Career advice for young actuaries

As an actuarial and pricing recruiter, Matt Armstrong engages with many influential people in the profession. To help younger professionals, Matt approached four leading actuaries and asked them to offer some advice to those looking to take their career to the next level.

As we find ourselves at late-April, you might be wondering where the first part of 2022 has already gone. The big plans we made and the resolutions we vowed to keep might be fading out of our minds as we have settled into another year of work, but now is as good a time as any to revisit those ideas. For many of us, we make resolutions around our work lives and how we can advance our career in the next 12 months.

For a lot of actuaries, career advancement means transitioning from a work life of programming and data analysis to one of people management and communication. While this move may come naturally to some, for others it takes them out of their comfort zone.

As an actuarial and pricing recruiter I have the privilege to speak with many influential people in the actuarial community. To help younger professionals, I approached four leading actuaries and asked them to offer some advice to those looking to take their career to the next level:

  • Andrea McDonnell is an actuary with extensive consulting and management experience in the superannuation, insurance, and employee benefits industries, and currently works as a Relationship Manager at Sunsuper.

  • Bill Konstantinidis is the Chief Underwriting Officer, APAC at Cover-More Group, and has extensive experience in the insurance industry including many Executive Management roles.

  • Gerard Kerr is the General Manager, Life Insurance at ClearView Wealth, and has over 35 years in the financial services industry.

  • Julia Lessing is the Director of Guardian Actuarial with close to two decades of consulting experience, and also runs regular workshops on Actuarial Leadership Development.

From left: Andrea McDonnell, Bill Konstantinidis, Gerard Kerr and Julia Lessing.

They reflected on the lessons they have learned over their careers and what they wish they had known when they were just starting out. We discussed what made networking effective, how focusing on things outside of your work can improve your career, and above all, the importance of being yourself. Here is what they had to say.

What distinguishes a great actuary from a good one?

Early on in your career, you might find yourself extremely focused on the academic side of the actuarial world. Getting the best possible grades in university and working hard to obtain your qualifications as soon as possible might be your focus, but what about the other side of the actuarial profession? As you move up in the field, greater importance is placed on communication skills and general business knowledge. What distinguishes a great actuary from a good one?

I asked Julia about the best actuaries she has worked with and what made them so successful.

“They are great communicators who explain concepts well, don’t pretend to know everything and have the courage to keep learning. The best actuarial managers I’ve been lucky enough to work with built trust, gave timely feedback and invested in helping me to develop and grow,” Julia explained.

Gerard explains the importance of having a big picture view of the business you are working in.

“The best actuaries are the ones with the best moral conscience, they have a good idea of how things work financially, but they also think about what is best for the customer and what is best for the business.”

Gerard also reminds us that great communication is a two-way street. Learning to effectively present your work to external and internal stakeholders is extremely important, but don’t underestimate the importance of being a good listener. Growing your knowledge as you progress means taking in information from people across the industry.

“The numbers are important, but look and listen to experts across the organisation. Salespeople are great people who read the pulse of the business and know what is going on. Working with clients, they see what is happening every day and can provide you with valuable feedback,” Gerard says.

As you find yourself moving into more senior roles, the coaching and mentoring of younger actuarial professionals takes on great importance. In an industry where efficiencies reign supreme, Bill highlights how communication with juniors takes on great importance:

“You have to make sure that you keep time for your staff and ensure that you have clear communication lines open with your people. Especially in a work-from-home environment, if your juniors are going down the wrong path on a particular task, they may be there for days without the proper guidance.”

The importance of networking

We’re all familiar with the adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. Networking plays a significant role in the financial services industry and doesn’t make an exception in the actuarial space.

Bill shares a powerful anecdote about the importance of maintaining a strong professional network:

“When I was 28, I got promoted to a senior management role. I was energised. I had made it another rung up the corporate ladder. I worked hard. I delivered. I smashed the targets. I buried myself in my work. At the age of 30, after a hostile company takeover, my world came crashing down. I was retrenched. What was I to do? My career had been on a steady upward trajectory. I knew I was good at my job and thought it would be easy to find a similar job, but it wasn’t. I was left applying for jobs by submitting resumes in response to advertisements and I felt like just another number. I then realised that I had buried myself in work for so long that all my business connections had dried up. There was no one I could speak to about possible opportunities.”

For those of us on the introverted end of the spectrum, networking may feel like an unavoidable chore, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, if it feels like an inconvenience, try taking a different approach.

Of the four experts I spoke to, they were unanimous in describing how effective networking takes place when you simply be yourself.

As Julia explains, “I enjoy meeting people and building strong working relationships, but life is too short to spend time networking with people if it feels like a chore. I focus on building relationships with people I like interacting and working with, and over time this pays off, because I spend more time collaborating with people that I enjoy working with. This might seem like a very ‘un-strategic’ approach, but what’s the point in investing in networking if it feels like a chore or creates opportunities to work with people you don’t want to work with?”

If you are only networking for the sake of it, it will simply prove to be ineffective. As Gerard notes, “You can’t get away with networking unless there is true authenticity, otherwise it’s just a shallow exercise. As you move into leadership roles people will see through it. When you’re networking don’t lose sight of your own character and don’t compromise your ideals.”

