Actuaries Speak

A roundtable interview with three actuarial leaders who share their unique perspectives on communication Interview by Elizabeth Walsh


Actuaries should be able to communicate and lead effectively, and these skills have become more important as of late. The unique circumstances of a fully remote workforce, challenges faced by nonnative English speakers, interactions with nontechnical audiences, a continued focus on the development of women in leadership, increased corporate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and much more necessitate that actuaries be effective communicators and leaders.

I sat down with three women actuaries with diverse backgrounds, all of whom are proficient leaders, to obtain their thoughts and advice on how “actuaries speak.” The panel featured in this article includes:

  • Heather Sligh, FSA, MAAA, a pricing actuary for Standard Insurance Company. She has more than a decade of experience in the voluntary insurance market and currently works with Standard’s accident, critical illness and hospital indemnity products.
  • Anna (Yimeng) Wu, FSA, who started at Transamerica in 2012. She currently works for a model validation team and has previous experience with variable annuity (VA) risk reporting and market consistent value of new business (MCVNB) consolidation. She is also the chair of the East Asian Club at Transamerica.
  • Beibei Li, ASA, MAAA, a specialist leader with Deloitte Consulting’s Actuarial & Insurance Solutions Group. She has more than a decade of experience in actuarial consulting with a focus on actuarial modernization.

What sparked your interest in becoming an actuary?

Sligh: I changed careers to become an actuary after working in the information technology (IT) industry for eight years. I loved that work, but after having children, I was having difficulty striking an acceptable work/life balance. When I first heard about actuarial work, I was attracted to the combination of analytical work and practical application—which is what I loved about working in IT—as well as the more conventional work schedule.

Wu: It started with my interest in astrology when I was young: The more I read about it, the more I questioned the science behind it. That led me to pursue statistics and then actuarial science.

Li: I first heard about actuarial science in high school from the current chief actuary of China Pacific Insurance Company due to my high SAT scores in math. It sounded like a rewarding profession. When I attended the University of Connecticut, I switched my major from finance to actuarial science based on the recommendation from an enthusiastic professor, Dick London, who was the director of the actuarial science program.

What is a typical workday like in your role? How much of it involves communication?

Sligh: I am the pricing actuary for a product suite, so communication is vital to my work. On a given day, I might discuss a pricing nuance with other actuaries for another product as part of a large multiproduct sale, meet with a broker or salesperson to field a unique pricing request and present a profitability overview to management. In all cases, I need to match my communication style to my audience to be effective.

Wu: I work in model validation and spend half of my time reading and digging into models. The other half I spend thinking, taking notes, writing reports and communicating my findings. Communication is a key skill to have as a model validator because I interact with various model owners. I do my validation by reading documentation, talking to model owners to understand the rationale of why things are done a certain way and then, finally, writing up a validation report.

Li: The percentage of communication in my daily work increased proportionately along with my tenure at Deloitte. I literally speak all day with my consulting clients and internal teams.

What has been the biggest surprise or challenge about communicating based on your background?

Sligh: A few years ago, my stepfather led me to an “aha moment.” I was frustrated because I felt that when I brought a problem to my manager (who happened to be male), he would immediately tell me what to do without listening to me and giving me a chance to propose my solution. My stepfather suggested that I might be misinterpreting my manager’s behavior because of the power dynamic. The manager might simply be laying out a proposal for me to poke holes at, and if that was the case, he was probably wondering why I never poked holes at anything. The next time I discussed a problem with my manager, the conversation was much more productive.

These days, I sometimes find myself on the other side of that power dynamic, where a person I’m speaking with could fall into the trap of thinking that, because I am the subject-matter expert on a topic, I expect them to accept what I say without question. It’s important to make sure all parties can engage in the conversation.

Wu: As an Asian (nonnative English speaker), my biggest challenge around communication is to distinguish which area actually needs improvement: language or communication skills. There are many Asian actuaries who do not speak perfect English, but they can always get their point across. So, I encourage myself to stop thinking that language is an issue. Instead, I should improve my overall communication skills.

Li: Communication in general is challenging, and even more so for actuaries. In my line of work with actuarial modernization, I interact routinely with nonactuaries who have zero training in actuarial concepts, but I need to communicate complex and difficult information to them.

Many people still don’t know about the actuarial profession unless they work in the insurance industry. Explaining what we do and distinguishing our profession from accountants, underwriters and salespeople, and being able to explain technical concepts to a nontechnical audience, are challenges.

How has remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way you communicate?

Sligh: I have worked from home for the last seven years. Prior to everyone else working remotely, I was often the only person not physically in the room for a meeting, so I had to adopt an aggressive communication style to be heard. As difficult as the last year has been, having my coworkers be remote has been a silver lining in many ways. Because my company invested in technology to facilitate remote work for all, it is now much easier for me to do what I was doing already. I joke that I see more of my coworkers now than I ever have before!

Wu: Fortunately, my team worked remotely before the COVID-19 pandemic, so we were not impacted much. However, it did affect my role as the lead of the Asian Club at Transamerica. After I started to work remotely from a different city (prior to the pandemic), I could not continue talking to many of the club members face-to-face on a daily basis, so I thought it would be better if someone on-site ran the club instead. Then the pandemic happened, so I came back to help out with the Asian Club since everyone was remote.

Li: We have gotten better at communicating remotely now that we have worked this way for more than a year. Compared to the beginning of the pandemic, I now find myself increasing the number and length of meetings, especially with managing and coaching junior employees.

In consulting, it has been interesting to establish rapport remotely with a new client or teammate. To win new business and projects, I put more thought into how I communicate to achieve that pre-COVID-19 connection with people and to build trust along with the work we deliver.

Which aspect of communication do you think an actuarial leader needs to refine to be successful?

Sligh: Leaders must develop the skill of being able to facilitate communication that matters. To guide the organization forward, they must be active listeners and empower members of the organization to identify and solve problems.

Wu: Leaders must listen and speak the other’s “language.” If I want others to hear my opinion, I try to understand and use their preferred communication style. I will spend time listening first and use their “language” to speak.

Li: I constantly remind myself to use simpler language when speaking and not fall into the technical-speak trap. Sounding technical all the time does not help get a message across. I try to always use simple words and provide context, so everyone understands.

Elizabeth Walsh, FSA, MAAA, is an actuary and manager with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Actuarial and Insurance Solutions Group. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

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 © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.