Actuaries and the Career Pivot

Powerful and instructive insights into actuary lives and livelihoods Lisa Bull

Why would an actuary leave a seemingly stable, financially viable career? That’s certainly an appropriate question as we resolutely dive into 2023. To gain insight into this question, I spoke with several actuaries who chose to pivot their careers and lives. The perspectives they shared about their journeys were, simply put, incredibly insightful, powerful and potentially instructive to others who may be contemplating, are in the midst of or have completed such a shift.

While no two actuaries I spoke with had the same answer to this question, an overarching theme emerged, with each individual describing the following experiences:

  • A longstanding interest or passion outside the actuarial world
  • The appearance of an intriguing, nontraditional or nonactuarial opportunity, whether at their current employer or an external organization
  • A lack of true fulfillment or satisfaction in their personal or professional lives

Additionally, I learned to appreciate a much broader context to this question beyond the actuary who leaves “traditional” actuarial work for another career. Actuaries also choose to leave their career, temporarily or permanently, to do something that better aligns with their values. This new work or direction may be wholly unrelated to paid work.

“Know Thyself”

With the phrase “know thyself,” Linley Baker, FSA, captured a refrain I heard over and over from actuaries: Understanding who you are and what makes you tick is foundational.

“I didn’t want to give up on my dreams,” Baker said. “I wanted my life to be about motherhood, math and music. I wanted to be a great actuary. If I was blessed with motherhood, I wanted to raise my children myself as a full-time mother.”

This self-awareness and her view that “motherhood won’t be my whole adult life”—kind of like an athlete thinks “what will I do after sports?”—allowed Baker to quit her actuarial job just three years into her career. She went on to become a full-time mother—a mother who also continued studying for exams on her own and earned her FSA within a year of making that transition.

“After three years as a corporate actuary, I took 19 years to raise my six children,” Baker said. “Not wanting to completely leave my career, I volunteered (and still do) with the SOA E&E Committee [Society of Actuaries Education and Examination Committee] and taught actuarial science at colleges during that time. I also earned a master of music performance degree to pursue my musical passion, in addition to living in four countries and learning four languages. Common thinking would suggest that I would not be able to work professionally again as an actuary. That a ‘break’ of that magnitude would be impossible to overcome.”

Common thinking would be wrong. Baker landed a job as an FSA in 2012 with a large insurance organization, got promoted to manager seven months later, then moved to another large carrier as an AVP five years later in 2017, where she was promoted to full VP just seven months later. Becoming a full VP was the career goal she’d set for herself at age 20.

In keeping with “know thyself,” Baker then chose to step back from full-time actuarial work to pursue her love of helping others through writing, speaking and teaching. She wrote a book, Don’t Be Afraid To Do What You Really Want To Do, and enjoyed speaking engagements and being featured on podcasts in addition to part-time actuarial consulting. And about three months ago, Baker once again returned to a full-time actuarial role. “If you ‘know thyself,’ you can do what is meaningful and fulfilling to you throughout your life,” Baker said.

Matan Slagter, ASA, earned a B.S. in economics and mathematics from Binghamton University and began his career doing traditional actuarial work at a reinsurer and then a global insurer. After doing that for four years, he spent the next seven years morphing into broader business roles at that same organization, including as chief of staff and head of market disruption. Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, Slagter launched his tech-centric startup, Armadillo.

“I’ve always had an insatiable appetite for something more,” Slagter said. “Despite feeling comfortable in my roles in the past, all the bureaucracy, the swimming upstream and waiting for department after department for approval for a single decision … it made me more restless. Now in my experience in this startup world, I see how much I thrive in the fast pace of it all—things are always dynamic and full of life, nothing ever goes stale. Early in my actuarial career, I made a point to think differently and do things differently and less traditionally, and I believe it informed the genesis of Armadillo. That, along with the support of my wife, Victoria—she’s been a sounding board for the past 17 years and continues to give me the ammunition I need.”

Other actuaries with whom I spoke articulated persistent, long-term interests in sales, marketing, finance, technology, investments, asset management, executive (C-suite) functions, social justice or mission-based principles (“I became an actuary to serve, not just save people money on taxes”), personal money or financial management, parenthood, music, fitness, coaching sports and travel.

“Thou Shall Not Jive Thyself”

“Thou shall not jive thyself” is a phrase from my executive coach. And it’s spot-on here because woven throughout my conversations with these actuaries was the genuine willingness to take honest, clinical stock of their own unique situations at the time leading up to and near their career pivots. And, oh boy, this is where it got real. Practical considerations included the following:

  • Financial resources (abundant or meager) relative to debt and expected income during pivot transition and completion
  • Others you may have responsibility for (partner, spouse, children, elderly parents, other family members)
  • Aspirations and expectations of others whom you’re responsible for or connected to (i.e., a promise of private school or college tuition for children or grandchildren)
  • Goals previously committed to (as an individual or more complicated, as part of a team, i.e., marriage)
  • Assessing the subject-matter knowledge necessary for success in your desired pivot scenario, and your willingness and ability to acquire said knowledge
  • Evaluation of “Plan B” or contingency options in case the pivot doesn’t meet your needs

But wait, there’s more. As important—or, as some actuaries said, even more important—are these emotional considerations:

  • Risk sensitivity (embrace or avoid)
  • Sense of identity (if I’m not an actuary, who am I?)
  • Confidence in oneself amid the unknown (downright shaky, or I’ll figure it out)
  • Required communication and behavioral skills, values and belief systems to be successful in the desired pivot scenario, and your willingness and ability to embrace and acquire said traits
  • Why do I want to make this pivot? How will I feel if I don’t succeed (whatever my definition of success is)?
  • What is the worst-case scenario? Can I live with it?

