Communication and leadership have always been hot topics within the actuarial profession. These skills are especially challenging when interacting with people across geographies and backgrounds. The Actuary Canada recently spoke to internationally experienced actuaries Guillaume Franquet and Kelvin Lam, FSA, CERA, FCIA, MAAA, about working with professionals from different countries and cultures.
Tell us about yourself and your professional work experience. In particular, please elaborate on your journey into a leadership role and what you have learned about your communication and leadership styles.
Franquet: I am a French actuary working for Hannover Re Canada on longevity projects. I grew up and studied in France, worked in Paris for a few years as an actuarial consultant, then moved to Bermuda and joined Hannover Re, a German reinsurer. I spent five years there working as a pricing actuary on financial solutions before moving to Canada for my current role.
I don’t have a leadership role, but more of a technical one. That said, efficient communication is an important asset, especially when working with colleagues and clients from different cultures and backgrounds. You realize quickly that everyone has a different perspective and prioritizes things differently. So, the key is to identify what your counterpart expects, even if this contrasts from your point of view, so that the experience is smooth for both parties.
Lam: I serve as the actuarial partner that leads the Actuarial & Insurance Solutions practice at Deloitte for the Bermuda and Caribbean region. I’m based in Bermuda, and before moving here, I was based in Toronto. I am fortunate to have started my career during an era of global actuarial consulting growth, which has provided me with opportunities to work on insurance-related engagements all around the world. In my current role, I predominantly spend time serving clients with operations in Bermuda, which is a sophisticated marketplace that is a critical crossroad for the international reinsurance community. Bermuda is an international marketplace; the clients and team members I work with represent different cultures from all four corners of the world.
My journey into leadership is ongoing; it is lifelong learning. There are two major experiences in my life that have positively influenced the way I understand leadership. The first is through my professional career development at Deloitte, and the second is through completing an executive MBA with Kellogg-Schulich.
For Deloitte to continue being a sustainable business leader, it has successfully established a knowledge network of incredibly intelligent problem solvers. It is heavily invested in its leadership talent development program. Deloitte has a mantra that challenges its practitioners to embrace “leadership at every level.” This clearly frames that every role is a leadership role and that it is up to each of our practitioners to take ownership of their professional career development (myself included). There are many ways you can be recognized as a leader. For example, you can be a leader by demonstrating technical or industry expertise in your field, developing deep relationships with clients as their trusted business advisor, or building up your practice and supporting the growth of your team. I believe the leadership role has been instilled every step of the way in my career journey. To contribute to my own growth, I was forced to examine my gaps at each level and execute on a recognized plan of action to continue developing as a stronger business professional.
Between 2017 and 2018, I was balancing working full time and studying part time as I was accepted into Kellogg-Schulich’s MBA program. This exciting program connects cohorts from reputable business schools by having them attend classes across a global university network. It challenged me to better understand who I was, personally and professionally, as I studied alongside other extremely driven classmates. The program was, in many respects, a practical microcosm of dealing with people (both classmates and professors) across multiple geographies, cultures and backgrounds who are all reputable professionals in their respective fields. I came out of this program with increased confidence in my ability to lead and communicate with all types of professionals.
Regarding what I’ve learned about communication and leadership styles, I believe it is critical to understand your audience, their level of knowledge and the situation. It is important to be adaptive and empathetic to tailor your style to be as effective as possible toward your audience. Specifically, when managing a successful consulting practice, I believe in “servant leadership,” a style built around serving. I serve my clients and my team, and if I succeed in doing both, our practice succeeds. This style is sometimes perceived to be counterintuitive because by serving first and serving well, a leader can actually become freer, and work may also become more meaningful.
Compare and contrast your experience working with people from different geographies and backgrounds.
Franquet: It was quite challenging at the beginning, especially when I moved from France to Bermuda, because I was working in a foreign country, in a second language, with people from many different geographies and backgrounds. It took me some time to adapt, but Bermuda is quite cosmopolitan with many ex-pats, so they know what you are going through and do their best to make you feel welcome.
Moving to Canada after that was relatively easy, especially since Toronto is a large, thriving city. The funny thing, though, is that in this role, I work with many German colleagues, so paradoxically, I get as much exposure, if not more exposure, to the German culture than to the Canadian one in my daily work.
Lam: In my experience, I recognize that people from different geographies and backgrounds can think and behave differently. Professionally, these differences can manifest as a range of styles in communication and leadership. From a consulting perspective, whether it relates to clients or their own team, if communication styles are not addressed appropriately, it can lead to suboptimal consequences such as miscommunication, inappropriate project expectations and overall poor working relationships.
For example, when working with clients from a more rigid corporate culture and structured business hierarchy, I expect there will be more delegation and deferral of responsibilities and slower decision-making within a client’s company. I will need to account for these differences to successfully deliver on a project.
Different companies in different countries are influenced by an array of factors that will shape how their people operate, from accepted business and legal practices and negotiation tactics to conflict resolution. The point is that to be an effective professional, it is important to recognize that your way of doing things is not the only way and that you cannot have a preconceived notion or expectation that someone else from another part of the world will act and think similarly to you.
