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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Consultancy: a three-star job?

A question I sometimes hear from life office
actuaries is: ‘what’s it like being a consul-
tant?’ How would consultancy score on
the Michelin scale, whose ultimate accolade of three stars is equivalent to ‘worth the journey’? Over the years I have travelled from large life office to microscopic life office to consultancy, with a spot of tutoring thrown in, plus four years abroad. So, was it worth the journey?

A solid grounding
The journey has, at every stage, felt completely natural. Approaching graduation, my main concern was to find an environment that would be conducive to qualifying. I wanted to work outside London in order to avoid losing half my life to the strain of commuting, and I wanted to work for an office with a friendly, non-workaholic culture. Thus, I went off to work for Norwich Union in sunny Norwich, where I received a solid grounding.
Then, having qualified, I saw little chance for rapid professional or personal development as a small cog in a large machine. I wanted a job as the ‘sole actuary’ of one of the company’s overseas bastions. For years I had studied French in my spare time, reaching a level that would allow me to work effectively in Paris. Accordingly, I was sent off to Italy for four years as the actuary to a ten-man start-up life company in Milan.

Going abroad
The experience of working as the only actuary in a small company is unsurpassable (if we exclude the experience of winning the national lottery, that is). In such a situation, you have responsibility for all the ‘normal’ actuarial tasks, but many more besides, and all in an environment where the bottom-line financial results of the company seem just an arm’s length away. I had chosen a posting in a non-Anglo-Saxon culture, and thus spent much time on the obvious aspect of learning the language, and much time on the less obvious aspect of learning the culture. This was psychologically tough but ultimately very rewarding personally. And, of course, gastronomically.

Change of direction
After a few years in that role, I started wondering where next. While in Milan I had started to work with consultants, whom we used for various projects. Their life looked enviable from a professional point of view. They seemed to have a beguiling variety of work, as well as the satisfaction that their work would normally be appreciated by the client (not a common sensation in a life office!). On the other hand, they often worked 60-hour weeks, which didn’t sound promising. But then, I often had to work 60-hour weeks, so what difference would it make?
One day, sitting at my desk pondering the imponderability of my next career step, I came across an advertisement for a job with ActEd as a tutor-cum-course-writer. Given that I had no idea what to do next, other than that I didn’t want to return to being a small cog in a big life office, and was unsure about consultancy, this seemed ideal. It also seemed quaintly altruistic.
I joined ActEd and began a life of travel, visiting the exotic locations of London, Manchester, Dublin, Birmingham, Glasgow, etc, in three-weekly cycles. The tutoring was initially enjoyable, but shortly became less so I would normally give the same tutorial over 20 times in any one year, often receiving almost identical questions each time. However, the extensive human contact involved was a positive aspect, and I found the course-writing (in my case, co-writing 302 and 402) extremely satisfying.
The job had been ‘worth the detour’ two stars by Michelin standards but, after two years, it was time for a change. At long last, it felt the right time to move into consultancy. Watson Wyatt beckoned.

And so to consultancy
So what’s consultancy like, and how does it compare with other types of work? The main aspects that distinguish it from previous jobs are, to me, the variety, the ability to forge one’s own path, and the marketing.
As far as variety goes, almost every task over the last year has been unlike any other the 10- of my time which is spent on regular work has become an oasis of predictable tranquillity in this sea of surprises. Hand in hand with this variety comes the ability to travel down the road most suited to one, by following paths of particular technical interest and judiciously playing to one’s strengths. Marketing was an aspect that I would have found unattractive ten years ago, but I now enjoy as a new challenge the ultimate test of combined presentational and technical skills. All of these features make the job, for me at the moment, preferable to most other jobs I could see myself currently doing. The 60-hour weeks have been rare, and I’ve only had to sleep on the office floor once.
Three stars? Yes, it’s been worth the journey. My main worry is that, in a few years’ time, I won’t know where to go next!