me it is still about business ambition. Business and the world of macroeconomics and global politics are what really excite me.
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.