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Changing Actuarial Roles: The Importance of Flexibility
October  2019

What career path brought you to your current role as chief actuary at SCOR Global Life?
I certainly had an atypical path to chief actuary. There are two distinct phases to my actuarial career. I started out at as a consultant at Deloitte, which was a great cultural fit for me. But I wanted to travel less, so I went on to work as a financial actuary at an insurance company, eventually leading the valuation team at Allianz Life in Minneapolis. That role was very interesting and, to be honest, had I not wanted to move back to Winnipeg where my wife and I are from, I never would have left Allianz.

The second phase of my career began with a completely nonactuarial role at an investment management company doing quantitative research and coding financial reporting software. This was in the 2008-2009 period. Not only was it a tough time to be in that industry but it also made me realize what I really enjoyed doing and what I needed to get back to.

Since there were no jobs for actuaries in Winnipeg, I began a 10-year stretch at an actuarial software company. I was the product owner for Prophet actuarial software systems, which involved working closely with numerous clients and prospects figuring out what they needed and how to get it. I’ve worked on pretty much every situation related to GAAP and STAT reporting from profit testing, projections, reserving, stochastic modelling and so on. Nothing really surprises me too much. So, while my path to chief actuary has been atypical and may not be for everyone, it actually prepared me very well.

You’ve been in the thick of the various accounting regime changes. What are your key observations?
I think the demands of new accounting regimes have helped to foster a different mindset toward the use of data and technology. The transition to PBR, IFRS 17, the changes in US GAAP, etc. really forced companies to use data and technology more effectively, which has benefited both the client facing and back office sides of the business. For one thing, it’s closing the gap between our pricing and valuation teams so that what we sell gets reflected much more quickly – if not directly in the financials at least in the disclosures.

Perhaps most importantly, companies have a clearer view today of how the business is performing and they can see the strategic value in this transparency. Once you start answering the initial questions about what’s going to happen to an income statement then you can start digging into the harder business questions around growth and profitability.

How are these changes affecting the actuarial profession?
For one thing, the actuarial profession – and the value of the actuarial skillset – has expanded beyond insurance companies. If you search the SOA directory, you’ll see actuaries working at Google, at start-ups and Silicon Valley type enterprises. But I think if actuaries want to continue in leadership roles at insurance companies, getting a broader perspective of the business is what’s most important.

Accounting is an area that actuaries often downplay. There’s always been this informal rivalry between actuaries and accountants. But the most important technical skill I’ve had as an actuary is the ability to understand the financial statement. When I’m trying to understand how a certain detailed calculation works, I always default to the debits and credits on the financial statement. It helps me understand how the company makes money, the context of the number being calculated and where it’s actually going to land on the financial statement.

As a chief actuary, what do you look for in establishing and maintaining an actuarial team?
Sean: The technical skills are essential, but these are pretty easy to assess. Really, the two biggest traits I look for are curiosity and a sense of ownership. The most successful actuaries want to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and go a step beyond. Then, related to that is a sense of ownership – a sense that they own what they’re working on, and if they’re not making it better, they figure how to do so. That’s what I try to get at when I talk to people.

I still do a decent amount of interviewing. I talk to all potential hires, even at the junior level. I’m not the one who grills them on their technical skills; I’m going to be more focused on the traits that can make a difference and grow with my team.

Do you have a favorite question that you ask?
Yes, I do! A very important skill is the ability to explain complicated things simply. This skill is still very important to me – being able to boil down actuarial subjects into terms so that whoever I’m talking to can understand.

In my interviews I’ll ask a candidate to pick a topic and explain it to me as if I’ve heard some of the terms, but I don’t know anything about it. And the topic I allow depends on their level. If they’re entry level with no actuarial experience, I’ll ask them to pick any random topic. I just want to see if they can assess whether or not I’m understanding what they’re saying and if they can adjust how they’re explaining it to get me to a point of understanding. The more senior they get, the more I want the topic focused on an actual work problem. But I ask that question no matter what level a person is. And a lot of times their performance on that question alone tells me what I need to know and whether or not they’re going to be a good fit for the team.

What are the biggest challenges in putting together an effective actuarial team?
Being open minded about what different people bring to the table. Especially as a younger manager, if I reflect back on my teams, they all had personalities similar to myself. I think there’s a natural instinct to hire people who are similar to you, and that doesn’t usually work in forming a good team.

Interviewing isn’t easy. Everyone’s busy, but if you don’t take time to prepare, you’re going to have a conversation about what you like to talk about. I’ve had debriefings after an interview where no one extracted anything from the candidate that could actually be applied to the job. Now I make sure we follow a template!

So knowing what you want from a role and being prepared are essential to putting a good team together. But again, I’d emphasize being open minded. As I’ve grown as a leader, I’m much more aware of looking for people that round out what both myself and the broader team needs. And that changes as the makeup and demands of the team change, so you need to stay connected enough to the team to know what they need.

What advice would you give a young actuary. Or, if you could go back and give your 21-year-old self any advice, what would you say?
Sean: I tell young actuaries to be flexible and open minded about where their careers might take them. Not everyone is going to be comfortable bouncing from a variety of different roles, leaving the industry, working for vendors. It’s knowing what works for you.

Now that I’m hiring managers who manage people, my advice is to know who you are, be yourself and lead your team the way you want to. That probably won’t be the same way I manage a team, and that’s good.