Actuarial training is all about the long-term – Bradley Shearer and Helena Ingram explore how we can think about our careers in the same way
One of actuarial training’s defining characteristics is its emphasis on long-term impacts. Actuaries make sense of uncertainty, using a range of models and techniques to look into the future.
Our own careers also play out over decades. However, many professionals struggle to think about their career in a long-term way because it is challenging to create a clear vision of our future – it takes work to determine our way through the fog. We can find it easier to defer thinking about our real goals, instead going along with whatever is immediately in front of us. This is not a good path for reaching fulfilment. It is more helpful to take a longer-term perspective, which can be reviewed and updated as circumstances shift.
And, while completion of professional exams is a major milestone, our journey shouldn’t end there: qualification is a designation, not the destination. We should keep refreshing and expanding our skills throughout our careers to help us fulfil our current roles as best we can, prepare us for desired future roles, and set us up for new roles that we can’t yet imagine. Actuaries are increasingly recognising that our careers are our personal responsibility, confirming that the ‘great risk transfer’ from institutions to individuals applies to careers, too. We’re interested in securing successful and sustainable careers, and in taking greater ownership of our skills and competencies.
Although we need to be in the driving seat, engaged and steering towards where we want to go, we are not alone in finding our way. We can access support and resources from our employers, the profession and beyond. It’s important to be aware of, and make deliberate use of, the help available. How can we build resilient careers, and where can we find support?
Enhancing our skillset
Our actuarial skillset, including the control cycle, can be applied to our careers. For example, we can approach our annual Continuing Professional Development and Reflective Practice Discussions as useful monitoring steps in a long-term career control cycle. In striving for career fulfilment, there is great value in reflection. Journalling, where we make a habit of regularly recording our challenges and achievements, is a tool to aid reflection and gain perspective – do give it a try!
Our technical (hard) skills must be blended with broader (human) skills to maximise their effectiveness. Think communication, active listening, adaptability, agility, resilience, leadership, commerciality, collaboration and teamwork, business and management skills. These are vitally important, and – good news! – all of them can be strengthened through regular practice.
Sometimes the journey delivers unexpected challenges or opportunities. It’s good to have a destination in mind, but it’s also important to be flexible and reassess as the journey unfolds. This underscores the importance of agility: if we don’t embrace change, we risk not adapting quickly enough.
So, how can we achieve sustainable career success? A good starting point is to understand ourselves, our values, our unique experiences and career journeys, and where we see ourselves – in other words, do some forward planning and specify the goal(s) we’re looking to achieve. Examples here include delivering in our existing role, taking on broader roles in our organisations, working as a contractor or shifting into a new domain. Self-awareness is essential, otherwise we may invest time and energy in going to a place we don’t really want to be!
There are tools to help us in our journey of self-discovery. It is also useful to speak with people such as coaches, who are trained to ask deep questions that encourage reflection. It’s possible that self-discovery could lead to difficult conversations at work, for example if we request a change of direction or training. In navigating crucial conversations, both manager and individual should interact in an environment of psychological safety, actively listening, using open questions and not pre-judging outcomes.
When developing our self-awareness, we may realise that some of our beliefs are holding us back, and it is helpful to keep a ‘growth mindset’. We can all improve at different skills if we practise them. Rather than telling ourselves “I can’t write an article for The Actuary”, growth mindset thinking would add the small but powerful word “yet” – transforming the thought to “I can’t write an article for The Actuary – yet!” This helps us to embrace change and create a perpetual learning habit.
It’s important to think about our preferred approaches to learning, too.
Do we like to work alone and reflect, interact in a group, or do we blossom with one-on-one guidance? Maybe we’re practical people who want to try things out to see if they’re useful, or maybe we like to fully understand the underlying theory before accepting an idea. Could mixing styles inject us with a new energy?
Having identified our preferences (perhaps using online tools), we can consider how to optimise our learning. One actuary might benefit from an in-person course, while another might prefer reading (or listening to) a book. Managers can be supportive simply by appreciating that different preferences exist, and proactively accommodating these in the support we provide.
It’s also worth mentioning the power of diversity. Collaborating with and learning from people outside of our immediate circles, such as those working in different departments and organisations, those in other locations and those outside of our profession, brings a new dimension of creativity and challenge, leading to enhanced learning and improved solutions.
Support from our employers
Employers can be a tremendous source of support. They are looking for top quality talent with the motivation and the ability to grow and develop, and many will be linking learning to organisational direction and culture, helping their people to reach their potential and contribute to the organisation’s purpose.
While it may be easier to secure support from large organisations with established development programmes, smaller organisations may also be able to help. Independent consultants or contractors and actuarial entrepreneurs may not know where to get the support we need – hopefully this article offers some new ideas to try out!
Support from our profession
Our profession provides a wealth of resources to help us develop our technical skills, extending well beyond professional exams into practice-area events and new offerings in areas such as data science, climate risk and sustainability, and banking.
We look forward to more options and signposting from the Lifelong Learning team in the coming years.
Beyond the profession, the range of formal and informal study options includes technical masters or MBAs and online courses from universities and course providers. Such learning can be self-directed study, or in group lectures and tutorials. Many professionals fund these qualifications themselves; bear in mind that some can require significant personal investment.
Working one-on-one on specific objectives with a coach can also be valuable. Coaches are skilled at listening and asking deep questions, helping us develop our self-awareness, set goals and gain alternative perspectives on approaching challenges. Different coaches have different focus areas, such as leadership or board coaching, and come from a range of backgrounds – including actuarial!
People at all career stages benefit from mentoring. Many successful individuals build a ‘board of mentors’ – people with varied skillsets we can call on for guidance. Some of us are fortunate to have mentoring or buddies offered at our workplaces. Outside of work, we can find mentors through professional bodies and networks, as well as independent professional mentors – experienced people who offer formal mentoring as part of their portfolio careers. Mentoring can be formal or informal, short-term or with an indefinite timescale. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, it will benefit from mutual clarity around expectations, as well as trust and respect.
Recruiters and job boards
Recruiters can be helpful when we’re specifically seeking a new job at a new company, given that they are strongly incentivised to place us in open roles. Job boards can also alert us to new published opportunities. Bear in mind, though, that many roles are not advertised, so a blended strategy that includes networking is advisable when we are seeking a new job.
Our roles as managers
So far, this article has focused on how we can achieve individual career goals. We end with some advice for actuaries who manage or lead others. One of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to develop our people, including for succession planning. We may be able to offer resources such as budget and time to learn, and can share ideas for growth and promote the habit of learning.
Managers are often faced with significant short-term pressures, which can compromise our commitment to longer-term development for ourselves and our teams. We should strive to schedule time for tasks that are important but not yet urgent, such as personal development. This sets a strong example for those around us. Whether we realise it or not, we’re all role models – so let’s be great role models, demonstrating personal accountability, a growth mindset, respect for different learning style preferences, and commitment to ongoing learning!
Reflect on that now: what could you do to help those around you take a long-term view of their careers?
Bradley Shearer FIA & CFA is a professional mentor at Protagion Active Career Management
Helena Ingram FIA is head of people development strategy for WTW’s Retirement GB business