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A Tale of Two Choices

A Tale of Two Choices

Two opinions on the different ways of developing a career path.

Charting The Perfect Career Path

By David Atkinson

In my experience, career paths, like the rest of life, are partly influenced by planning and good intentions, but mostly they just happen. I really don't believe you can chart the perfect career path. When I look back on my career, I see a combination of good choices, not–so–good choices, and a lot of good luck–such as being in the right place at the right time. For instance, in 1986, I knew the future for Atlas Life Insurance Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma was cloudy. I had learned a lot and felt I had done all I could as vice president and actuary for the company. After five years there, it was time for a change. I called a former boss at Transamerica who connected me with the recruiter working to fill the reinsurance actuary vacancy at General American. Had I not made that one call, I know I would not be where I am today. Ultimately, that one phone call was a key link in the chain of events that led me to become chief operating officer of Reinsurance Group of America (RGA), one of the top life reinsurers. While I took action to make a change, where I ultimately wound up was impossible to predict or control.

The Best Career Path

I think the best career path is different for each person. So, "What is the best career path for me?" I hear you ask. Unfortunately, I've never been able to answer that question for myself. I'm still struggling with it. The question I can better come to grips with is, "What next?" or "What near–term goal do I want to work towards?" My answer to this question has changed over the years from "pass actuarial exams" at age 22 to "more money" (age 26) to "more autonomy" (age 28) to "work with top notch people to build a successful business" (age 33). I think the changing answers may have something to do with the normal process of maturing.

Success and Satisfaction

What is the secret to a successful, satisfying career? While we all have different definitions of success and different needs to satisfy, one of the things I believe is that good deeds are rewarded–and are closely associated with success and satisfaction. Work hard, get the right things done well, treat people with respect and dignity, and good things will happen to you. Maybe I live in a Pollyanna world. Perhaps I've just been fortunate to work with highly ethical people. I like to think that each of us influences the ethical climate around us.

Career–Advancing Opportunities

I have been given a number of career–advancing opportunities. Typically, these op– portunities allowed me to do three things at once: satisfy my need for new challenges, exceed my boss's expectations, and add value to the company. My first such opportunity involved spearheading the implementation of a new life insurance administration system for Atlas Life. I got to learn how all the departments in the company fit together, finished the implementation in 14 months with three programmers, and brought the company out of the stone age (actually, the punched card age). While this accomplishment brought no immediate advancement, it gave me knowledge that has helped me ever since.

Five years later, I faced a similar challenge with the Reinsurance Division of General American Life in St. Louis, Missouri. Their paper–based reinsurance administration was labor intensive, hopelessly backlogged and getting worse. Beginning in 1987, we moved from paper records to an Oracle–based administration system that we designed in a few months and created and implemented in two years. As at Atlas Life, this project was in addition to my primary role responsible for pricing and valuation. Also, in my spare time, I created a valuation system that integrated with the administration system. When coupled with regular job responsibilities, these career–advancing opportunities can look a lot like "workaholism." While a balanced life is recommended, I think occasional bouts of workaholism can be productive for the company, satisfying for the worker, and lead to eventual advancement, though they can be hard on the family.

Good Luck

Sometimes your immediate career path is obvious. For example, right out of college at Occidental Life (now Transamerica), my goal was set for me: Work on getting your FSA while you rotate through a few actuarial departments. I was very fortunate to be part of an actuarial student program that supported and rewarded exam progress, gave me a series of related, interesting and challenging jobs (in actuarial systems, valuation and product development, all focused on individual life insurance) and allowed me to learn from some great people. I couldn't have asked for a better start as an actuary.

Soon after I finished my exams, my boss, remembering how much I complained about how out–of–date a certain study note was, gave me a chance to write a replacement for it–to put up or shut up! That opportunity led to other study notes and, eventually, a "lucrative" (more than minimum wage!) book deal with the SOA. I've really appreciated the chance to write and be published.

What Do You Want to Be?

At an early age, some people know exactly what they want to be. I've talked to many people who chose the actuarial profession in high school or in their first year or two of college. Then there are those of us who had no idea where they were going career–wise until they were there, and then they still weren't sure. That's me.

After a lot of exposure to science and engineering, I gravitated back to what had always been easiest for me–mathematics. As graduation approached, I had the good fortune to see an actuarial exam notice on the Math Department bulletin board. Had I not taken the first actuarial exam my senior year, I would have had one less job offer at graduation, for a total of zero.

The alternative to working was grad school, which held the attraction of deferring a decision for another four years. Incredibly, and I am not making this up, one of the reasons I chose the actuarial path over grad school was that I was tired of studying all the time. I clearly had no clue of what lay ahead with actuarial exams! To top it all off, when the end of the actuarial exams was in sight, I began to have serious misgivings about whether I really wanted to work in a field as intangible as insurance. But I continued on.