“Risk is the chance that an undesirable event will occur, but risk is also opportunity.” This quote from Be an Actuary highlights the fact that you can’t make a change without taking a risk. Actuaries measure and manage risk for a living. But when it comes to their own lives, measuring and managing risk becomes very personal very fast. And that can spark fear. Fear of change. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of failure. What can offset this fear is the same as in actuarial work—the more relevant and accurate data you can examine, the better you can assess risk. Baker offered an additional revelation: “Fear shuts down your creativity. You get stuck. You don’t think about how it might work. Especially for actuaries, the best way to diffuse fear is with logic because, without it, the fear is nebulous, so it feels bigger, heavier.”

Sometimes fear is less about tangible, practical considerations and more about the intangible, personal realm. And here, too, acquiring knowledge (data) can reduce perceived risk or simply lead to decision-making that better reflects your values. Rob Stone, FSA, built a successful 25-year actuarial career in consulting. Six years ago, he chose to pivot away from a principal role.

“For a long time, I’d been interested in becoming a financial representative. I had an offer from Northwestern Mutual in 2005 to make the switch, and I didn’t do it,” Stone said. “But in 2017, I did. At that point, I had a lot more financial independence and was able to go into the job without thinking about my financial needs. I didn’t want to be in a conversation (with a prospective customer) with beads of sweat rolling down my neck about how I was going to pay the bills that month.

“After a slow start the first month, by month six, I’d hit a high level of new representative metrics, which was validation to myself and to other people I could be successful. And when it came to sitting down with prospective customers, I enjoyed the conversation and I was really good at it. I could tell that people working with me were having the kind of experience that I always wanted to provide. I had a client say, ‘you actually care about us.’ That was a reflection back to me of everything I wanted out of that job.”

Unless you work as an independent financial representative, your company generally will stipulate specific activity metrics to measure your performance. And by year two, Stone had learned enough to know how he wanted to work and who he wanted to be as a financial representative. And that understanding enabled him to conclude that he would not feel comfortable chasing those company-dictated metrics repeatedly every year to validate his contract. So, three years ago, he returned to a VP-level actuarial role with more personal insight and clarity.

Jason Bickler, FSA, had a different fear. Not the fear of change but the fear of staying the same. And that may resonate with anyone who understands that when the fear of staying the same is greater than the fear of change, you will change. After earning a bachelor’s in actuarial science, risk and insurance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bickler spent nine years in traditional actuarial roles at a U.S. insurance organization. He then moved into an external wholesaler position and, over the next 23 years, further expanded his sales responsibility to regional, divisional and national sales manager roles. For the last two years, Bickler has served as chief distribution officer for all life and annuity lines across all Global Atlantic Financial Group distribution channels.

“I had the sales itch early; it was always a characteristic in me,” Bickler said. “My dad is a sales guy and kind of looked at me side eyed when I got into actuarial science. After about nine years of actuarial work, I had an internal opportunity that offered more than actuarial. By then, I was fearful of being locked into a career. I had a fear of staying in something too long. I was afraid to pivot, yes, but I had a degree of confidence in myself that I could always come back to being an actuary—but with experience that other actuaries didn’t have. I felt that (actuarial) door wasn’t closing permanently. In fact, I felt like it would be even more wide open if I came back. That said, I never thought about going back.

“You have one career and people should own it. Actuaries tend to be very conservative and may find the company owning their career instead of owning it themselves. Actuarial rotations often are predetermined for you. Maybe the company does a good job and aligns with what people want to do. But that’s far from a given, and that does mean some risk. You must take your shots. Actuarial work is so specific I fear that a lot of junior folks don’t think they can do other things. When people see my background, that I was an actuary, and they feel I’ve done something unique because of what I’ve done subsequently, I feel bad because it shouldn’t be that way. I feel actuaries will be business leaders in other areas of an organization if they can make that leap.”

The idea that one could return to the actuarial career somehow better, differentiated, with more experience and wisdom to drive greater impact on increasing revenue, enhancing profitability, reducing risk, decreasing expenses and improving morale, engagement and productivity was repeated by every actuary with whom I spoke. Slagter summed up his perspective: “Leaving my job and launching my own company was the best decision I could’ve made and has been the best experience I could’ve hoped for—completely worth it—no matter the outcome. Every day is a rollercoaster: there are 100 balls in the air, a never-ending checklist. There are highs and lows, and the pressure is immeasurable. While I wouldn’t say Armadillo was an impulsive choice, I didn’t overanalyze before I leaped. Everyone perceives downside risk as much higher than it is in reality. For me, if the business doesn’t happen, I could go back to the corporate world or work as an actuary. And I would argue that this experience that I’ve had with Armadillo would be more valuable than a Harvard MBA.

“So, if you have something you’ve set your mind to, a seed that you’ve planted, water it … do something to make it grow. If my life took a turn back to the corporate world, I would be able to trim the fat, weed out the things that aren’t important and be more targeted. I’ve dipped my toes in what it takes to build and run a business, every function, end to end. And that experience and perspective are things I will carry with me no matter where my career goes.”

What I found most inspirational about these conversations was the transparency, humility and, yes, even the pain I heard. One more takeaway—sometimes a career pivot is not the end-all, be-all, final, now-you’ve-arrived, and all that. A pivot also can serve as a stepping stone that enables you to advance to the next step, the next right place, in your life and career.  And this next right place, well, maybe you couldn’t see it from where you were originally standing … so, pivot, anyone?

Lisa Bull is president of Lechner & Associates Inc.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2023 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.