What’s It Like to Work at the Society of Actuaries?
By Wendy Liang
The Stepping Stone, May 2022
This is a conversation with two critical staff members of the Society of Actuaries (SOA) about their experience there. Jane Lesch is a non-actuary who has been working at the SOA for over 20 years, and is an engagement specialist. Mike Boot is an actuary who retired at the end of February after 15 years at the SOA, most recently as managing director. We spoke to both Jane and Mike to get their take on what leadership is about, and how working at the SOA impacted them.
Wendy: Why did you decide to join the SOA?
Mike: Working at the SOA is not a traditional role for actuaries. I'm not as heavily involved in a lot of the modeling like I was in the industry for about 25 years before I joined the SOA. But even before then, I had some non-typical actuarial roles.
Just before I joined the SOA, I worked for four years for Allstate International to start Allstate in Asia, particularly in India. So I spent a lot of time doing that which is not a traditional role.
I was actually looking for a new opportunity and while I looked at traditional actuarial jobs and didn’t set out intending to join the SOA, the opportunity was intriguing. And as I talked to people, I was attracted by the chance to be on the cutting edge of some of the issues and make a difference for the profession. This was all the way back in 2006.
There have been a whole lot of changes since then, but it's been a good move. I am very thankful that I could really serve the profession whilst I was at the SOA for the last 15 years.
Jane: I actually ran a home daycare when my kids were small, so that I could be home with them. As they got older, I started doing part-time jobs. I worked in a library and a nursery school, and then we moved to Chicago and I got a part-time job in the Registration Department at Harper College. Although I moved from there to an insurance agency, Harper College gave me what I needed to land a job in the SOA’s Exam Department.
Before my interview, I had to look up what an actuary was, but I was so happy to get the job. The things I did were so much fun, I enjoyed working with the exam staff in completing an exam cycle and I got to talk to a lot of people taking the exams. Like Mike, I also didn't plan to work for the Society of Actuaries. It just happened.
Wendy: Have you always had the same job at the SOA?
Jane: For the first 16 years, I worked in the Exam Department setting up exam centers, taking care of the arrangements for our candidates with special needs and preparing the exams. And now I'm working with the sections, so it's entirely different in some ways and very much the same in others. There are great volunteers in both areas who I thoroughly enjoy working with.
Now, with the sections I spend a lot of time setting up calls and reminding council members of deadlines. I also get to dabble in several other areas: recording podcasts, coordinating contests and awards, creating surveys, organizing virtual networking events, and the list just goes on. Basically, if the section council can think of it, I’ll try to figure out a way to do it.
Mike: We were glad when you joined us in Sections, Jane!
My role has evolved with the different needs of the organization. As I started, I was working with sections and over time, I've had my hands in a number of different things. There was a time I actually was leading some of the work we did in research. Part of my most recent role was overseeing all the work we do in our Professional Development—from webcasts to meetings to all types of things we're trying to do through a virtual e-learning environment. A lot has changed over time and I’ve always been serving the membership, just in different roles at different times.
Wendy: Jane, what has kept you working at the SOA for so long?
Jane: I really like the people I work with, both the staff and the volunteers. I get to make pretty good friends with a lot of volunteers. It has been fun to meet people from all over the world. There are several volunteers I’m working with today who I have been working with since I started at the SOA in 2000.
Wendy: And in your 20+ years at the SOA, what would you say is your most valuable leadership lesson?
Jane: I've not been in any leadership position, but have watched a lot of leadership happening, so it's hard to narrow it down to one. But I think it's important for people to be authentic to who they are, honest and caring about the people they're leading, and to care about what they're trying to accomplish.
Mike is a good example of this. When there is an issue, he listens carefully to everything you have to say before he makes any decision. Everybody is busy, so the tendency is to just hear the highlights and then make a quick decision, but it seems like so often the real meat or the root of the issue is buried down underneath. You have to hunt for it!
"It's important to be authentic […] to be honest and caring about the people they are leading."
Mike: Thanks Jane for the comment, and I do think everyone in different ways is a leader. We really all have leadership in our jobs. It's not a title or how many people we manage. It's where we do have an area of influence.