I think we can all relate to the fact that sometimes, it just feels easier to work with other professionals from similar backgrounds and shared experiences, which is part of our human nature. When working with professionals who are less similar to me, I make the effort to be adaptive in order to ensure communication stays effective. Building relatability among the team makes working together more cohesive, collaborative and comfortable.
Give an example of when you needed to change your leadership style by geography or background. Why was this needed?
Franquet: As mentioned, my role is more technical than leadership-focused, but I can speak on different styles of leadership based on the various managers I have worked with. From the manager that gives you complete autonomy to the one that is more particular, I think it is often more a matter of personality than culture, since I have experienced very different leadership styles within the same geography or from people with a very similar background.
Lam: I have a very good recent example highlighting how a different environment can affect how professionals work, which required me to adapt my leadership style.
Before moving to Bermuda, I was uncertain of my new work culture and the potential concern that professionals would be “operating on island time,” which is a well-known stereotype that suggests that living in constant sunshine and being close to a beach will decrease productivity and reduce the sense of urgency to work.
After arriving in Bermuda, I observed that although the island pace of life is relaxing, my work environment is extremely dynamic. Our business needs are constantly changing, and daily responsibilities are not easily compartmentalized into process-based tasks. There is typically less staff available to help, and procrastination only translates to not having time to enjoy the beautiful weather. In turn, this dynamic work environment has created a culture where the professionals I work with prefer to prioritize the completion of their responsibilities.
As a practice leader, I recognized my team’s working style and immediately shifted away from autocratic leadership. Instead, I opted to focus on empowering our team to take greater ownership of their schedules and tasks and become better independent problem solvers.
Now please give an example of when you needed to change your communication style by geography or background. Why was this needed?
Franquet: In my experience, the most noticeable difference is how some cultures are more direct than others. Some people will not say exactly what they want, so you have to guess what they are expecting. You also have the opposite, where people are so direct that it could be seen as rude if you are not aware that this is their normal way of doing business and communicating. For example, it is always interesting to see how we might need to translate to my German colleagues what some of our Canadian clients were hinting at and reciprocally how sometimes we need to “soften” some of the very direct wording Germans can use.
The other thing with working with people from different geographies and backgrounds is that you have different degrees of formality in your interactions. I would say North American culture is more relaxed than the European one in general. You could hypothesize that this is due to the language. For example, English does not have the formal “you” that there is in French—but I don’t think that is true because when I look at the French-speaking Canadians, they tend to be more relaxed and less formal than the French people in France. Another anecdote that always amazes me is how my German colleagues write to each other using their last names despite knowing each other for years and working for the same company.
Lam: There is much to be said about this topic, but I will give a very good example from an insurance industry point of view.
I have supported several complex finance and actuarial transformation engagements throughout my career. I have consistently observed that there is always a period of growing pain where large projects of change have a hard time building momentum because there are communication barriers and a lack of buy-in across the wider organization. It never ceases to amaze me that although stakeholders across various functions may all speak the same phonetic language, differences in professional training, personal mindsets, problem-solving approaches and communication styles can cause a wide range of miscommunications that hinder cross-functional collaboration.
To further add to this complexity, we now work in an increasingly remote work environment where virtual collaboration may be required across multiple countries and time zones (for large multinational corporations). Large-scale change is not easily achieved, which is why it can take consecutive years to complete large transformational projects.
As a project leader, I had to quickly change the way I communicated depending on the project stakeholder and constantly traversed between executive, analytical, personal and assertive styles of communication, which was necessary to effectively pave an understanding of the project needs and coalesce collaboration across a myriad of functions.
What advice do you have for younger actuaries and upcoming leaders contemplating exploring international experience or coming into roles where they need to communicate and lead people from multiple backgrounds?
Franquet: The best advice is to do it and not hesitate to go outside your comfort zone. It is a very enriching experience, both from a professional and personal standpoint, as long as you are open-minded and willing to grow and adapt. There will certainly be differences to navigate, and some situations might feel uncomfortable. Still, overall, it is a fantastic way to challenge your beliefs and gain new perspectives on the world.
Lam: Grow globally: The global demand for talented actuaries in growing international markets is very fierce. Communication technologies continue to bring the world closer and make global teams even more viable. In theory, team members can be sitting anywhere in any time zone. Having the ability to understand how to operate effortlessly across various work cultures is a strong professional trait. Be brave and seek international experience, as it will give rise to new perspectives and a deeper understanding of how the global insurance industry works.
Practice makes perfect: Upcoming actuaries looking to become recognized leaders need to demonstrate effective communication skills. Having sound technical competency in actuarial knowledge is only a base requirement (e.g., passing the actuarial exams), and upcoming actuaries need to practice being able to take complicated technical concepts and discuss them in a way that is digestible and understandable by other professionals with varying backgrounds of knowledge.
Empathy and responsibility: Leadership comes in many styles and forms, but at the heart of it is a sense of empathy and responsibility. Especially when leading a team with diverse backgrounds, it is imperative to recognize that your own personal views are not necessarily shared by all your team members. Balanced leaders recognize that what is right for them may not be right for others and prefer to engage in actions that will not risk alienating members of their team. Strong leaders can successfully build, strengthen and manage high-performing teams to efficiently achieve the firm’s strategic objectives.
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.
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