In this second instalment of our routes to the top series, Bradley Shearer speaks to more senior executives about their career paths, giving further practical professional advice to us all.
Following on from our July article, which showcased four actuaries who run global businesses in insurance, consulting, banking and technology industries, we now share with you the experiences of three life and health leaders across insurance and reinsurance. We hope their reflections on their career journeys and their guidance for others are helpful when considering your own career and aims.
Previously MD for Gen Re Africa
Cape Town, South Africa
Until earlier this year, Ursula Torr ran a reinsurance company serving clients across Africa. She began her career in technical roles at insurance companies, including valuations in South Africa and unit-pricing in the UK, before returning to Cape Town to apply that knowledge in a new investment division. Her first marketing role with that direct insurer began in 2005 and included managing non-actuarial teams across both risk and investment products. Here, she practised client-focus, testing whether clients were receiving value.
In 2013, Ursula moved to Gen Re in a business development/ account management capacity, which involved negotiating with clients. She later became MD, which involved "directing activities, building consensus and making decisions".
Ursula highlights two valuable lessons from her actuarial qualifications: practice in conceptual thinking and learning to deal with failure.
In her role as the MD of a reinsurer, Ursula's activities ranged from meeting with insurers to signing off claims (and assessing the claims process) to reviewing large or unusual underwriting cases. This required a strong understanding of how the business is put together, and Ursula emphasises the invaluable nature of people skills - people are, after all, at the centre of business.
Editor's note: between interviewing Ursula for this series at the start of the year and our publication date, she has left Gen Re Africa. Her personal experiences of career growth and her development advice remain as relevant as ever, and we wish her all the best for her next challenge!
Ursula's career reflections and suggestions
- Be honest about who you are and what you want
- Choose managers who will give you the environment you need - she relayed a story about one of her managers who was happy to try new things, and let her operate as she saw fit
- If others think you can do something, just try: do little experiments to test it
- For big roles, step into them, listen to the team around you, ask for help, and be open to input
- Gain strength from supporters - Ursula cited a story from earlier in her career about a particularly daunting presentation, where she realised while speaking how much the audience wanted her to succeed
- Be curious, work hard, show initiative and be responsible - but have fun.
CEO of Bupa
London, United Kingdom
Evelyn Bourke is group CEO of international healthcare firm Bupa, and was previously its CFO. She describes her career track as "based on finance and strategy in insurance". One of the first women in Ireland to complete the exams (in 1987) and qualify as an actuary, Evelyn left Ireland for the UK in 1991, joining Tillinghast for "a broader perspective across the UK insurance industry". While there, an MBA gave "exposure to sectors outside insurance and management disciplines such as marketing", and she "learned a lot about myself and formed lasting friendships".
After 10 years consulting, she became finance director (FD) at start-up pan-European wealth manager Nascent, which closed down 18 months later. Evelyn credits the experience with teaching her "the fundamentals of financial management in a business" and "how risky startups are, even with talented people and fantastic backers".
CEO, FD, CFO and chief commercial officer roles followed across a range of businesses, from financial adviser Chase de Vere to large insurers Standard Life and Friends Provident/Friends Life.
Commenting on her 2016 transition from Bupa CFO to CEO, she states: "The main difference is as CFO you can advise the CEO, but as CEO you take the decisions and the buck stops with you. I'm proud to lead a business with such a strong purpose that puts customers right at front of mind, and I'm also very cognisant of the responsibility."
Evelyn held non-executive roles at The Children's Mutual and IFG Group, including chairing the latter's Board Risk Committee. "I learned so much - how other companies operate and the issues they face. I also appreciate what it's like for the non-executive directors on my Bupa board; it's given me greater respect for the role boards play."
Evelyn acknowledged the impact of specific individuals on her career, saying that she has learned about the importance of having passion for insurance, keeping calm in a crisis, trusting people, simultaneously caring and being demanding, and stakeholder management.
- Challenge yourself and really "go for it": stretch yourself, especially with others' backing. Put up your hand for the scary stuff
- Try things, and be incredibly open to feedback
- Build trust, encourage people to give their best and recognise when people do great work - people skills are absolutely crucial
- Family and friends really matter, and being in tune with your health is important.
CEO of Investec Life
Johannesburg, South Africa
Michael Goemans started out with a bursary from a large life insurance and investment group, which he went on to work for. He worked for the Old Mutual Group in different capacities and locations for most of his career, before moving to join Investec as CEO of its new life company in 2016.
"I enjoy trying new things, and this aligned with the company rotating promising staff around to diversify their skillsets. I began my career in product development roles, which started me off on a creative and commercial footing. I then moved to a regional business development and marketing role, which helped me understand the front end of the business." Michael then opted for financial roles, ending up as a deputy chief actuary and then CFO of Old Mutual South Africa. "This diverse experience meant that, when the opportunity came up to run a life insurance company, I took it on. The CEO role gave me the rare opportunity to build something from scratch in a very client-centric and future-fit way. Success for me is not just about technical excellence, but also about winning commercially".
- Don't burn bridges - it's a small world and you never know who you might work for or with in the future
- Different things make different people tick, so try to work out what this is for each person, and treat them with respect
- Work hard, and focus on the right areas
- Be honest, upfront and straightforward, and do the right thing
- Over time, I have become a massive believer in the power of focus - one cannot do too many things sufficiently well
- There are a wealth of areas one needs to learn about to run a successful insurance business, particularly on the commercial, people and technology side.
These were inspirational career stories with a plethora of further practical suggestions for us. Standout elements of success that appear throughout our interviewees' careers include:
- Concentrating our efforts on the right areas to ensure we are adding value
- Stepping into challenges to stretch ourselves
- Trusting, respecting, encouraging and appreciating our teams
- Listening to feedback - both at work and from friends and family - as well as to what our own bodies tell us.
Next month: The paths taken and insights of some general insurance, insurtech and startup leaders.
Bradley Shearer is executive director of Protagion, which offers active career management and development services for qualified professionals, including actuaries.