How Did I Get Here? An Interview with Karen DeToro, Chief Actuary and Chief Risk Officer of CNO Financial Group
By Ying Zhao
The Stepping Stone, May 2021
Karen DeToro has served as chief actuary of CNO Financial Group since September 2019 and was named chief risk officer in June 2020. She serves on the Nominating Committee and the Employers Council of the Society of Actuaries, and she is the executive sponsor of the CNO Women’s Business Resource Group. She is a fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA) and member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA).
Karen DeToro, FSA, MAAA,
chief actuary & chief risk officer
of CNO Financial Group
Q: What is a memorable experience that influenced you during your school years?
A: A memorable experience for me was when I applied and was accepted to Oxford University for graduate school to study English Literature. I had studied in England my junior year and was interested in graduate school and going back to the UK. I applied to four different universities in England, including Oxford. Nobody suggested that I apply to Oxford, and I didn’t go through a program like the Rhodes Scholarship. I just wrote to Oxford, got an application, and applied. It taught me that sometimes if there is something you want to do, you just need to take the initiative and ask.
I started to pursue my MBA at Northwestern University after finishing the actuarial exams. I wanted to be more relevant to my consulting clients by developing a more general business sense. The MBA helped me understand how other business professionals tackle financial projections. We actuaries are used to going in with deep precision and details but sometimes a higher level of analysis is perfectly appropriate. The MBA helped me see that not everything needs to be done with an actuarial model level of detail.
Q: What was your first full-time job?
A: I worked full time in an ambulance company’s billing office while taking exams and looking for my first actuarial position. The experience taught me a lot about private and social insurance, which came in handy later when I took the social insurance exam.
Q: What led you to choose the actuarial profession?
A: Not long into graduate school, I realized that academic life was not for me, and decided to leave Oxford. I reached out to a college friend who was an actuarial major to find out more about the profession. It seemed like the best profession that I was qualified for. I thought I might just work as an actuary until I paid back my student loans for graduate school and then perhaps try law school, but I fell in love with the profession. I enjoyed the balance of technical skills and business acumen, and I loved the fact that every day there were new problems to solve.
Q: What occasions helped shape your career trajectory?
A: My time in consulting from 2006–2013 had a big impact on my career. I got involved in consulting projects beyond traditional actuarial work. These projects broadened my perspective on the issues of greatest importance to CEOs and CFOs. They also allowed me to further develop my strategic thinking, consultation, communication, problem-solving, and project management skills, all of which have been extremely helpful as I’ve continued to navigate my career.
My time at my prior company from 2013–2019 was also very formative. I joined the company in 2013 to serve as a divisional chief actuary. Shortly after, I was invited to start a new strategy department for the division, drawing on my strategic thinking and consulting skills. After that, I was offered opportunities to lead underwriting for the division and life product development. All were non-actuarial roles. While I am now back in a traditional actuarial role, these other roles gave me an appreciation for the challenges and business issues faced by my business partners across the organization.
Q: What is your proudest career accomplishment?
A: My biggest accomplishment was being named chief actuary at CNO Financial in September of 2019. I realized that, for the first time in my career, I would be the highest-ranking actuary in my organization. While that was a humbling thought, I had a lot of people in my network who told me I was ready to take on that challenge. Their support meant a lot to me.
Q: What was one of your biggest challenges and how did you overcome it?
A: We made a big mistake in a consulting project that I was leading. I felt incredibly bad about how it turned out, and I just wanted to bury my head in the sand. Our firm at that time had a saying about “moments that matter”—the moments when you have an opportunity to go above and beyond and do something really meaningful for your co-workers or your clients. Someone reminded me that one of the “moments that matter” is when you make a mistake—how you show up after that can define who you are as a leader and business partner. So, I called up the CFO who had hired us and apologized, and we had an honest conversation about what had happened. That has stuck with me ever since—that when you make a mistake, that’s not the end. It’s the beginning of an opportunity for you to respond in a way that will meaningfully impact others and define your character.
Q: How did you take on your current leadership role?
A: After six years at my company, I had decided that I was ready for a new opportunity. My family and I were living in New York, but all of our family is in Chicago, which is where my husband and I are both from. Someone sent me the job description for the chief actuary role at CNO Financial. I was floored. I had done consulting work for CNO several years ago, so I was familiar with the company and some of the people there. The job was in Chicago, which was rare since there aren’t a lot of life insurance companies in Chicago. And when I read the job description, it was basically what I would write if someone asked me to define my perfect job. When I interviewed, I could tell how much I would enjoy working with the people who interviewed me, and I could see how I could both add immediate value to the company but also stretch myself in some new areas. It has turned out to be a great fit, and I really love what I get to do every day.
