When CEOs step down from their jobs they face a monumental shift in power, responsibility and being “on” 24/7. Five former chief executives explain how they navigated the transition and what they’ve learnt about themselves since.
CEO, Westpac, 1999 to 2008
A decade in the top job was long enough for David Morgan. He waited until a new chair was appointed – and would be there to select his successor – before he left a year later.
People offered advice, including American businessman Warren Buffett, who suggested they “do something together one day”. Those stars never quite aligned but Buffett did try to steer Morgan away from public boards.
“He told me I wouldn’t like them. Like most of his hypotheses, he was correct,” says Morgan, who nonetheless over the past decade has sat on four public and six private boards in six countries (he now sits on two private boards). “Public company boards have become very focused on conformance. Private equity boards are focused primarily on performance.”
As CEO of Australia’s oldest bank, Morgan was responsible for about 25,000 staff and almost eight million customers. He doesn’t miss the 24/7 “completely absorbing role” but he does miss the team camaraderie: “Sometimes you only realise what you value deeply when you are without it.” He also has a new perspective on the CEO/board relationship. “I appreciate even more today the chairmen and board I was fortunate enough to have.”
Six months after leaving Westpac, he was approached by private equity firm J.C. Flowers & Co. in London. “The offer was simply too good, too interesting, too global to turn down,” he says. Within 18 months of his part-time commitment he’d moved to the British capital as managing director and is now the company’s full-time chair for Europe and Asia-Pacific and an operating partner.
Now 72, Morgan did not anticipate another career. Life is divided between London and his property in the Southern Highlands, south-west of Sydney, where he perfects his backhand and rides his horse, Matilda. His iPhone is never turned off.
He travels regularly to Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and South Korea for J.C. Flowers. “The cross-cultural experiences have been great fun,” he enthuses. “Sometimes life is more exciting when it doesn’t go to plan.”
Married to former federal Labor minister Ros Kelly since 1983, Morgan concedes that he didn’t always get the balance right between his professional and private lives. “I have an extremely loving relationship with my family – my children Jess [in New York] and Ben [in London] and three grandchildren. But I could have been a significantly better son, husband and father.”
He reflects on what else being a CEO has taught him. At Westpac he initiated a program where staff could anonymously review his performance. “It’s such a gift to see yourself as others see you,” he says. “You are born with IQ; you are not born with EQ – emotional intelligence. I needed to give more attention to the people side of things.”
Now there is pro bono work, chairing the investment committee for the endowment of King’s College London, plus he informally mentors several CEOs, mainly in finance.
His advice to CEOs contemplating moving on is simple: make no commitments for the first six months and be open to new opportunities. “I’m enjoying greatly the next phase, with some significant white space in the diary.”
CEO, Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA), 2001 to 2014
It was the ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero who advised “to live long, live slowly” but it could have been Terry Davis. Unlike many former chief executives who seek a portfolio of board roles, Davis has lived his third act almost entirely outside the corporate world.
He gave the CCA board 15 months notice. Then, one day after he left, he packed the car and headed to his 22-hectare property just north of Byron Bay in northern NSW. “I didn’t want to be defined as just being CEO of Coke,” he says. “I would have been happy to go in year seven or eight. I wanted to be young enough to do things while I’m fit and healthy.” He was 56.
“[Then CCA chair] David Gonski said to me, ‘It’s time to do other things.’ I felt no regrets whatsoever. You never know when your next day is your last.”
Davis misses his team and “seeing people grow in their job and prosper” but that’s the extent of it. “You certainly miss your PA, that’s for sure,” he jokes.
As CEO, Davis was keen to promote talented women – about half his direct reports were female – but he wishes he’d done more. “You look back and think, ‘Gee, if I’d done a few extra things maybe the gene pool coming through for directors’ roles might have been better.’”
Winner of 10 World Masters rowing titles, Davis has always maintained a balanced lifestyle. Even as CEO he was out on Sydney Harbour most mornings. But retirement has been better than he’d imagined. “I didn’t set out to retire to start work again. I’ve seen so many CEOs who’ve felt loss of relevance and needed to keep their day busy with directorships. I have only one, with the Seven Group. I don’t need or want any more.”
He spends winters near Byron Bay and summers in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. He’s ticking off his bucket list: fishing in Alaska, Africa, the Canary Islands, Papua New Guinea and West Papua. “All the things you can’t do when you can’t afford to be in more adventurous and distant places. When you’re a CEO you have a responsibility to your job.”
In 2018 he walked part of the Camino de Santiago trail in Europe – 526 kilometres in 20 days. “After the first day, when I face planted, I woke up thinking that perhaps I should have done more training.”
Davis insisted staff take their annual holidays every year, as he did. “Get a life outside work and don’t let it define you so badly that you become myopic.”
Business performance tends to define how long a CEO stays, he adds. “If the results are good, you tend to stay longer. If the results aren’t good and you don’t exit, someone pushes the button. You sleep better if you go of your own accord.”
Across the board
After more than 15 years placing former chief executives on boards, Korn Ferry’s head of Australasian board services, Robert Webster, has seen a shift. A reluctance to join public-listed companies has emerged: too much risk, too compliance focused.
