Spreadsheet to the Head Seat: Perspectives from actuaries turned leaders – Part 2

This is the second instalment of a four-part series where Byron Wong and Danny Bechara interview four actuaries-turned-leaders. In this instalment the interviewees outline the key leadership strengths of actuaries, how to reach leadership positions, and the role of actuarial education and mentoring in forming leaders.


The first instalment of the series covered the career journeys of each of the interviewees, as well as overcoming barriers to leadership.

Brett Clark
Group CEO and
Managing Director of TAL

James Collier
National Managing Partner
of Finance and Risk
Consulting at KPMG Australia

Natalie Eckersall
Outcome Director of
New Policy and
Customer Services at
MLC Life Insurance 

Leigh Watson
Head of Life and Health
in Australia and New
Zealand at Swiss Re

Actuarial Traits Suited to Leadership

The interviewees all agreed that actuaries bring a technical ability largely unrivalled in business, which provides a good platform for actuaries to step up and lead.

As Natalie put it: “actuaries have the ability to synthenise large volumes of data and make sense of it.” She said this invaluable skill extends beyond just financial data, but includes understanding industry trends, gauging different parties’ perceptions and ultimately bringing interpretation and opinion to data. This is composite skill set means actuaries get “instant credibility” when it comes to analytical tasks.

James mentioned that the strength of an actuary in leadership, for example as an executive in the insurance industry, is that they can make sense of the technical information themselves, rather than having to rely on others’ interpretations.

Brett said that when technical knowledge is combined with a commercial understanding of a business this can lead to highly effective leadership. Leigh echoed similar thoughts in that the actuarial grounding gives great knowledge and credibility to an individual and their opinions.

Actuaries have the skills to interpret data, model uncertain outcomes and draw insights from complicated problems, skills which provide a solid foundation to transition into leadership roles.

Reaching Leadership Roles                                                                     

We asked the four interviewees to share what they would describe as the ‘big break’ in their career and advice they had for actuaries aspiring to reach leadership positions.

Perspective 1: Leigh Watson

Leigh’s big break occurred early in his career when he was working for Manulife, a multinational insurer based in Canada. This role initially began in Hong Kong, but led him to taking on the role of CEO of Manulife in South Korea. Still relatively young at the time, Leigh ran the insurer for three years while being the only ex-pat in the teams he was leading. It was here where he saw the potency of combining his technical actuarial background with communication and leadership skills, allowing him to meet the challenges of working as a CEO.

Leigh found these regional leadership roles very formative, but he highlighted several challenges leading remote teams can bring -the requirement for frequent travel, the importance of spending time “on the ground” face-to-face with people you lead, and the balance between the local culture/market and (working for an Australian-owned business in Asia) the Australian business culture.

Given his experience, Leigh’s advice for actuaries looking to attain leadership roles is to broaden your experience. As Leigh put it, overseas experience “can be a great accelerator of your career”, allowing one to work with a variety of different individuals within different practices while also broadening your skillset. He looks for similar breadth of experience when he hires new team members.

Perspective 2: Natalie Eckersall

Natalie shared the story of when she was at an advisor conference and was asked why a certain medical definition was not being covered within an insurance product her company was offering. She confidently gave reasons from an actuarial perspective – namely that it wasn’t feasible from a pricing perspective. She went on to describe how her response was “ripped apart” by the audience, as she hadn’t thought about source of the question and had not put herself in the shoes of an adviser or a policyholder. Natalie said that her varied experience had provided many valuable lessons, including the importance of empathy and vulnerability.

Her advice to aspiring leaders was to take ownership and stretch yourself, look for leadership opportunities in your current role, by doing that other individuals will begin to entrust more responsibilities upon you, which will eventually lead to formal opportunities. Natalie reinforced that there is no substitute for a strong work ethic and delivering on the responsibilities you currently hold.

Perspective 3: James Collier

James’ journey was steadier in nature as opposed to having a ‘big break’. He found that working in consulting has given him a range of projects and good opportunities across the entire industry. He stated that a valuable quality is being able to see the market from a wide lens; over time this allows you to gain a seat at the table and have a role in shaping the industry.

James reminded young actuaries not to hurry, and that sitting under good leadership allows you to develop your skills a lot quicker than working by yourself. He also emphasised that you shouldn’t get complacent; instead look to be continually growing yourself. To reach leadership positions you need to be self-driven, and his advice was to keep setting goals (including genuine stretch targets), work hard, ask questions, seek more responsibilities, ask to be given new opportunities and continue to stretch yourself in a safe environment.

James also highlighted the importance of always seeking specific feedback. For example, if you are in a meeting with a more senior actuary, after that meeting ask them “how was my tone? Did I handle that question about implications appropriately, or should I have provided a shorter response?” His perception is that analysts and junior actuaries may avoid approaching senior leaders (including actuaries) in their business because they are always busy. His advice was to “just ask them” – they are often more than happy to set aside time to chat.

Perspective 4: Brett Clark

Brett shared his experience when he was given the opportunity to move out of the Chief Actuary role into leading the product and distribution team at AIG Life (now AIA). It was the first time he had real commercial accountability for business performance and he found himself leading a diverse team which included non-technical specialists and non-actuaries including sales teams. Through his experiences he learnt about individuals have very different motivations and that understanding these personal drivers is key to mobilising them.

Brett’s advice for young actuaries was to “be true to yourself, don’t try to manufacture a different version of yourself”. He went on to say that you can read a wide range of leadership literature however what is most important to leadership is staying true to your own values.

Role of Education

When asked about education, all four interviewees expressed pride and passion in the industry’s willingness to help people through the actuarial exam process and each echoed similar thoughts that the actuarial education process is one which is rigorous and challenging, but forms a very effective foundation for actuaries to stand upon.

Brett also mentioned the additional formal training that he undertook. This came in the form of a leadership program through INSEAD, in France. He described this as a valuable experience in broadening his management skills particularly in areas of leadership communication and leadership presence, and encouraged people to take opportunities like this.

Brett also emphasised the value of internal leadership programs within organisations, citing TAL’s firm-wide leadership program as being an important tenet in nurturing and growing leaders. The benefit of an internal program means leadership is both taught and applied in the same environment.

Role of Mentoring

Leigh mentioned he had a mentor early in his career who assisted with his work his initial steps into broader leadership. Leigh’s advice was to find someone who is in a role you want to explore in the future.

The other interviewees stated they didn’t have a formal mentor, but each encountered informal mentors (many were their own managers) who pushed them outside their comfort zone. They mentioned that a large part of reaching leadership roles is surrounding yourself with a small group of trusted people who you can be vulnerable with and who can push you in the right direction. James also emphasised listening to the views of others and questioning points you don’t understand or want to explore more, whether this is through your peers, your boss or a mentor.

The next instalment will explore how to build effective teams and what it takes to be an effective leader.

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