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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Vocation or seduction?

The year 1999 was a good one for the two actuaries who led their companies to successful Johannesburg Stock Exchange main board listings. Although their alma mater takes some pride in their accomplishments, it takes something more than an education to make an entrepreneur. Can anything more be done to encourage and equip other young actuaries to apply their incontestable abilities and energies and be similarly creative?
One of the issues seems to be what might be called self-management. For actuaries, the first career objective faced by the self-manager is usually qualification. As each year’s graduates debate the merits of their prospective employers, I suggest to them that they consider two things: whether they like the person who is going to be their boss, and whether they will get enough study leave.
It seems that some employers do unfairly exploit their students by requiring them to give office objectives a higher priority than their examinations. The costs of examination failure are considerable. First, many of the hours spent studying for a failed exam are wasted. Second, it is unlikely that time will be made up by passing future examinations more rapidly (attempting to make up lost time may impede progress further). Third, the chances of qualifying at all must be reduced. Modelling the costs suggests that they can easily exceed the student’s current pay.
There are costs beyond the missed opportunities, for example in terms of health and family. If this is so when the student’s own needs are so obvious, how much more often are younger qualified actuaries deflected from their personal objectives by work pressures?
Part of the problem is presumably a failure to set one’s own agenda. I have found Peter Drucker’s writings to be most helpful in this respect. His article ‘Managing oneself’ in the Harvard Business Review March/April 1999 is particularly useful. Measuring our successes and failures, focusing on strengths, discovering our styles and values, and planning for a second career are some of the tasks on which he enlarges. Becoming a professional can be described as a calling a vocation. What he makes clear is that such callings require some effort, and can take decades to achieve.
Another part of the problem appears to me to lie with a moral confusion on the part of many bosses. It is clearly a good thing to work for a dynamic, world-class organisation. It is also a good thing indeed even a better thing to have time for leisure, exercise, friends, and family. The 168-hour limitation placed on our week does, however, restrict our time. We need clear ethical thinking to give weights to these various calls on our time, and to decide on a balance in which we can flourish. Morality includes a love of self, as is clear from the four Greek virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance, and the command to love your neighbour as yourself.
This means that calls to make significant sacrifices for the overall good of the company often need to be resisted; bosses and colleagues can appeal to all one’s guilt and fears. Early morning, late night, and weekend meetings can become routine. Anyone who leaves in daylight can be labelled as uncommitted or disloyal, and somehow socially misshapen.
I remember being told that long hours in a stimulating environment would make me, together with the extra money earned, that much more attractive to my wife. The thought has stayed with me for some time, but it stands in stark contrast to everything else I have learnt about marriage in our first 15 years.
Loyalty to God, family, and friends is a virtue and they will repay it. We may include our work colleagues among our friends, but it is imprudent to look for loyalty and reciprocation from organisations which are, by their nature, heartless.
It seems to me that this moral confusion is intensified by the excessive sums that managers are more frequently being paid to do their jobs. It is said that the incentive motivates them to perform better for shareholders. This is not my experience nor the observation of many others. Those interested can read Herzberg’s classic 1968 article also in the Harvard Business Review (‘One more time: How do you motivate employees?’). Most of us are rewarded more by the satisfaction of a job well done, and the pleasure of doing it in congenial company. This is not to say that money is not an exceptional motivator; the problem is that it can distort other motivations and principles. Surely this is one of the lessons of mis-selling, and I would suggest, of many an unnecessary demutualisation and privatisation.
Those with large share options or profit shares can take a completely unbalanced view of their lives. Current fashion does not even require lip service to obligations of loyalty to employees. Managers have no right, therefore, to ask for work beyond that for which they pay. Even if they do pay, it may represent seduction. Bosses that imply that you have moral obligations to put in work beyond your formal contract should be rebuffed politely if possible.
Browning is apposite: ‘Best be yourself: imperial, plain, and true.’