Yiannis Parizas and Nefeli Pamballi explore what it takes for an actuary to become CEO of an insurance organisation
The actuarial profession regularly scores highly in surveys of desirable career choices. However, some actuaries are more ambitious, and this drives them to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top: for such people, becoming a CEO is the ultimate goal.
How well does an actuarial background prepare you for a position at this level? We conducted short interviews with actuaries who are now CEOs, or who hold critical senior management positions.
Several interviewees identified a number of overlapping skills that are essential for senior managers. Christos Patsalides is CEO of Hellenic Bank Insurance Holdings and a special scientist teaching risk management and insurance at the University of Cyprus. He believes that the most important skills for a senior manager are “self-awareness, communication, influence and learning agility”. In particular, “applying previous knowledge in new ways is crucial to success. Understanding the limits of your own experience and point of view becomes more important as the scope of your role increases.”
Tassos Anastassiou, CEO of Minerva and previously of RSA Emerging Markets, also believes that self-awareness is critical for success at higher management levels. He further identifies effective stakeholder management, clear communication skills, and the ability to break down complex problems into simple tasks.
The benefits of an actuarial background
Generally, our interviewees agreed that actuaries have sufficient training to support them in senior management roles, but there are areas where additional training and skill acquisition could be beneficial, particularly in terms of softer skills.
Patsalides believes that “proper actuarial training captures most of the required qualities and skills, since it exposes you to both technical and business-oriented topics. Actuaries get involved in several different projects and gain a broad overview of operational, financial, actuarial and business development fields that can help them develop to a senior management role. Additionally, actuaries learn to communicate their work to several audiences, which is an important characteristic of a successful manager.” Overall, actuaries possess a “great combination of business acumen and technical expertise” which can enable them to successfully fulfil a CEO position.
Anastassiou says that benefit isn’t necessarily derived from the actuarial training itself, but rather from the broader experiences offered by actuarial roles within organisations:
“A senior actuarial officer position offers valuable access to many departments of the organisation (at least the critical ones), while at the same time allowing exposure to senior management and the board.” He makes the point that there isn’t specific training available for developing many of the skills required by a CEO – much can be learned by “observing and working closely with more experienced colleagues”. Nonetheless, he emphasises that the onus is on the aspiring manager to recognise the importance of these skills and dedicate time to learning and developing them.
Other technical academic training
Anastassiou undertook an executive MBA following his actuarial training – did he think this was an essential stepping stone? He values the “different perspective on business matters like organisational behaviour or people’s mind-set” offered by the MBA, emphasising that “in an increasingly interconnected world being able to adapt and embrace diversity really counts”. Nevertheless, he does not think there is a “specific formula or path someone needs to follow in order to have a successful career, and doing an MBA certainly does not guarantee that”.
The most helpful training a senior actuary seeking to progress into leadership roles could undertake, he adds, would be one on “self-awareness and the broader impact it has on engagement with any collaborator”. He explains: “We live in a results-driven environment, but we often forget how we get to those results and how they get communicated.”
We were keen to explore whether an actuarial background offers a particular advantage to those wishing to take on CEO roles in insurance companies. Andreani Callimachou, general manager of CNP Cyprialife and president of the Cypriot Actuarial Association, started her career as an actuarial trainee in a life insurance company. She worked her way up through various management positions, where she combined her financial and analytical acumen with excellent communication and motivational skills.
She believes her technical background has been an asset in terms of gaining the trust and respect of the workforce: “My actuarial training and background gives me an advantage and the confidence to make decisions, but also gives confidence to the people around me. Our colleagues have faith in our expertise, and this confidence helps actuaries to inspire and achieve the impossible!”
The relevance of professional experience
Our interviewees agree that actuarial training offers an appropriate set of skills and can be advantageous for pursuing the CEO role in an insurance company. However, actuaries also have specialisations, such as pensions and non-life. Within these broad specialisations, there are specialised departments, such as non-life pricing, reserving and capital modelling, personal lines, commercial or reinsurance. How important are these for those seeking senior positions? Should one follow a specialist or generalist path through actuarial training when aiming for senior management roles? Emilios Markou, CEO and co-founder of Hellas Direct Insurance, is clear: “I think it is totally irrelevant what path you take: any path is a good path and it will certainly not affect your future one way or another.”
He emphasises the fact that we live and work in a rapidly changing environment, and it is difficult to predict which areas of study will prove to be relevant or advantageous in the long run. “Over the next 20 to 30 years, things around you will change so much in the most unpredictable and disruptive ways – it is important always to look forward, continue to evolve and not focus on what you learnt (or did not learn) during your actuarial training years.”
Markou gives specific examples from his own career by way of illustration. “I studied computer science at university back in 1993, when ‘internet’ was not even a word; I qualified as an actuary in 1999 when we still had green computer screens, and today
I cannot even remember the names of all the subjects I had to pass; I did a masters in finance when gilts yielded 6% risk free; and we launched Hellas Direct before insurtech became fashionable.”
Harvesting your experience
On balance, our interviewees broadly agreed that changing roles and having a range of experience, rather than pursuing a narrow specialist path, would be most beneficial when it comes to moving to senior management roles. Nonetheless, as Emilios Markou suggested, success is primarily about harvesting the essence of your experience, not just the content of what you learn.
Yiannis Parizas is head of pricing and actuarial analytics at Hellas Direct
Nefeli Pamballi is a senior consultant at EY