This guest blog continues the occasional series of advice from other voices to help actuaries improve their mindset, skill set, and career. Today’s article comes courtesy of Rob Stone, FSA, MAAA.
Disclaimer: Slope Software does not officially endorse Mr. Stone’s position nor his employer. Mr. Stone’s post on this blog should not be viewed as an endorsement of Slope Software. The conclusions and opinions are his own and should be considered as such.
What Does It Mean To Be a Good Actuary (Minus the Quantitative Stuff)?
Actuaries play a vital role in their organizations. By definition, they must be quantitatively adept, both to pass exams and do their job. They begin their careers doing production work – modeling, projections, analysis and spreadsheets. At some point, however, opportunities arise to work differently, to manage others or join less actuarially-focused teams. When that happens, an actuary may be stepping out of the proverbial back room, into one where additional skill sets – non-quantitative skill sets – might be required. They enter roles where they must navigate conversations and interactions recognizing their own expertise while understanding the needs of all involved parties, balancing being a technical expert with an inclusive team dynamic. It’s a lessening focus on math, replaced by the “people aspects” of work – soft skills.
Removing quantitative skills from a discussion about actuaries is a bit like removing iceberg from a wedge salad. Without lettuce the plate is left with a pile of tomatoes, bacon, blue cheese and dressing. All of the ingredients are vital to completing the dish – the greens dominate it, to be sure – but it’s not complete without all ingredients. The same goes for being an actuary – quantitative skills are a primary ingredient, but additional attributes are what make the complete professional.
How It All Started
The early years of my career were spent in smallish consulting offices – flat reporting structures full of mostly actuaries and relatively compatible personalities. My work was frequently reviewed by a single person. There was little need to justify work other than this review. After a job change came a first experience working in a larger organization. I was suddenly thrust into a cross-functional, layered world with more varied personalities, and my work was questioned more frequently. To be brief – I didn’t handle it well.
In meetings I could be combative when dialogue was counter to my opinion. If topics focused on my individual work, I wasn’t open to constructive feedback. The idea of “defensiveness” had never occurred to me, but I reacted very defensively to anyone questioning me. Having not been exposed to that environment, I didn’t have the skills or maturity to accept a need to explain and justify work product. It was a hard learning curve, but key to growing up a bit.
What was preventing the ability to function well? I’m no expert on the subject, but I’m pretty sure it was me – I was preventing me from functioning well.
Recognizing the problem is the first step in overcoming it
So what was the problem? In some sense, it boiled down to the human need to “be right.” This isn’t specific to me or to actuaries – the “need to be right” is a widespread attribute.
Ever heard the phrase “Do you want to be right or be in a relationship?” It’s one of the many challenges of being in a family, being married or having any long-term relationship (even work relationships). All people struggle with “the need to be right.” For some professionals (including actuaries), however, it can lead to a powerful need to over-protect their view, potentially creating difficult dynamics for workplace collaboration.
Whether or not this topic creates problems in a work environment depends on each individual and organizational culture. In some actuarial staffs, “being right” is prized more than anything else. A company or staff culture might be designed for a competitive intellectual environment and/or indifference to interpersonal ramifications that come from “the need to be right.” In other work settings, however, actuaries with that particular need can grate against a collective nerve, thereby reducing any upside from their being included in projects or meetings.
Some individuals may be well-suited to navigate the “being right” dynamic. For instance, a professional may have the ability to “be right” while bringing others around to their opinion, whether by educating or building group consensus. The ability to manage relationships effectively while “being right” is the difference. How does an individual make a difference in this light – effectively managing relationships while being a technical expert? I think part of the difference is each person’s tone and reactivity.
Appropriate tone and reactivity are essential to effectiveness
“Tone” is the implied voice extending from the words you write and the way you speak.
