Circling the Drain


Circling The Drain

By Ty Wooldridge

Ron Dolan was certainly a man who had great vision. When I knew him, he was the president of First Colony Life and an exceptional actuary. When he passed away, I not only mourned the loss of a great leader, but also a source of great knowledge and mentorship. Ron was fond of saying that there were no limits to what an actuary could accomplish and he truly personified the saying. But it was the flip side of his wisdom that has stuck with me all these years. He would also say that if you were just an actuary, one day you would find yourself circling the drain.

As I thought about writing this editorial, I reread the editorials from three or four past issues of The Actuary, and what I discovered surprised me. All of them were, in one form or another, about how to become an actuary that is more than typical. And yet it seems (if only by the sheer number of articles on the subject) that the stereotypical FSA is still perceived to need a bit of a facelift.

About the same time that I was trying to sort this out, I found myself on an airplane reading a Harvard Press article by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad entitled, "Competing for the Future." The article evaluates the typical ways organizations try to improve their bottom lines through traditional restructuring and a generally defensive mindset. It then goes on to suggest that those few companies who create and then dominate entirely new opportunities will define successful future business.

And then it occurred to me.

In the same way the average American company tries to catch up to its more successful peers by employing a predictable array of competitive advantages (like speed–to–market, quality and customer response) at least a decade after they were in vogue, maybe we're doing the same thing? As the article pointed out, catching up is necessary, but it's not going to turn an also–ran into a leader. Put another way, it will take more than Toastmasters and a dog–eared copy of Winning Friends and Influencing People to make you an invaluable member of the enterprise.

And it's not that our traditional skill sets aren't enough to guarantee employment for our ranks today—companies need us. Truth is, every actuary in the profession has the prerequisites for success from the educational experience, but a prerequisite guarantees you nothing but entrance to the next level. So what else should we do to make sure we can compete in the future?

First, a person can only control his career destiny if he understands the destiny of his industry. To create your own future, you have to be a student of the way the rules of the game change within your industry and redraw the role you want to play. In my company, among the first people to jump into rethinking insurance funding using capital markets were actuaries. Believe me when I tell you that while these men and women have definitely honed their communication skills and ability to manage people in an effort to "catch up" to practitioners from other disciplines, it is their ownership of these emerging opportunities that is redefining their value to the company.

Second, at least once in a while move away from the traditional reactive role of the actuary and strive to be atypical and farsighted. It is as important to imagine how different the world could be in five or 10 years as it is to understand how it was 10 years ago. The truth is that the data we have today may be irrelevant depending on the future we head toward. In my industry, long–term care, we don't always have a great deal of history to dwell upon and are often forced into this mentality whether we like it or not. It's a stretch to be sure, but learning to be more strategic and less operational in our focus, more of a thought leader and less driven by competitors and the same experience that everybody else is also looking at, goes a long way to setting you apart from the rest of the herd.

Lastly, devote some time to consulting with people inside and outside our profession with the objective of building a shared, well–tested view of the future instead of a personal and idiosyncratic one. It will take a lot of effort to build a view of the new core competencies that we're going to need to be relevant. But if we don't spend the time, we could end up answering questions that no one is asking ... and circling the drain.