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Career Banker, Gavin Isle, on Retirement: “How To Avoid Becoming A Pain in the Ass to Your Family”

After a 36-year career at Barclays, Gavin Isle decided to retire at 55. He went from travelling at 100 miles per hour to being completely in charge of how he filled his time in retirement. Here we chat to Gavin about the highs and lows that inevitably come when you have such a shift in pace.

Gavin Isle, 58, from the west edge of Oxford, is not just a career banker, but spent his entire 36-year working life at Barclays. At each stage when he started to get restless, the organisation gave him a new challenge. Having held a range of different roles within Barclays, for the last 25 years they have all been in leadership positions. When he finished up in 2019 at 55 years of age, he was the head of the UK corporate bank, responsible for all of the corporate banking across the UK which was close to 1,800 people and around 15,000 clients. So, suffice to say, Gavin was in a job that saw him mentally travelling at 100 miles per hour, day in day out. And as you can imagine, after all of those years on the job, retirement wasn’t just a change of pace for Gavin but a big transition.

In retirement so far, Gavin has been rather busy – despite the global pandemic throwing a bit of a spanner in the works. His wife, Dawn, also stopped working by August of 2019, aged 56 and many of their travel plans were put on hold. Gavin fills his days with physical challenges – including taking on Hadrian's Wall with his dog and blogging about the experience, taking on a non-exec role where he works on average two to three days per month, some studies, lots of reading, DIY tasks, travels to his second home in Dorset, and also enjoys keeping in touch with friends and ex-colleagues, many of whom still come to him for mentoring and advice.

We sat down and talked about his retirement journey so far, what’s he learnt, what’s surprised him and how he’s coped with the highs and lows that inevitably come when you have such a shift in pace.

What Made You Consider Retirement at the Age of 55?

“I guess there were a number of reasons. I'd seen two or three good friends – colleagues of mine – sadly get terminal illnesses and one of those friends, who was in his late 40s, is sadly no longer with us. When he was fighting cancer, I went over and saw him and his wife. Having spent two or three hours talking to him and his family about the preparations he was making, he turned to me and said, ‘How about you Gav, what are you planning on doing? Do you want to do the next big job after the one you're doing?’. And I thought, no I don’t. I've probably already surpassed my expectations in terms of career anyway. And he said, ‘When are you going to retire?’ and I replied, ‘Well, I’ll probably give it another couple of years.’ He said, ‘Well, what is it that you are going to achieve, why another two years? Why not now? What is it that's going to change or what is it you want to achieve?’.

"Having seen some close friends, younger than me, sadly pass away without having the opportunity to enjoy retirement, I really wanted to go and spend more time with family and more time doing other things.”

Until then, I hadn’t stopped to think about it. The stock answer of another couple of years just meant I hadn’t thought about it. So, I stopped and thought about it. I was living away from home during the week in London, renting a flat. I had just finished a major structural reform programme, which was the banks’ answer to ring-fencing. I was the Responsible Executive for making that happen including the split between Business Banking and Corporate Banking. We had reorganised the business and my leadership team were clear on our goals and it needed someone who was going to drive the business forward, for probably three to four years. Knowing that I didn't want to work for that long, from a business point of view, it was the right time for me to step aside and for the business to identify my successor. From a personal perspective, I was in the very fortunate position that I could afford to retire.

Having seen some close friends, younger than me, sadly pass away without having the opportunity to enjoy retirement, I really wanted to go and spend more time with family and more time doing other things.”

How Did You Find the Transition to Retirement?

“When you're coming up to retirement, everybody talks about the need to stay active and keep your brain active, about finding lots of things to do. My observation would be, you want to slow down or do different things in retirement, however, what I didn't anticipate was it's a bit like stepping off the express train. Your brain is used to travelling at light speed trying to manage and resolve numerous problems simultaneously. I'd been doing 14 to 15 meetings a day, every day, answering 150-200 emails a day, was in from seven in the morning and I’d still be doing emails at nine at night and on weekends. I was literally always on and always on the go. In retirement you know that you are going to stop and that the emails stop, but what I didn't realise is that your brain does not slow down. Your brain keeps moving at that pace because that's what it's used to, and it takes some time for it to adjust to a different pace and lifestyle.

What that means for your family is that you can become a royal pain in the ass. Because your brain still has so much unused capacity, it puts all of that capacity on the only things that it has to focus on. Instead of having a hundred things to focus and make decisions on rapidly, I found myself over-analysing any and almost every situation or decision you have to make, such that you get to imagining problems where there are none. On many occasions, this led to my wife saying, ‘For God’s sake Gavin, just make a bloody decision and move on. This is ridiculous.’

It's interesting because I've made this observation to several people, who have retired and almost without exception, every single one recognises that they've gone through a similar kind of situation with their families. Your family is bemused and think you’re losing it. So, if I have one piece of advice for people who are coming up to retirement that I do pass on, it is be mindful of this and ensure that you find plenty of ways of stretching your brain in other way because it stops you from becoming a royal pain in the ass.”