The people are all so important. We've gone about the work to really make sure that we've emphasized things we do as a team, and I found that to be very important in my career.
Wendy: Mike, you mentioned influence. Having been in the section myself, I do rely on Jane’s leadership for a lot of the stuff that we manage to accomplish, and for keeping track of initiatives. In many ways, it's more difficult and challenging to lead or to influence when you are not the line manager. This is where you really have to exercise your influencing skills and to me, that's what leadership really is, as opposed to saying, I'm your manager, and therefore do what I tell you do.
Mike: That's exactly correct. I really emphasized that with all the people I worked with at the SOA, we really do have an important role and we have a lot of influence. We often are on very important committees. Sometimes they're board committees. Sometimes they are section councils. While they all have their own leadership, we really are involved to help influence, to support and to shape.
Often we've talked about leading from behind. There are other leaders, but we can have an important role in that leadership. It's not about who gets the credit or who's out in the front. We do it together as a team.
Wendy: I like the phrase leading from behind. Jane, how do you find working with actuaries? Any interesting stories that you'd like to share?
Jane: I enjoy almost all of the actuaries I've worked with. I know the stereotype is introverted and quiet, but I really haven't seen a lot of that. Most of the volunteers I work with are pretty outgoing and easy to get along with. The commonality I've noticed is that everyone has the same eye for detail and they can pick out mistakes from a mile away.
There was one time I was trying to format an exam question and had three or four actuaries watching over my shoulder. There were three or four opinions on how best to format that question. I had a ruler, and I was measuring things on the screen on the computer. It was crazy. But when we finished, we had a really nice-looking question.
Mike: We work with a wide range of actuaries. I do think there's sometimes a stereotype, but I don't experience that routinely. Each one is an individual and I think it’s always important not to view actuaries just as one type.
I think Jane and I have both enjoyed the interactions. I still have strong friendships and connections with many I've dealt with over the years. It's been an important part of our job. It's one of the things I'm going to personally miss as I leave.
Wendy: I do wonder if there might be some selection bias.
Mike: But the volunteers are all different. The good thing is that they all want the profession to excel. They want excellence in what they do and that is important.
Wendy: Mike, you mentioned how you got into the SOA sort of by coincidence. You knew people who were working there and you thought it'd be interesting. How would you compare the more typical industry job you had prior to the SOA?
Mike: One of the things that surprised me is that there are more similarities than differences. Some of the things I do and skills I use are different, but someone who would succeed in a traditional actuarial role is likely to be successful at the SOA. We put together key project initiatives, and goals at the beginning of the year that drive the work we do. We are very focused on making sure we achieve those. It's also important to make sure we work in a collaborative manner. Those same skills are important no matter where you work.
Wendy: How technical is your job at the SOA?
Mike: It has a different degree of technical. I don't do a whole lot of modeling or Excel spreadsheets. But we want to make sure we're at the cutting edge of actuarial issues. In professional development, we need to know what actuaries need or want to know. So in my role, I need to understand the technical issues so we can be sure we are providing the appropriate content even though I do not hands-on perform the actual calculations.
Wendy: What would you tell young or aspiring actuaries who are interested in working for the SOA?
Mike: I would broaden that question. For any non-traditional role, you need to be really open and able to assess what your skills are. Be aware of yourself. It's important you know you have the right skill set when you're looking at things. Even before I joined the SOA, I moved to some different roles that were kind of unusual for actuaries to do. I encourage people to be open and consider those roles.
Try to envision where the future is, not where your skills are today. I think people always want to be challenged. Do new things. Don't be afraid to just change from the role that you already know so well. Technical skills are the foundation, but the career-changing difference often isn't the technical skills.
"Technical skills are the foundation, but the difference often isn't the technical skills."
Wendy: Jane, you've had a couple of different roles in your 22 years at the SOA and have experienced some changes. Can you share with our readers how you've managed to navigate those?
Jane: Change is going to happen no matter where you are or what you're doing. I see change always as an opportunity to improve things. I enjoy learning different things, so it's always fun and a challenge when change occurs.
