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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Careers: Breaking the actuarial ceiling

The days when an actuary was found in a back room programming obscure models in Fortran have changed and a new type of actuary now sits on the main stage. This has brought with it a greater focus on commercial awareness and communication skills, ensuring actuaries have greater input into a company’s operation. By escaping the ‘technical bubble’, some have achieved senior positions and are able to wield significant power, providing inspiration to the next generation of actuaries. But is there something we can learn from these trail-blazing actuaries and what are the skills required to land a top role?

In order to answer these questions, there is a more fundamental question that needs to be answered first: is a ‘top’ role really the right option? There are many talented, bright, highly paid actuaries who are working in technical roles and who will enjoy long and lucrative careers as chief actuaries or chief risk officers. An executive career is not for everyone.

Route to the top
Nevertheless, an ambitious few will always seek to progress and if you have decided this is the track you want to follow, how do you choose which train to get on? A look at the C-level execs in the market that are FIA qualified reveals contrasting paths. Some have chosen a fairly straightforward route to group or chief actuary, followed by a natural progression to a CFO role. Others have chosen to diversify their skills by taking charge of teams or business units and used them as a springboard to gradually take on increasing responsibilities. An entrepreneurial few have even started their own companies, such as Paul Bradshaw, one of the founding members of Skandia in the 1980s.

Diversify your experience
Regardless of the chosen route, most would agree that having diverse experience is key. Terry Clarke, former CEO and board member of Converium, spent the formative years of his early career working in departments such as pension claims and group corporate planning. Martin Bride, Group CFO at Beazley, chose to take up a challenging post in another country rather than let his career stagnate. Actuaries are very well placed to understand most of the technical provisions on a company’s balance sheet, and consequently their skills are often welcome in other departments. Taking on responsibility for a non-actuarial team is a great way to demonstrate leadership potential, especially if the team in question needs to be improved. Volunteering for company-wide projects can also provide exposure to senior management, as well as providing valuable new perspectives on business.

And skills...
Interpersonal skills are also very important and most senior market figures would agree that this is an area that actuaries should take a pro-active approach to improving. Simply trying to see things from someone else’s perspective can be tremendously helpful: “You have to understand the personal objectives of the people you are working with; get to know them and work out these drivers as they are different for everybody.” advises David Lang, former managing director of QBE Lloyd’s Division Limit.

There is a range of options available to actuaries who feel they need to develop in this area, ranging from executive coaching to MBAs. Many senior figures also emphasise the ability to connect with people as being fundamental to success. John Coomber, board member at Swiss Re, offers an important reminder: “A presentation should not be a showcase for your technical skills but a way of communicating information to an audience”.

Learn to lead
A successful executive will also be able to connect with and inspire those further down the chain. Real leadership is revealed in difficult situations and most senior figures would agree that the most challenging decisions involve people. Running large teams, often of mixed ability, is something that actuaries aren’t always equipped to do, especially when more sophisticated skills are required to improve motivation and engagement. Empathy is key; put yourself in other people’s shoes and try to understand their drivers, motivations and emotions.

Above all, there is no secret to reaching the dizzy heights of ‘the top’. It takes plenty of hard work and, as one senior figure puts it, “it’s never going to be a 9 to 5 job”. Long hours and travel will take their toll on anyone. You have to challenge yourself and others and, in the words of Paul Jardine, Group COO at Catlin, “think big”. For those willing to do that and to push beyond the actuarial confines, 2010 could bring plenty of opportunity.


Michael Stefan is an actuarial recruitment expert at Hays, where he has worked since 2004. He specialises in the non-life/property & casualty field