Spreadsheet to the Head Seat: Perspectives from actuaries turned leaders (Part 4)

This is the final instalment of a four-part series where Byron Wong and Danny Bechara interview four actuaries-turned-leaders. In this instalment the interviewees explore the importance of culture in leadership, their passions as leaders, and their views on the direction of the actuarial profession.


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


Effective Leadership: Culture

Importance of Culture

Natalie reminded us that culture is “a part of the everyday, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do”. Without developing a clear and strong culture from the top, even the most successful organisations can break down.

James agreed, saying “you don’t realise how important [culture] is until you have people in the team that destroy culture.” He also stated that an important principle to maintaining a strong culture is that when decisions are taken which are against the culture you are trying to build, you have to, within your limits, “call it out immediately and, (depending on the situation), publicly”.

Brett also agreed that culture was “extremely important” – particularly in financial services. He identified integrity as what makes a culture stick; teams need to see the culture presented to them enacted by the senior leadership team. Without integrity and consistency, individuals within your teams won’t adopt the culture you have set out to create.

Leigh’s view was similar, explaining that establishing the right culture is best done through leading by example and setting the tone from the top. Leigh discussed how important it is for individuals to be in an environment where they can learn, and be given appropriate bandwidth to perform their role. This allows them to feel “challenged but not threatened” and “encouraged but not prescribed”.

This was emphasised when he said “I judge the success of my leadership by how my people progress, not by how I progress.”

Evolution of Culture

Natalie’s experience gained in one organisation for over 20 years gave an interesting perspective on how a culture evolves over time. She began at what was Aviva, which merged with MLC when it was bought by NAB, and has recently become MLC Life Insurance when the company was acquired by its current majority owner, Japanese life insurance giant Nippon Life Insurance Company.

It was clear in her eyes how the culture had changed. Aviva was quite agile, being a small organisation in Australia with a relatively simple business model; it was willing to take more chances and there was more accountability on individuals for making things happen.

After the merger with MLC, the culture remained largely similar but with more mature governance. Following this, and under NAB’s ownership, the organisation gradually shifted focus and developed towards a bancassurance model. Becoming part of NAB Wealth meant that reputation became more important and technology more complex. As part of a large bank (with 35,000 employees), the team adopted the culture of a big bank, which had a stronger focus on short-term cash earnings.

Under the majority ownership of Nippon Life Insurance Company, a mutual organisation in Japan, the focus shifted to long term value. MLC Life Insurance now has around 1,600 people.

Throughout these changes Natalie stated how corporate ownership influences the culture of an organisation and how the focus and thinking can drastically change even though the core tenets of the business had not necessarily changed.


One of the real distinctive characteristics shared by leaders, regardless of which field they are in, is they each have a passion (or various passions) – a driving factor; motivation; something which gets them out of bed each morning.

Perspective 1: Brett Clark

Brett shared his passion to provide the best services to customers in order to bring confidence in the insurance industry back to the community. This passion is exhibited through his role as a member of the FSC Life Board Committee, where he gets to meet and work towards this with other people in the industry.

He is proud of the role TAL plays in industry initiatives (through the FSC, ASFA, Actuaries Institute and other industry bodies) to achieve this. In October 2017, Brett was named Australian Insurance Executive of the Year at AB+F’s 15th Annual Australian Insurance Awards, reflecting his contribution to the industry. Brett also is passionate about working for an organisation which he describes as “more a health and wellbeing business than a life insurance business”.

Perspective 2: Leigh Watson

Leigh is passionate about the products insurers manufacture, and creating a sustainable industry for both insurers and customers. He noted that insurance products make positive contributions to society, helping customers when they need it most (at times of financial hardship and/or disaster). Working in an industry which helps society is a powerful driving force, and fits into Swiss Re’s vision to “make the world more resilient”.

Leigh also reinforced the importance of ensuring that the share of value (between customers, direct insurers and reinsurers) in the industry is appropriate, reasonable, and sustainable; which is something he works towards.

Perspective 3: Natalie Eckersall

Natalie’s passion is for bringing fairness into the claims space whilst also delivering commercial results for her organisation. Her view is that striving for this balance is ultimately what the life insurance industry is about. She highlighted how important it is for the insurer to be trusted by the customer, and for the claims process to be customer-centric.

Natalie also discussed how she recently presented to the Parliamentary Joint Commission into life insurance; this was a great experience for her to consider a wide range of issues in insurance and to have a voice in the future of the industry.

Perspective 4: James Collier

For James, his passion has changed as he has progressed in his role at KPMG. He stated that initially his passion was to show a large firm (KPMG in his case) the values and culture an actuary can bring, and instilling that into the wider business.

Nowadays he stated that his passion lies in developing individuals and bringing the best out of his staff. He said that ultimately KPMG is a people business, and its value is from developing capable individuals. He finds fulfillment in pushing individuals to take on higher roles and responsibilities and further developing themselves.

Where should the profession go?

Ultimately, leadership is about taking the front foot, so the final topic we asked the interviewees is where they think the actuarial profession should go from here (over the next 5 to 10 years).

Brett stated that public policy beyond the traditional actuarial fields is the future for the profession. The actuarial skillset is a “potent package”, combining the highly numeric, analytical base with communication and leadership; and therefore this skillset can be utilised in fields beyond typical actuarial work.

Leigh stated that leaders in the profession should use their skillset to address challenges in world health (including mental health) and in the ageing population, with these two social areas wide spanning in their impact to individuals. Leigh ended by saying the profession should not be too consumed with ensuring they have the main voice on every matter, but instead look to work with the other voices in the industry. As long as actuaries are getting their view across, it is a good thing.

Natalie voiced that the future for the profession relies upon the Institute continuing to stay in touch with its members, and support its people in areas of work they want to be involved in. Breaking barriers between actuaries and different industries is what will allow actuaries to make a greater impact in society. Staying current, and involving young actuaries were also important considerations.

James concluded on a similar point to Brett saying that actuaries are individuals who have a wide ranging skillset: they understand business and analytics, can apply judgment, understand probabilities and have strong IT skills. Based on this, James’ view was that actuaries are well placed to make large strides in the data analytics space.

James highlighted that data analytics, if correctly utilised, has the potential to add value to a wide range of businesses. Therefore, he sees data analytics as a key area for actuaries to expand into further.

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