Mike: I very much echo what Jane said. You can either resist a change or embrace it. An important perspective to have is to use change to create a positive outcome. Wendy: With the pandemic and work-at-home over the last two years, I think we've all learned to embrace change. What else have you learned in the last two years.
Jane: I've learned that most of my neighbors mow their lawn on Fridays. I've also learned that all those papers that I've got in my desk aren't important. I haven't needed them for two years. I'm now just waiting to empty those file folders.
Mike: When it started two years ago, we thought we were going to do this for a month. We thought it'd be a hard month and no one imagined it'd be two years. We've had to do things in different ways. I never used Microsoft Teams or Zoom and now I know them very well. The takeaway is that much of what we could do, we can just accomplish in a different way. Everyone was committed and we knew what the goals were. In professional development, we were experts at how to do live meetings and now we've learned how to do things virtually.
Wendy: What did you do to stay connected?
Mike: We always have had team meetings, but just to make sure people felt connected and were aware of what's going on, I put together a weekly newsletter that I sent out for most of 2020 to keep a sense that we’re all working together. And I included pictures from my neighborhood.
Jane: They were really nice. I think we all appreciated them. There was always a joke and often some inspirational TedTalk or something like that. I looked forward to them.
Wendy: It's all part of leadership: keeping people engaged and making sure they're connected. But you're absolutely right. I don't think even us actuaries knew this was going to last for so long. I still remember in March 2020 when our Board meeting got cancelled! What's your view on hybrid working?
Jane: I think this is something that was going to happen anyway. The pandemic just sped up the changes because a lot of jobs can be done fully remote. I happen to like being around people, so I'm looking forward to being in the office a little bit again. But I also know others who prefer working completely remote. I think companies are going to have to get used to being flexible on what they expect their employees to do in the future, but I think it can work really well.
Mike: I think there's real opportunity for hybrid. It's interesting because two years ago, people had no idea fully how to do remote. We as an organization actually had many people already working one day a week from home before the pandemic. This really helped us during the pandemic as people already had all their setup at home.
Working and office are not going to be the same as before. You need to think about whether you're doing the right things at the right time in the environment where you are. I think there's strength to each one and one should leverage those strengths.
Wendy: Any last words of advice you'd like to share with our readers?
Jane: I am all for people to volunteer at the SOA. Members who volunteer get more out of the SOA than those we don't. So if people haven't volunteered yet, now is a good time to start.
Wendy: Volunteering also gives you a lot of opportunities to really hone your leadership skills!
Jane: Absolutely! I've seen a lot of growth in the leadership skills of section council members over the last few years.
Mike: Thanks for saying that, Jane. Even for myself, before the SOA, I spoke at probably one meeting but I didn't do much volunteering. I wish I had done more of that before I actually joined the staff. I've really seen leaders grow that way.
I'd tell people to be continuous learners. The fact that you've got all your credentials, your fellowship is not the end. The world of the actuarial profession is changing. The work is dynamic. The tools and data are so different now, that you really need to be a continuous learner.
Wendy: One last question, what's your leadership moto?
Jane: I didn't really have a leadership moto, but this quote from Abraham Lincoln spoke to me the most. "Whatever you are, be a good one." This reminded me of what my dad always said: if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well.
Mike: I don't know that I formally had a leadership motto, but there are things I’ve tried to live by during my time at the SOA. The first one is from my mother, which is all about how you respond to things: Make it a great day whether it is or not. It's how you react and respond, and my mother lived that out.
The other one is from Mark Miller. I've always really responded to his "V" from "value results and relationship." Value results but also value those relationships. I've really tried to incorporate that into my leadership.
Wendy: Thank you both. That's all very insightful. Relationships are indeed often more valuable than results!
Wendy Liang, FSA, CERA, is the global head of Accounting and Closing Life and Health at Swiss Re. She currently serves as treasurer in the Leadership & Development Section Council and was a member of the Board of Directors for the Society of Actuaries from 2017 to 2020. She can be reached at Wendy_Liang@swissre.com. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wendycliang/.