Soon after exams were over, I found that home improvement projects satisfied the need to create something tangible. Over the years, I've noticed a lot of people find hobbies and other activities that tap their interests and talents in a way that their work can't.

Not–So–Good Choices

With dollar signs in my eyes, at the wise old age of 26, I left Occidental Life to work for a software company with the opportunity to help design a brand new, state–of–the–art, life insurance administration system. There were some low spots. The president was the chief salesman and had a habit of making new promises in order to close sales. After the design group did its usual whining about having to yet again redo the system design to support the latest promise, the president would say, "If you can't do it, I'll get someone who can." That would shut us up.

Being an actuary, I performed a termination study by comparing phone company lists six months apart. The rate was very stable–40 percent of the staff terminated every six months. After 20 months there, in spite of having accumulated some real seniority, I added to the termination statistics. Even so, there were some bright spots. I got to learn all about UL in its early days. I got a little comfortable making presentations in front of real people. In 1980, before word processing was widely available, I used the company's home grown software to write my first study note. Today, the 1980 alternative to word processing is repulsive and unthinkable: a typewriter!

Specialize or Generalize?

Is it better to specialize or be a generalist? I think you need to do both. I'm a big fan of gaining experience by working in related departments. It lets you walk a 100 miles in the other guy's shoes, thereby building understanding and cooperation between departments. My actuarial rotations and system implementations drove these messages home to me. Do you have a problem with IT? Try swapping a couple of people. I think the larger the company, the more valuable this practice can be.

I'm an even bigger fan of managers gaining knowledge, one way or another, of what each department contributes, what the day–to–day issues and challenges are in each area, and how it all fits together. With a broader view, you can help prevent myopic decisions that miss the bigger picture. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to work closely with just about every life insurance function: Product development, valuation, IT, reinsurance ceded, claims, administration, underwriting, sales and marketing, accounting, finance and investments. The flows, interdependencies and other connections between departments is what I've found especially useful.

In summary, I advocate becoming a generalist within a specialty. For example, pick a specialty field such as individual life insurance or reinsurance and become a generalist by learning the basics of every functional area and how they work together to create value. Whether you're an individual contributor or manager, you will be able to build bridges between areas and lead others to better–informed decisions.

Dave Atkinson is chief operating officer of Reinsurance Group of America (RGA). He can be contacted at:

The Joys Of Diversification (Early And Often)

By Dave Pelletier

Several months ago, a friend and former competitor had an interesting lunch conversation with me about careers. It turned out that this guy is on the editorial board of The Actuary, and he suggested that my views could make an interesting article.

Two wrinkles subsequently developed. Firstly, the editorial board decided on a "for/against" approach, getting somebody else to write an opposing perspective. Secondly, the person the editorial board selected for me to get into this public debate on this, out of all the actuaries out there, was my boss! In spite of the refusal of my (now former) friend and the Society of Actuaries to indemnify me against possible future negative consequences, I agreed nevertheless to proceed.

So this is an argument for not getting locked into a particular career area early on, not getting narrowly specialized, but rather jumping early and often.

Two points I'm not making, however:

  • That one has to keep changing employers to get that variety in experience. I'm only on my third employer (each of them excellent) in 33 years, and, subject to my boss's views following this debate, I have no immediate intention of changing again.
  • That expertise in a given area isn't necessary, or that surface expertise is good enough. My argument instead is that getting a variety of experience along the way in less immediately related areas, as contrasted with many years of highly specialized experience, can make one more valuable, rather than less, in tackling problems.

My Career in a Nutshell

So the reader has some idea where I'm coming from, it's perhaps best to summarize briefly what I've done, where and when:

1972–1978: Manulife Financial, Toronto. I worked in individual quotations, individual product development and pricing, a small pension consulting unit, group insurance, and group pensions. A great company, but I began to recognize that moving upwards through management wasn't necessarily going to have me doing things I liked. And so I went off to...

1978–1982: Towers Perrin, Toronto, where I did pension and other benefit consulting. In spite of my having joined to do things other than management, I was soon asked to also manage the actuarial support staff, which was growing rapidly those years. But, out of the blue came a call with an opportunity with TP to see more of the world, and off I went.

1982–1987: Towers Perrin, Sao Paulo. This was perhaps the most exhilarating time in my life, doing pension, benefit and other compensation consulting to both multinational and local clients, often in greenfield opportunities (ie, no existing plans in place) in an exciting environment, and marketing our services against the most intense and competent competition imaginable (my predecessors in TP in Sao Paulo who'd jumped ship to start their own firm prior to my arrival). Again, in spite of one of my original reasons to get into consulting, I soon found myself in charge of our Brazilian company.