Bill has even coined a new term for his networking activities, preferring to instead use ‘friendworking’, catching up with people he likes. These people may be previous classmates, work colleagues or managers, people you have met at parties, weddings or conferences, relatives, members of a community you belong to (religious, sporting or charity), or people who you share a cultural or language background with.

As Bill explains, “You may not have made many friends since you did your actuarial studies, you’ve worked hard and had no social life. Well, you can build your ‘friendwork’ by joining some social groups, a public speaking group like Toastmasters, or community groups. You can use the Meetup application to see what groups meet in your area or create your own group or committee like Chess Friends or Chinese Language Actuaries.”

Maintain a work-life balance and engage in outside activities

At this stage of your career, you may be so focused on work that you don’t think you have time for any outside activities. Even if we ignore the dangers this can pose to your mental health, in the long run your career can progress faster and further by being engaged in interests outside of work. We’ve already seen how enjoying these activities can expand your networking skills, but they can also lead to developments in other areas.

Andrea explains how important these outside activities can be. “Make sure you have interests outside your career and work. Not only do they give you a break, but they may give you new perspectives on dealing with different people and issues, improving your communication skills. They can also give you greater insight into the wider aspects of the business world and a bigger network, enhancing your skills and experience which can open up new career opportunities.”

Volunteer work is something Andrea considers extremely valuable in building your skills.

“Soon after finishing exams, give back by volunteering, especially around supporting study – course writing, marking, tutoring – while it’s fresh in your mind. It’s also a good way to meet more actuaries.”

Julia concurs with the importance of these outside activities. “It often surprises me how helpful – whether directly or indirectly – investing in non-work activities can be for your career development. When my kids were little, I trained as a breastfeeding counsellor and sold Tupperware. I chose these ventures because they interested me and fitted in with my life stage, but looking back, I realise how helpful the counselling and sales skills that I learned through these activities have been in supporting my professional career.”

An easy way to gain new skills and new insights is one that has been affected by COVID-19, but as the world starts to open up again, don’t underestimate the benefits of seeing the world. If your company has offices overseas, consider applying for a role outside of the country or taking a gap year.

As Gerard recollects, “Travelling is very important, I started my career in Ireland and just moving to England was a huge cultural shift. You learn so much about yourself and learn so much about other people and cultures by travelling. Don’t be afraid to take those chances, the upside is so high while the worst that can happen is that you just come back. Do it early when you are most open-minded.”

Be yourself and take chances

Speaking with each of the experts the one overarching theme throughout our conversations was that your best chance of success relies on simply being yourself. Hard skills are of course extremely important, but the math, the programming, the computing – these are all techniques that can be replicated, but nothing can replace the individuality that you bring to the actuarial world.

As Andrea explains, “Know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and partner with others who have skills that complement your own. Create a network of contacts that you trust and feel comfortable communicating with. Ideally the relationships that you develop will be beneficial to both you and your network.”

Pursuing your own goals might not look like what others are doing around you, but at the end of the day, it’s your life and your career. Bill relates a tale of a young actuary who “when he first started out was working 80-hour weeks for the first five years of his career. At the end of the day, he gained 10 years of experience in those five years and is now enjoying the rewards that come with a senior position at a leading insurance organisation.”

Bill also explains that you cannot be afraid to take chances in your career. “If you’re thinking about taking that next step in your career and it involves moving on, then do so. Most people would prefer to have worked with a good actuary for a year than not to have worked with them at all, so don’t be afraid to move on if it’s in your best interests.”

Above all, being yourself means following your instincts. Don’t be afraid that if you listen to your gut feelings you will be making a mistake, as sometimes that risk needs to be taken.

Julia’s advice to younger professionals? “There are a few big mistakes I’ve made in my career, and the thing those mistakes all have in common is that I ignored my gut instincts about the situation. Over time, I have learnt to listen to my instincts and include them as an important data point. I certainly do not make decisions based purely on how I feel but if something feels wrong, I do not ignore that feeling.”

We are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and ‘say yes’ to every opportunity, and to a certain extent that can be a good approach. But if I have a bad feeling about a project, or a client or even a colleague, I have now learned that it is important to explore why that feeling is there, and possibly even say no to the opportunity, even if it looks great ‘on paper’. It is not worth pushing through when something does not feel right, and most of the time a better opportunity comes along after you have said no to something that did not feel right.

Work out what is important to you about your work and career and choose roles that are aligned with your overall goals. Do not blindly follow the crowd, trust your instincts, and keep it all in perspective. It’s your life and career, and you’ve worked hard to get here, so do what you need to make work fit with what you want for your life.”

As Gerard puts it, “The insurance world is actually a very imperfect industry; we are always looking back and not spending enough time looking forward. Don’t underestimate the power of your individual thinking. Don’t be afraid to have opinions and share them with others.”

Thank you to Gerard, Bill, Julia and Andrea for their generosity in taking the time to discuss their careers in the insurance industry and for their valuable insights into what makes a good actuary.


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