Why Working Together is Critical for Actuaries (2 of 7)

(This is blog 2 of 7, where I share lessons I’ve learned the last few years as I’ve seen Coaching Actuaries grow from a staff of 5 to 31.)

Actuaries must solve some of life’s more difficult problems. I mean really difficult. Most actuaries work with a company, such as an insurance company, where their customers have entrusted large investments to be used to manage future risks. These risks can be long-term in nature, such as the risk of dying too early or the risk of living too long. Or, they can be risks that are difficult to predict such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or terrorist attacks.

Because actuaries solve difficult problems – again, really difficult problems – most solutions require a team of experts to solve. The team usually includes actuaries but often includes professional from other departments such as finance, technology, operations, and distribution. Most actuaries are trained based on what they do by themselves: how well they pass actuarial exams, how well they perform at college etc. However, what makes the difference between a good actuary and an actuary that I would want to hire is their ability to work well in teams.

Certainly, I’ve seen the importance of actuaries working well together in the large corporate world. But, even our relatively small company at Coaching Actuaries, working well in a team environment is absolutely critical. Not only do actuaries solve difficult problems, but the problems we solve don’t have one right answer. Thus, it’s important to approach the problem from many perspectives. These perspectives require different people, different opinions, and different skill sets. Actuaries must put their pride aside and be open to truly listen to others’ perspectives.

I could share dozens of stories from my experience where this skill of working well together was the key to either success or failure. To give a concrete example, about 2 years ago, the SOA announced they were changing the lower level exams. This happened to coincide with the time when we decided to write our own manuals and create our own teaching videos. Thus, we had the awesome opportunity and task to create teaching videos and manuals for all the lower level exams. Our staff had to come together and solve this problem together. By far, the most important factor was our staff’s ability to work well together. This has been a “learn as you go” process for us, including me. But, when you are doing something together for the first time, it’s even more important to work well together. Each day feels like crossing new bridges and building new roads. As we were plotting our course, we had to have clear communication to ensure we were not only arriving at the destination on time, but arriving at the right destination.

So, what does it mean to work well together? The list is long and the list is deep, but above all, you must communicate well. That means not only sharing your answers but also sharing your thought process to how you arrived at your answers. You must listen well. Really listen. Listening to other actuaries can be difficult. Let’s face it – we’re not always the best communicators and we go deep into the details really quick. Listening to non-actuaries can be difficult because they will share a different perspective.

Working well together also involves understanding the big picture of the problem your solving. Not just the details. You must understand how all the team members fit together at a high level.

My guess is that if you are an actuary with at least 3 years experience, you can relate to this story even if your story is different. It can be difficult for new actuaries to transition from college and exams to working in a team environment. The primary focus used to be on finding the one right answer alone. Now you’re in a team environment where there is no right answer… but plenty of wrong answers. So, if you are thinking about becoming an actuary, the work you do will quite likely require different skills than you developed in your training. The most important skill is working well with others.