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Reinvigorate Your Actuarial Career

By John West Hadley

The Stepping Stone, September 2022

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“An actuary with a personality can go anywhere.”
-Richard P Hadley, circa 1976

What did my father mean when he said that to me as I started out on my actuarial path?

As actuarial students, we work incredibly hard on both the exams and our technical skills, mastering everything we think we need to be successful actuaries. And that effort pays off as we gain our credentials and come out at a middle management level. But as it turns out, those are simply the dues for entry to the profession.

It is certainly possible to carve out a successful actuarial career by setting out to become the most technically proficient actuary possible—and continuing to invest heavily in your technical skills and knowledge after fellowship. But if you aspire to senior leadership roles, that investment will have seriously diminishing returns. To really stand out among other actuaries, put just as much energy and attention into developing your soft skills—you need these skills to become that “actuary with a personality” that my father was talking about.

(If you are looking for a good resource to strengthen your soft skills, I would recommend picking up a copy of Dave Miller’s The Influential Actuary.[1])

In the course of my career, I’ve found that one of the most important things you can do to reinvigorate your actuarial career is to get very good at communicating the value of the work you have done. When people in critical positions throughout your company (or more generally, throughout the industry) understand the benefits you bring to the table, opportunities will naturally find you.

In my own case, when I was close to fellowship, a former boss sought me out for a role. I really wanted to work for him again, and readily agreed. Several years later, a friend who was an actuarial consultant told me he had two clients who needed someone like me, and made the introductions. That led to two job offers, one of which was my dream job, where I stayed for the next 13 years. And during those years, on a number of occasions I found myself invited to participate in interesting projects or task forces outside of my current role.

How do you make this happen?

By equipping others to understand your value, in a natural way. Often, this is as simple as being prepared with a short, interesting, answer to “What do you do?”

For example, years ago my parent company decided to have its first leadership conference, and brought all officers worldwide to the headquarters for several days. This was my first (and perhaps only) chance to meet the CEO, and I would only have a few seconds to shake hands and tell him something interesting.

If he asked me what I did, I could say “I run Commercial’s actuarial department.” That would be perfectly accurate, and would let him place me in the overall organizational structure. But it would completely miss my opportunity to engage him. This would be like handing him a business card to stick in his pocket.

The better answer would be a one-line example of some benefit I had added to the company. This would make me more memorable, and perhaps lead to follow-up questions. For example, I could have answered with something like this “Most recently, I developed a modeling system that’s allowing us to pursue rate actions we previously could not have hoped to get approved.”

Basically, this is about getting very good at self-marketing. And this is where your psychology can get in the way.

Many actuaries find self-marketing difficult or distasteful. After all, they signed up to be actuaries, not sales people! They shouldn’t have to promote their contributions, others should simply recognize the great work they do. On top of that, our profession tends to attract a higher percentage of relatively introverted people, so that effective networking doesn’t always come naturally.

How do you develop this ability?

Start by examining your past achievements, getting in touch with what real benefits you brought to the table. Focus particularly on the challenges overcome and the results achieved. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What led me to take on this project? Was it my initiative, or was it assigned?
  • Why me and not someone else? Why was it even necessary for ANYONE to take it on?
  • What caused it to be worth doing at this particular time? Why wasn’t it taken on before this?
  • What was the challenge we faced?
  • What challenges did I have to overcome along the way to make this successful?
  • What actions did I take to overcome those challenges?
  • What specifically did I do to bring the project to its conclusion?
  • What would have happened had I not been able to complete it, or if the project had not been taken on in the first place?
  • What was the end result of my efforts?

That last point is absolutely critical. Look at some of these possibilities:

  • Did I complete the project more quickly than expected, freeing up resources for other critical tasks?
  • Was I able to take a project that was behind schedule, and put it back on target?
  • Are some of the techniques I employed going to serve as templates that will improve efficiency on future projects?
  • Did this lead to increased productivity, lower expenses, higher profitability, …?

The more you can put specific metrics on the results achieved, the better. These could be things like dollars saved, number of days by which a reporting cycle was reduced, or percentage increase in productivity.

Now you have the ammunition to come up with those one-line answers to “What Do You Do?” that will engage and equip the listener. Here I really do mean one-line. Don’t try to tell the whole story, just give one interesting point, even if you have many interesting points within your story. Let those others be the answers to follow-up questions. Think in terms of peeling back the layers of an onion.

Finally, take advantage of any opportunity to get in front of key people outside of your normal span of operations. Create a plan to make this happen on a regular basis. Use social business events, coffee or lunch meetings, virtual one-on-ones, or even old style phone calls.

One final example:

I was working with an actuary who ran an international operation for his company. Kevin got the opportunity to have a “skip-level” meeting with the company chair. I asked him what his goal was for that meeting.

“To make sure he understands what my operation does.”

I challenged him on that, and suggested that his real goal should be to make sure the chair understands the value his operation adds to the company. That got Kevin thinking, and we strategized on how he could do that.

The chair left the meeting saying, “Kevin, I want you to let my assistant know the next time you are going to visit our Latin American operation. I think there are some things we can do together, and I may want to go along.”

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.


John Hadley is a career counselor who works with job seekers frustrated with their search, and professionals struggling to increase their visibility and influence. He can be reached at John@JHACareers.com or 908.725.2437. Find his free Career Tips newsletter and other resources at www.JHACareers.com. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnwesthadley/.


Endnote

[1] Miller, David C. 2010. The Influential Actuary: How Actuaries & Other Technically Oriented Professionals Set Themselves Apart. Actex Publications, Inc.