Actuarial Leadership: Past, present and future.
A google search is all that is required to demonstrate the perceived difference between leaders and actuaries. Fortunately, the process to change this image is well underway, reflecting an understanding that a well-rounded profession is a greater asset to everyone.
On 9 August 2017, the Actuaries Institute Australia, in partnership with both Blair Nicholls (former CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Australia-New Zealand) and Anthony Lowe (current CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia) lead a guided dive through the non-quantitative realm of leadership.
Both topical and wide-ranging, the hour-long session focused on applicable lessons from the past, strategies for development in the present and providing a road map for the actuarial leaders of the future.
As anyone who has watched Game of Thrones will testify to, becoming a leader (and particularly a good leader) is not an easy path. In particular, it is crucial that would-be leaders are resilient and adaptable in the face of change.
Organisational restructuring is one example of change, plucked from the myriad of shifting frontiers which make business such a captivating forum. In line with this, both speakers referenced times in their careers when winding down business units had been deemed necessary. The survival of the business, and the interdependence between the business, its’ employees and their families, was on the line. Importantly, while the often-uncomfortable conversations had been the hardest of Blair’s career, he also noted that out of hardship grew success – for in laying off 500 employees, many others were able to remain employed.
In addition to resilience, both Blair and Antony noted that for those who aspire to lead, there exists a handful of recurrent pitfalls of which it pays to be aware, including:
- Aiming to overachieve without conviction – as being the best requires extraordinary dedication and;
- Over-planning – as a mediocre but well communicated plan will often outperform a strong but poorly communicated one.
Despite these warning words, Actuaries are in actuality, very capable and well positioned to assume leadership roles within the profession and the business world as a whole. Whilst to pinpoint one reason for this would be antithetical to the idea of breaking down stereotypes, this stems from a rare ability to combine a holistic view of business with specialised technical skills to develop clear insight and strategy.
In developing soft-skills, breadth of knowledge is key. Blair recommended that exposing oneself to content which on first glance appears to be nonsensical, can be instrumental. He spoke, for example, of a number of polarising blogs to which he subscribed, despite strongly disagreeing with their views.
“In exposing yourself to diversity – even when this diversity is uncomfortable – you engage in a process of reflection and improvement which may provide the impetus for positive change.”
Encouraging leadership in the present is also enabled through interconnectedness, stemming from partnerships and communication at both the inter and intra generational levels. Both Antony and Blair, citing their own experiences in mentoring programs, suggested that enterprising actuaries should seek out those willing to nurture and assist in professional development.
The session ended with a forward-looking perspective, and the need to ensure the relevance and leadership of the profession in a dynamic market. Despite the technical foundations upon which actuaries’ reputation and role are built, both Antony and Blair highlighted that it would be qualitative, not quantitative skills which would drive successful transformation.
Big data, the buzz-word of the 2010s, has already altered the landscape of our profession. Many low or no-cost software packages allow non-technical practitioners the capacity to provide insight that equals, or betters, the traditional actuarial favourite – the Generalised Linear Model (GLM). In light of this shift, it will be the actuarial ability to take confusing and often misleading statistics, and distil them into clear insights which will be key to remaining the market leader, now and into the future.
Like a good bottle of red wine, our profession is one which can mature and improve with age. As the Penfolds Grange’s of the world know, resting on one’s laurels and reputation is never enough. Rather, finding the right balance and enhancing the flavour of traditional actuarial techniques with clear communication and leadership, is crucial.