Jumping the Crevasse from Technical to Leadership

On 1 September 2015, a packed audience gathered to hear two highly respected female actuaries in leadership positions speak about their personal career journeys. Jennifer Lang, CFO and Chief Actuary at CommInsure, and Natalie Eckersall, General Manager of Insurance Claims at NAB Wealth, outlined their stories in a series of valuable lessons learnt in the transition from technical to leadership roles, across the various facets of thought, people and self-leadership.

Jennifer’s Lessons

Lesson 1: Always be curious

While growing up, Jennifer developed a sense of curiosity and wonder, inspired by her grandmother who was a mathematics graduate and helped translate maths textbooks into Braille for the vision-impaired, which was no easy feat considering the graphs and notation.

Jennifer attributes her career success to being curious about the business you work in, the people you work with and the contribution you can make. Thus, if you want to be an interesting person, start by being interested in the world.

Lesson 2: Find your flow

The key to being happy and productive at work is to find a mental state of “flow” (or being “in the zone”) where we are fully immersed in a state of effortless concentration and enjoyment such that we feel our best and perform our best. First identified by Polish psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, this ideal combination of being stretched and attaining mastery results in both contentment and achievement.

Flow can be achieved in all areas of life, including work, playing sports, intellectual thought, the creative arts, in solitude, in social interactions and even sex (!). Think of the Formula 1 driver who races around a hairpin bend on the circuit, a musician tapping into the depths of his emotions while composing or a computer programmer solving an intractable problem with an elegant piece of code. As an extreme example, Michelangelo famously painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while uncomfortably lying on his back for many days continuously without eating, drinking or resting. Eventually, he would pass out from exhaustion, but upon awakening, he would be seized by divine inspiration and continue painting again.

Crevasse

The diagram shows that flow results when highly developed skills are used to tackle a difficult challenge. Many people spend most of their time either bored (under-challenged) or anxious (over-challenged), rather than consciously finding the sweet spot of “flow” to allow their skills to grow, develop and enjoy. Csíkszentmihályi argues that these are the moments of optimal experience that make “life worth living”, as the average happiness of people has little correlation with income over a certain threshold (about US$60-70k per year). Instead, the opportunities to simultaneously achieve mastery and joy in their work are more important, rather than purely financial incentives.

Navigating change

Jennifer recounted some of the highlights in her career as confronting turbulent change and emerging with a better understanding of how to adapt.

  • Early on in her career, she was seconded by AMP to work at the UK life insurer Pearl, and took on responsibility to lead a team of 15 people. She realised that you need to delegate responsibility to give people the chance the step up to the challenge and prove themselves.
  • The split of the GI practice of Trowbridge Deloitte to form Finity Consulting highlighted the importance of communication during times of change to ensure all parties share a common understanding of the issue.
  • Restitution of unit pricing errors at CBA highlighted the need to communicate and protect policyholder’s interests as the actuary’s professional duty to serve the public interest.
  • Work-life balance depends on who you are and what you want, such that long working hours may be fine when you’re young, but leaving work on time is necessary to look after a family.

Natalie’s Lessons

Natalie Eckersall’s career path has surprisingly followed the same organisation for the last 25 years through many takeovers, from starting at Norwich Union, to Aviva, to MLC. Her roles had evolved from traditional actuarial valuation and pricing to being head of claims management in charge of 150 people.

Lesson 1: Know your audience

At Natalie’s first conference for financial advisors, she had to consider the expansion of a product’s cancer definition to include early stage colorectal cancer due to increasing incidence and widespread awareness. After initially preparing a very prudent actuarial analysis, she recommended that they exclude coverage of those cancers due to unsustainability high premiums. However, Natalie was totally unprepared for the strong opposition backlash from the advisors who would be trying to sell a product with inferior coverage compared to competitors.

Hence, the lesson is that you should think twice about your audience and their likely reaction before presenting your work.

Lesson 2: Building strong teams

The key to strong teams is diversity of thinking and complementary strengths. A team leader also needs to confront problems early on and take action. An example might be the need to have conversations with underperforming staff or those not suited to their roles to let them know of the issue. Otherwise such long-term problems will eventually snowball and cost more than just one career.

Lesson 3: Clarity of vision

It is imperative for leaders to create and communicate a very clear vision for the organisation that staff at all levels can understand. Natalie noted the use of simple industry benchmarks e.g. claims performance, pricing competitiveness, and customer satisfaction for all staff to work towards, especially during chaotic times of change.

Lesson 4: Being vulnerable and connecting with people

Claimants can be very emotional during the claims process due to such a traumatic life event. Natalie recalled a conversation with the husband of a policyholder who had suffered a brain tumour, who was initially very angry and sceptical about the insurer’s motives in being unwilling to accept his claim despite the need to request more information before a decision could be made. Only when Natalie gently asked “how are you coping?” that he revealed the emotional trauma he was going through and eventually calmly cooperated with Natalie’s requests.

Thus, by engaging our empathic listening skills, we can really understand our staff and customers to work out the best solution for everyone.

Other lessons

Other important lessons from Natalie included:

  • know what your values are;
  • believe in your own abilities – because if you start doubting yourself enough, others will too;
  • practise communication and presentation skills to inspire people;
  • call out for help when needed with friends, mentors and training programs; and
  • build your resilience.

To communicate with non-actuaries:

  • be aware of what they know and don’t know;
  • put yourself in their shoes; and
  • understand their background and explain it in their terms.

Q&A

There were many sharp questions from the audience, some examples follow.

  • Is there really a “crevasse” between technical and leadership?
  • What happens to those who don’t make the jump?
  • Is it possible to master both? Or does one skill have to be sacrificed for the other?

Jennifer and Natalie noted that some people can transition more easily into leaders by trusting others to take responsibility for producing high quality technical work. Others may find it harder to accept the fact that although they may be better at a particular task, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be doing it. Not every actuary wants to or can successfully make the leap from technical to leadership, but for those who do, a whole new world of challenges and rewards lies waiting to be discovered.

References
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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