Approximately 43 per cent of respondents to the AICD Director Sentiment Index (First Half 2019) said the impact of legislation on director liability affected their willingness to continue to serve
on boards. “These people enjoy the notion of either going to private equity companies or a startup where they can get some skin in the game,” says Webster.
He points to the intense scrutiny of boards during and since the banking royal commission. “When people went on those boards I doubt they thought their reputations could be tarnished,” he says. “When you’ve been a CEO earning millions of dollars a year, you don’t have to do it for the money.”
CEO, Pacific Brands, 2007 to 2012
When Pacific Brands replaced Sue Morphet as CEO, the first thing she did was… nothing. For three months she caught up on sleep. “The role of a CEO is so intense,” she says. “But however long that role lasts, it lasts and when it finishes, on you move.”
She used those first months to assess what she’d learnt and how she could best use her skills. “You move into a different mindset,” says Morphet. “You move out into a new world and start to think big picture. What I thought I’d like to do didn’t necessarily turn out to be what I did.”
She thought she might like to get stuck into a startup but other interesting opportunities presented themselves. Today Morphet sits on three boards – Asaleo Care, Noni B and National Tiles – and is midway through her two-year term as president of Chief Executive Women.
Looking back, she feels her greatest achievement as CEO was steering Pacific Brands through the global financial crisis, although it required halving the 7000-strong workforce. “I learnt a lot about my resilience and my ability to harness the endeavours of highly dedicated people to be able to deliver a strong social outcome for Pacific Brands. Tough as it was, that was satisfying.”
There’s plenty that Morphet misses about corporate life – the collegiate environment, the team spirit, the intimate knowledge of the company and its market. On a day-to-day level, the loss of an executive assistant is also a rude shock. “When you leave that [corporate] world,” she says, “it’s much more singular. You work with different teams but you go back to your desk by yourself. You think you can do it all but the week I double-booked three appointments, I realised it was time to get some help.”
The annual CEO Tracker study, published by recruitment agency Robert Half in September, found chief executive turnover hit 22 per cent in ASX-200 companies to 20 July this year, representing a three-year high, up from 20 per cent in 2018, as 43 CEO positions changed hands.
CEO, Rio Tinto, 2013 to 2016
Having reached the age of 66 and significantly improved the fortunes of a company with about 50,000 employees, Sam Walsh decided it was time for the next chapter. “I was open to what came my way,” he says, “but what I was really interested in was finding new ways of adding value to the community.”
Today he’s chair of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (WA), the Perth Diocesan Trustees, the Perth Mint and the Accenture Global Mining Council. He’s also on the board of Japanese trading giant Mitsui & Co. “[It was] a chance to take on a shift of focus. CEOs never actually retire – if you stop dead then you drop dead. I’m busier than ever. I feel that at almost 70 [he turns 70 at the end of this month], I have a lot to offer.”
Walsh grew up playing the piano and trumpet, singing in choirs and acting in school theatre productions so championing the arts was a natural progression. “I’m passionate about harnessing the potential for Australia’s cultural and creative industries and making a difference,” says Walsh, who also collects antique and rare milk jugs. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking backwards. I look to the future.”
Walsh’s advice to transitioning CEOs is simple: don’t stop reinventing yourself and continue to learn “or else you quickly move past your use-by date”. That said, “People tell me I still dress like a CEO – I have no plans to retire my suits, pocket handkerchiefs or hats.”
According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Data Explorer, women hold 13.7 per cent of chair positions, 25.8 per cent of directorships and represent 17.1 per cent of CEOs in Australia, while 35.2 per cent of boards and governing bodies have no female directors.
Managing director, M&C Saatchi, 2000 to 2007
When fatigue began to plague her in 2004, Naseema Sparks thought she’d have to take time out from her job at M&C Saatchi, the advertising agency based in Melbourne and Sydney. A later breast cancer diagnosis forced her to take stock. “It got me thinking that if I had only three months or three years to live, what did I want to do with it?”
She resigned as CEO after she recovered. “I slept soundly at night for six months. My brain was readjusting to not having to be somewhere or deliver outputs.”
But Sparks missed the culture, which became her benchmark when considering other opportunities. “You’re around creative, intelligent people. And I really missed my EA. For the first two years I was a little late for every meeting because I didn’t have someone to say, ‘You need to go now.’”
Having already served on the board of Blackmores and a few not-for-profit arts companies, Sparks could visualise her post-executive life. Search firms initially found it hard to place her – an advertising background was not the usual path to a seat in the boardroom – but once she scored directorships with listed companies it became easier. Former Qantas chair Margaret Jackson told her it takes five years to build a portfolio you’re happy with.
Sparks plans “about 60 per cent” of her life, leaving space for chance.
In 2015, as deputy chair of Racing NSW, she sat next to an international presenter at a Brisbane racing conference who had been asked by Pope Francis to establish a global advisory board on sport and faith. Within months she was in Rome where she met the Pope. The following year she attended the worldwide launch of the Sport at the Service of Humanity initiative, celebrated in the Vatican gardens with a concert featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “There are some amazing opportunities that come from left field and you’d never plan.”