Get Honest Feedback (4 of 7)

This is blog 4 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. In this blog, I’ll share the key to a great career and building a great company is honest feedback.

As far as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for math and math education. Both my parents were teachers, and I always liked math so I knew early on that my plan for life was to be a high school math teacher. I earned good grades, especially in math. I tutored several students in math and helped them understand the concepts. This was what I felt I was meant for.

So, in light of all those accomplishments, what was my logical conclusion? Clearly, I was God’s gift to math education. Okay, maybe I wasn’t that confident, but I definitely felt like I was a more-than-competent math teacher coming out of school. I went on to get my ASA and FSA, but – even though I had a day job at an insurance company – I thought it would be fun to teach a live seminar for one of the upper-level actuarial exams. So, I coordinated with Drake University and agreed to teach a weekend seminar. As the seminar got closer, my schedule got tighter so I asked my  friend Mike (who you may know if you learned IFM or earned VEE credit with Coaching Actuaries) if he would be interested in co-teaching with me. He agreed. We taught the course, and it seemed like students were following what we were doing. Naturally, I concluded it was a success.

We thought it would be a good idea to give students a survey so we could get their feedback. Overall, their responses  were pretty good. Anywhere from “great seminar” to “not bad for your first”. One question requested feedback specifically for Mike and myself. I think all but one student, gave an overwhelmingly higher grade to Mike than me. It was a shocker.

This was just a bad sample, I thought at the time. Those results would improve in future seminars. We did three more seminars and all three gave the same results. Mike is great, Dave is “not bad”.

As difficult as that feedback was to receive, it revealed the truth about my teaching skills at that time. Additionally, it inspired me to look at other career paths available to me. I went on to pursue consulting and left the live teaching to Mike (who hit a home run with his JAM seminars). Later, the lessons I learned from those early seminars helped me when when I began teaching the preliminary exam material for Coaching Actuaries students.

This story is just one of many, but it’s part of one key factor that has contributed to the success of Coaching Actuaries. We  have developed a culture of giving and receiving honest feedback. Our staff members realize they need to be open for feedback on how they can improve. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by stating that I’ve needed the most feedback of all.

Receiving feedback can be difficult. We all have blind spots. People often see us in a much different light than we see ourselves. Their feedback can open our eyes to the view that others see. (Side note: if you can’t quite grasp how differently others can perceive you, try raising a teenager!)

So, whatever business you are in, identify ways to allow honest feedback in the process. This needs to be paired with a safe environment where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.

If you are one of our students, more than likely we asked you to complete a survey to evaluate how well we are doing. I appreciate the wonderful feedback we’ve received from those surveys that can confirm what we are doing well and identify areas that need improvement.

One final thought. Helpful feedback isn’t just about whether you’re doing a good or bad job. If you’re working as an actuary, the most valuable feedback you can get is whether or not you are solving the most important problem. Too many times, I’ve seen people – actuaries in particular – work hard and fast on solving a problem that turned out to not be very important. This is where feedback can help. Ask others about what the most important problem it is you should be solving. Then, make sure you put your best efforts to finding the best solution. This will help maximize what you contribute to your company and your career – not just because you’re solving problems, but because you’re forming and strengthening relationships with your coworkers by understanding their needs and how they fit into the entire company’s goals.