Spreadsheet to the Head Seat: Perspectives from actuaries turned leaders (Part 3)

This is the third instalment of a four-part series where Byron Wong and Danny Bechara interview four actuaries-turned-leaders. In this instalment the interviewees give advice on how to build exceptional teams and become an effective leader.


In case you missed the earlier instalments:


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


Building Exceptional Teams

The key role of a leader is to build an exceptional team. We asked each of our interviewees how they have gone about doing this, and what advice they can share.

Leigh said you often inherit a team, as opposed to having the opportunity to build a team from scratch. Therefore the challenge is to build upon the existing strengths, with Leigh’s view being that you build team strength through diversity of individuals. This comes by attracting individuals with differing backgrounds and thought processes to your team and, continually encourage team members to take risks to build their skillsets and do something beyond their current sphere of knowledge.

Brett stated that as he had moved further away from the traditional actuarial fields, part of his team building was finding the right people in the business to lead areas which he personally hadn’t been involved in before. In those circumstances, his advice was to surround yourself with expertise from those fields and learn to rely and trust them to complete the tasks they have been given. Brett also highlighted that diversity, though initially challenging, is a key aspect of building a well-rounded team.

Natalie’s experience demonstrated that one of the most difficult parts of team building is knowing when certain individuals are not right for a certain role. There can be instances where an individual is not quite meeting their objectives and goals, not through a lack of effort, but just because that role is not right for them. Effective leadership in that situation is being able to be honest and open with the individual and having the difficult conversation sooner rather than later.

James shared that “any business is a people business” and different firms face the same issues, at the heart of building effective teams is getting the culture right. James shared that in his role at KPMG there is a real push for collaboration to be an important tenet of the team, with team goals overriding individual targets. This means that individuals who assist others, contribute to thought leadership, and are willing to work effectively for the benefit of the team are rewarded. This reinforcement means that strong teams will naturally be built.

How to be an Effective Leader

Common Perspectives

Being Authentic

When asked what the most important skill a leader should have, three of the interviewees emphasised the importance of being authentic. They acknowledged that while this is sometimes seen as a ‘buzzword’, it was essential.

At its core, being authentic means staying true to yourself, expressing interest in things you are actually passionate about, and conducting yourself in a way which reflects who you are on the inside. This trait naturally leads towards you building trust and loyalty with those that you work with.

Understand Motivations                                                                                   

Another key skill is to understand different people’s motivations and to tap into them. Both Brett and Leigh described how important this was, particularly when leading multi-disciplinary teams (such as the sales and operations functions).

Rather than assuming certain perceptions are held by your direct reports, ask them; seek to understand what it is they are looking to achieve. Keep in mind that not everyone wants to reach leadership positions (i.e. get promoted); some individuals enjoy their role as is or are in a stage of their life where they don’t want to take additional responsibility.

By tapping into these individual motivations and understanding your team members, you will get the best out of them. Look to support them in pursuing their goals. As a leader, you need to balance the wants of the people you lead and the needs of the business you represent.

Perspective 1: James Collier

James raised agility as a key strategic skill. He emphasised that it is important for leaders to keep track of what is happening in their industry, understand the people in their organisation and seize opportunities. This is particularly crucial when the market moves – unless you are able to move with it by changing your approach, you will be left behind. Consulting with your team to get varied perspectives is important here.

James highlighted that staff want to: work somewhere they can achieve their goals, work for someone they look up to, and work for a business that is going somewhere. A leader’s role is to facilitate these.

Not to be forgotten is succession planning. James’ view was that your promotion can be eased if you have been able to groom a team member to step up into your role.  A successful, cohesive team will then be able to manage that transition well.

Perspective 2: Brett Clark

Brett discussed how important role modelling behaviours and attitudes are in leadership. This affects the ways individuals view you and in turn how they act.

He stressed the importance of being true to yourself and not presenting a version of yourself which might be different in different situations, and having this integrity is key to leading individuals. In line with these values, Brett also stated the importance of humility and not getting ahead of yourself in the positions which you have.

Perspective 3: Natalie Eckersall

Natalie set out various practical skills that make leaders more effective. She stressed the obvious point of ensuring that roles and responsibilities of the people you lead are clear and thus individuals can be measured against this. Furthermore, she stated that as a leader you must have, and be able to present, a clear vision to those you lead. A vision acts as a motivator and inspiration for the individuals in your team and helps them see where they are going.

On top of all this, she mentioned leaders also need to be competent managers and achieve the outcomes they have been assigned. A healthy social skillset needs to be matched with delivering on commercial goals.

Lastly she stated that leaders need to ultimately be brave and learn how to deal with failures (as these will inevitability arise). Leaders need to be able to respond under pressure and be honest about the challenges they are facing.

Perspective 4: Leigh Watson

Leigh reiterated that an important part of leading individuals is giving them a “runway”, so they are empowered to achieve their own goals. In this way you (as a leader) look for others to drive changes, but also act to “support and steer” them. By giving your team both space to perform their role and accountability for outcomes, they will be inspired to perform.

He indicated that ultimately it is trust that underpins everything in leadership. Although you will have to use different approaches for different people in order to build this trust, by having a mutual trust and a team mentality people will naturally respond positively.

The final instalment will explore the importance of culture in leadership, what the interviewees are passionate about as leaders, and their views on the direction of the actuarial profession.

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