When you speak, tone can be word choice and actual sounds – the way you deliver a sentence can be angry, demeaning, condescending, helpful, neutral, etc. merely by changing voice pitch and inflection on the same set of words. When writing, tone is often more about word choice – some choices can be a bit too direct, while others can be more evenly (and politely) delivered. Tone when writing is perhaps easier, because it can be edited and modified before pressing “send” on an email or finalizing a report.
Choosing words/tone effectively in live conversation can require practice and an ability to sense how what is being said will sound to the listener.
“Reactivity” in this context refers to how a person responds/reacts to situations, for example when being questioned about work product. Upon being questioned, “the need to be right” can make one feel the need to defend what’s been done. Providing justification for work decisions/assumptions/methods is good actuarial practice. The manner in which these conversations happens is the key.
If a person’s natural inclination is to feel attacked when asked about work, it’s easy to react defensively, letting anger and frustration muddle the dialogue. If, instead, a person can anticipate the defensive instinct, it’s possible to respond more professionally – listening to questions, understanding that all parties involved are trying to get at the best answer, and providing appropriate details factually and evenly.
Of course, it helps when the person asking the questions understands their part in asking questions professionally (without unnecessarily using words that would put someone on the defensive).
Learning how to see my own defensiveness and manage workplace reactions has been a big personal development. Over time, it further developed into being able to see other feelings (and not just “feel” them), which allows one to manage reactivity in other aspects of working relationships. If a person can learn to sense when they are anxious or sad, it’s easier in a work environment to separate professional interactions from those feelings – meaning a momentary funk doesn’t have to color those situations.
Let’s be clear – as a professional you field questions about and discuss work every day, and your non-work life (and feelings about it) adds to the mix. These create the potential for difficult work dynamics. The difference is, with practice, a person can anticipate those situations and recognize a feeling before it has a chance to have sway over their reactions.
Some of this comes down to self-awareness, the ability to anticipate how what you’re saying or doing is going to affect another party. (By the way, I’m claiming NO expertise or facility at this). Self- awareness is key to good communication, allowing one to choose what to say, instantaneously perceiving how chosen words will land with the listener. In a group setting self- awareness permits a person to assess whether anything they might say adds to the conversation, or if their words fulfill a self-need to speak versus a group need to have their input.
Why self-awareness, tone, and everything else matter
In some sense, having these skills/attributes are what differentiate actuaries that advance to leadership roles from those that don’t. (There are always exceptions to the rule). Many truly effective leaders exhibit self-awareness and advanced abilities to relate to people. They communicate in ways that account for the needs of the listener. They have learned over their careers to navigate people and conversations in ways that are respectful and inclusive – to understand that being right is more than having correct facts and numbers. Being good at these skills leads to more effective public speaking, better client interactions, and increased ability to communicate with non-actuarial audiences.
In some ways, it’s a “sandbox” mentality. Can a person play nicely in the work sandbox? If they are leading, can they create a sandbox in which everyone plays nicely? To be clear, playing nicely in the sandbox doesn’t mean liking everyone or agreeing with everyone. It is, however, being able to treat others with respect such that all needed voices are freely at the table.
So, what if you take the quantitative skills away from the actuary – is being a good actuary different than being any type of good employee, team member, leader, etc? For the author, the answer is “Yes, it is different.” Actuaries are actuaries because of their quantitative skills. It’s a given. The work product produced by those abilities will place actuaries in specific conversations that will test their reactivity and relationship skills. Personal growth in ways that permit smooth handling of those conversations is key. After all, you can’t remove the quantitative skills from the actuary any more than you can remove the iceberg from a wedge – each is the key ingredient for the whole. But, given the key attribute, many of the truly great ones show themselves to be far more than brainpower (or lettuce).
Rob Stone, FSA, MAAA, is Vice President and Actuary, Renaissance Life and Health Insurance Company of America. His career has included consulting and direct writer work, Society of Actuaries volunteer roles, numerous articles for various newsletters and journals, and frequent speaking opportunities for industry meetings.