Q: What do you wish you could have done in your career but didn’t?
A: Nothing. I have been fortunate to do so many different things and to be offered so many great opportunities throughout my career.
Q: What community or non-actuarial volunteer initiatives have you taken on during your career, and why those?
A: I previously volunteered with the Tax Assistance Program. This program helps low-income working individuals and households prepare their taxes, to ensure they get all of the tax benefits they deserve. I felt it was a great way to apply my math skills and attention to detail in the service of others. I also served for several years on the board of an organization called Chicago Training Center, which introduces the sport of rowing to underserved youth in Chicago. I’ve dabbled in rowing a bit over the years and always enjoyed being out on the water. In a city with an awesome lake and river, I thought it was a really creative way to expose inner-city youth to a sport that can offer meaningful differentiation and opportunity for them when they apply to college. Now I spend a lot of my volunteer hours on Society of Actuaries initiatives. Once the pandemic ends, I’m hoping to find some other opportunities to volunteer in our community.
Finding time for volunteering takes some discipline. As actuaries, we’re trained to have good time management through the exam process. Periodically, I take stock and prioritize how I spend my time to make sure I’m spending it on things that are important to me and align with my values.
Q: What career/life lessons can you share?
A: Do what you love. Work can be hard, and it’s even harder if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing. I can honestly say that I’ve loved the work that I did at every stage of my career and at every place that I worked. I think it not only makes you happier, but people like to offer opportunities to people with a positive attitude.
Take advantage of the opportunities that you’re offered. That doesn’t mean you have to say yes to everything. You’ll find as you go through your career that you will increasingly need to learn how to say no to things and how to prioritize your time. But say yes to opportunities that scare you. Say yes to opportunities that don’t have a clear role in your career path. I never had a specific career progression in mind for myself. I think the career I’ve had simply by saying yes to opportunities I was offered has turned out to be far more interesting than anything I could have dreamed up for myself.
Stay interesting. Do things outside of work that are unrelated to the actuarial field. I know it can be hard to find time to do that while taking actuarial exams, but it’s really important that you maintain interests outside of work. For me, I have found that people are still always interested to learn that I was an English major as an undergrad, and I think that distinction has made me more memorable to people I’ve met or interviewed with.
Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring a new team member?
A: Technical skills are extremely important, but they are table stakes. I look for people who exhibit a passion for what they do and are excited to tell me about themselves and their work. I also look for clear communication skills. As you take on progressively more senior roles, communication becomes a much more significant part of what you do every day. To me, collaboration has its roots in communication. Poor communication can cause whole projects to fail; great communication can bring people together and create more innovative and successful solutions than anyone could come up with on their own.
Q: What advice would you give to people who are starting their actuarial careers?
A: Network as much as you can. LinkedIn is such an amazing tool. Connect to your fellow students, your professors, your internship co-workers and managers, and anyone else you meet along the way. Connect with vendors and consultants who provide services to your company. And continue to build your network as you go. I’ve found that people are so willing to be helpful and supportive once you connect with them. I’ve built up a support system that I can bring any questions to. Over half of the jobs I’ve gotten have come to me through my network. And so, I try to pay it forward when I’m in a position where I can help others.
Q: How do you like to spend your leisure time?
A: Traveling, dining out, and reading. We have taken a break from dining out and traveling for the last year or so. I’m hopeful that those activities will start to come back as we move through 2021.
Q: What recent or classic TV show/movie/book would you recommend?
A: One of my favorite books that I recommend to people is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I first read it a few years ago, and it completely changed the way I think about how I work. It made me feel excited and energized about the opportunities for innovation, design thinking, and lean solution development in the insurance industry.
Q: What is a little-known fact about you?
A: I can juggle, and I had a unicycle as a child. I think my parents were afraid I was going to run off and join the circus.
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries, the editors, or the respective authors’ employers.
Ying Zhao, FSA, MAAA, is a member of the Board of Directors for the Society of Actuaries and the past chair of the Leadership and Development Section Council. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://www.linkedin.com/in/ying-zhao-97991114/