What Helped Make the Transition to Retirement Manageable and Work for You?

“I've never regretted the decision that I made, but it doesn't mean that you don't have days where you think: ‘Well, I'm not feeling that happy with myself today,’ if you like. I found doing silly things helped if I got in a bit of doldrum.

In a work environment, I was very results-focused, in terms of what you're trying to achieve, so I found I needed to find something that would replace that. To some degree, walking Hadrian’s Walk gave me a focus, it was a challenge, something to plan and do and execute. But once that’s done, what’s next? I've never been somebody who is particularly organised, which is probably because I have a good memory and therefore retain everything without having to make lists, but what I found myself doing in retirement, which I find hilarious, was giving myself a to-do list every day. This sense of here is today’s list for you to cross off and once you've done that, you feel that you've achieved something on that day. It's really silly, but I found it helped me on days when I thought ‘what I have done?’.

But then Covid struck and life for everybody changed. With restrictions it meant we couldn't do some of the things that we were planning. One of the best things that helped me through this time was talking to my youngest daughter, Emma, who works for the NHS as an assistant psychologist. She worked for Oxfordshire Mind before that. She gave me a little card, not particularly for people that are retired, but that applies to everybody. It's 5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing and it's something that I refer back to periodically to make sure I’m keeping myself honest and to test myself and ask myself am I doing these thing.

The five ways to well-being are:

1. Connect

2. Be active

3. Take Notice

4. Keep Learning

5. Give

In terms of connections, I made a point of staying in touch with colleagues and customers. I've become a non-exec director for an old customer and working with them has been good. I've stayed in touch with colleagues and also have taken time to seek out some long-lost school friends. I've quite enjoyed tracking them down.

Being active has been good, I’ve walked Hadrian's Wall and I've now started walking the Ridgeway and I’ve set myself a goal of trying to walk each of the national trails. There are 15 in the UK. I've got back playing golf. I'd been a member of a golf club for years, but never actually frequented it.

Taking notice is another. Together with a couple of friends of mine, who retired not long after me, we walked the Three Peaks in Yorkshire and have done a few trips to sporting events and various other things. Savouring time spent together and shared experiences with friends, appreciating what matters to you is great.

For learning, Oxford University do a continuous learning program. It gives you access to immeasurable resources, in terms of lecturers and experts in all sorts of fields. I've undertaken a couple of historical related courses. I have also learned new skills including a bread making and pork pie making course to improve my culinary skills.

And then giving, so I’ve been working at the Oxford Food Hub for a few months now. It gives me a real sense of purpose at the start of each week. The food hub is about collecting food that's approaching its use by dates from supermarkets and then distributing it to community cafes and shelters. It’s something I wish I'd done sooner, to be honest. It’s also great meeting people from a huge range of different backgrounds and lifestyles.”

What Have You Found to Be the Most Difficult?

“I think at times you question your sense of purpose. In retirement, you're now entirely and solely responsible for setting your purpose in life. Up until this point your purpose has been work and family and all the other things that you have been busy doing. At whatever level you’re at, in one form or another, someone somewhere is helping set your agenda and therefore you are following a defined path. When you retire you are responsible for determining your own path. There are multiple options. There are loads of different things you can do, bewilderingly so at times, but it's entirely your choice. I’ve had days, or a couple of days, where I’ve I questioned what it’s all about. It’s that loss of sense of purpose that I think you have to be quite resilient and strong around, in terms of working that out for yourself and recognising that it's up to you. It's your gift to do whatever you want to do and then get on and do it.

It took me 12 months to adjust to doing other things. There is I think a risk that people rush into trying to do too many things once they retire to fill up their time too quickly. If you start to take on the first things that come along if you’re not careful you can very quickly fill up your time and end up being just as busy as you were before, and not necessarily on the things that you most wanted to do. I guess the second piece of advice is to give yourself time to think about what you really want to do in retirement, and don’t just take things on because you’ve got the capacity to do so.”

What Do You Enjoy Most About Your New Lifestyle?

“Unquestionably spending time with my wife. When the kids were growing up and with being away or working very long hours, you’re always busy and then at weekends you're taking the kids here and there and everywhere. So, spending more time with my wife has been fantastic and if there’s one thing that typifies that, it’s that I love having breakfast with my wife every day. It may sound silly, but when I was working I would barely have time for breakfast. She wouldn't even be up by the time I left the house every day. So, sitting down and actually having breakfast together every day is a joy, a real joy. It’s coming up to three years of retirement and I still love doing that every day.

We’re also able to spend time helping our children with moving to a new house or whatever it is they have going on. They may be adult kids now, but it doesn't mean they're not your kids anymore. They still need help, love, and support. Kate, 27, is our eldest daughter who went from a career in marketing to teaching at secondary school. Emma is the psychologist and is 26.”

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