1988–1991: Towers Perrin, Milan. After five fun years, I moved to Italy–like Brazil, a fantastic country–to open and run our operations there. However, what had appeared like a glorious opportunity to develop company pension plans disappeared with a stroke of the government's pen about three weeks after my arrival, as it removed the cap on earnings used to determine social security benefits. Fortunately we found other HR–related things to focus on, and I was there almost four years. But after nine years abroad, it was time to return to Canada to give my son a sense of being Canadian.

1991–1995: Tillinghast–Towers Perrin, Toronto. By good fortune, TP just happened to need somebody to head its Tillinghast life insurance consulting practice in Canada and so back I came (notwithstanding that I knew close to zip about life insurance in Canada, especially given the huge changes in financial reporting since my Manu days 13 years earlier). Here I actively consulted to the Canadian life industry in the areas of mergers and acquisitions, financial reporting, statutory valuation (serving four companies as appointed actuary), product development and distribution issues, as well as leading the development of our practice. But then, after almost 17 years of consulting, I figured time for a change.

1995–present: RGA Life Reinsurance Company of Canada. Again by good fortune, not long after I'd decided to look around, I got a call from one of my clients where as a consultant I was serving as appointed actuary, and joined them a few months later to head up its business development/marketing side, several years later becoming CEO (that boss I refer to is down at our U.S.–based parent company). Outside of my Canadian role, I've also had the opportunity to travel extensively for RGA to support its rapid development in foreign markets.


So what are the advantages of a somewhat helter–skelter career path, rather than focusing more narrowly and more quickly? Clearly they'll depend on the individual and the particulars of the path chosen, but here are some:

It can, I believe, give you a better perspective on the issues you deal with in your work. Moving mid–career from one field to another, or from one country to another, forces you to think–through and question the practices, the beliefs, the approaches, and the theory of the new field (or of that new country). In doing so, you can arrive at a deeper understanding of them than another who's accustomed to doing things that way because they've always been done that way and has perhaps forgotten why.

These days we're hearing all about the importance of communication skills, and the perceived lack of those skills on the part of actuaries, especially when communicating to non–actuaries. Sim Segal's article in the February/March issue of The Actuary included a "communications tip" to "explain models simply, but capture their essence." Essence grabbing seems to come more naturally to somebody new to a field as they explain it to others, as that's exactly what they've recently had to sort out themselves.

Time as an employee in an insurance company (or any kind of company) can make for a better consultant later. A consulting actuary presenting his/her clear view of the facts to a client company (say on pension plan issues) can be surprised at why his/her client doesn't act on them, because after all, the solution is "obvious." Companies can make decisions (or delay making them) for what appear to be strange reasons. Prior experience in seeing and experiencing from within how an employer operates helps a consultant recognize and deal with issues and obstacles in both selling his/her services to future clients and in getting things accomplished for them. This has nothing to do with technical expertise.

Prior experience in consulting can make for a better reinsurer. Some of the consulting firms for example provide excellent internal courses in consulting skills; again, nothing to do with technical expertise, but everything to do with identifying client issues and how to deal with them (and how to sell one's ability to do that). That can only benefit a reinsurer. The same is true in reverse; over the years, selling and marketing has been a key component of the job for many actuaries in reinsurance. The approaches used in reinsurance are a little different from those typically used by consultants, and each can learn from the other.

Moving from one area to another gives you the confidence to realize that the actuarial skill set you have is not limited to any one area you've focused on, but can be applied across a variety of areas (consistent with one of the objectives of the emerging education syllabus), and in a variety of environments. It follows then that at any point, one's career options are a whole lot wider, not just in terms of practice area or employer, but also geographically. So what if you don't know anything about group insurance in Argentina? Go for it. Again quoting Sim's article, we're better off if we "get out of our comfort zone."

What follows from that is that at any point in time, because you've got those wider options, you can feel more comfortable taking a strong stand on an issue with your company, or with your boss. That's a lot more difficult to do if your entire work experience is within one fairly specialized area in one country, as you can well be concerned about a lack of alternatives if your boss doesn't react the way you thought she or he might.

At least in my case, the key motivating factor was making life a whole lot more interesting. You only live once after all, and at least for some of us, variety (in the kind of work done, in the people dealt with, in languages, in cultures, in living experiences) is indeed the spice of life. However, not everybody's motivated by the same things!

On a few occasions at meetings of both the SOA and the CIA and within the companies I've worked with, I've spoken about the great experience of living and working abroad. At least twice, years later, young actuaries have come up to me and said that, following hearing my talk, they had indeed gone abroad for work, and yes it had turned out really well. Again, this is not necessarily for everybody. But I'd encourage readers, as they consider their future career, to indeed look well beyond whatever specialty or role or country they find themselves in now.

Dave Pelletier is president and CEO of RGA Life Reinsurance Company of Canada, and is also a past–president of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries. He can be contacted at:

Quotes: "I think the best career path is different for each person."–Atkinson

"[Diversification] can, I believe, give you a better perspective on the issues you deal with in your work."–Pelletier