To be honest, I don’t have an inspiring story to begin with. I simply made the right choices as I progressed in my career and, fortunately, met lots of good friends and mentors along the way, both in life as well as at work. If there is perhaps one thing that has guided me over the years, I would say it is that I don’t want to be a boring actuary!
Unlike what we read in the biographies of some leaders, I never had a clear goal when I was young to be a CEO. I am just a very pragmatic person. Because our energy as individuals is limited, it has been clear to me since high school that I had to make smart choices each step of the way. I never even bothered with having boyfriends in high school, because I felt it would consume too much of my energy.
The first career choice I made was to be an actuary. My major in university was mathematics. Graduates from a mathematics major tend to end up with careers as teachers or move on to advanced study. I knew clearly that neither of those paths were of interest to me. After some research, the other options were to be a programmer or an actuary. Being an actuary sounded more interesting, so I took a few exams and then studied actuarial science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
UW–Madison’s actuarial science department is under the business school, so I also learned accounting, financial analysis and so on. In the beginning it was difficult for me, because these topics are quite different from the mathematical world. But learning accounting and economics started to change my science brain into more of a business-focused mind.
First Female Appointed Actuary Milestone
After graduation, I started as a financial reporting actuary at a life insurance company, and I eventually became the first locally trained appointed actuary at Nan Shan Life Insurance Company (the third-largest insurer in Taiwan, previously under AIG). I was also the first female appointed actuary at the company.
From my experience, there are a few key ingredients to achieving this kind of success:
- Family support, especially from your spouse
- Work/life balance, especially when you have young kids
- Knowing your ambitions, resources, priorities and key stakeholders—so you can gain support and realize your ambitions based on your priorities
I think female leaders in particular need to prioritize how they spend their energy.
Curiosity and the Desire to go Beyond Traditional Actuarial Science
I am an actuary who is full of curiosity—I’m not satisfied with just receiving or producing numbers. I am always curious about what the driver or rationale underlying each phenomenon is. In my first role, although I was responsible only for financial reporting, I liked to talk to people outside of the actuarial world, and I built good relationships with most other departments.
These individuals outside of the actuarial realm all have been good teachers in my career and life. They shared with me their different observations and views, and from these I could develop my own logic and reasoning, such as why some products sold well but others did not; why there is a high claim ratio in summer; and why there is a low claim ratio in January but a high one in March (many claims are reported later because of Chinese New Year). Because all of these observations were shared with me, I was able to rise above being just a “boring” actuary to be an actuary you can talk with. I can take my technical expertise, go beyond the numbers and speak some “human” language.
Shifting Focus From Theory and Details—And Getting Straight to the Point
I learned not to only look at numbers and not to directly blame distributors for why their claim ratio is high. It has no meaning. You need to understand the true reasons behind it and speak a language they can understand to provide clear direction on how to implement a solution.
Take medical products, for example. Personal accident has a large risk of anti-selection. Taiwan has several different therapies (e.g., Chinese medicine acupuncture) that people can utilize, which they can claim for reimbursement. Even with a simple contusion, insureds have the choice to be treated with Western therapy or Chinese therapy. Western therapy may cost only 500 NTD, but Chinese therapy may cost 5,000 NTD. If you just blame the high claim ratio on the agents, the agents will not listen. You first need to understand the reasons for the high ratio: Is it really due to high claims, or perhaps it is due to customer behavior (with the customer preferring Chinese therapy over Western therapy)? Once the underlying reasons for the high claims ratio is understood, then the right action might be repricing or perhaps further considering customer behavior.
Combining Technical Knowledge and Communication Skills to Understand Concerns and Find Solutions
Learning to truly listen to people has been a very valuable skill for me. I learned how to filter useful comments and use them to present the value proposition of a product. By accumulating these comments, I can convert an agent’s abstract request into a practical solution that the actuary can utilize. I thus disassemble the abstract problem into a workable solution, judging whether the problem is a real issue. I can gain the trust of both actuaries and distributors to find a win-win solution and move forward.
At this time, I enjoyed collecting information and combining it with my specialized expertise. Because I demonstrated both technical abilities and communication skills, I was assigned to oversee departments—of product/ actuarial/marketing—while working in Nan Shan Life. In addition to regular actuarial and pricing tasks, I also worked on customer strategy, product proposition, marketing communications, as well as many communications to various distribution channels.
Within my career, one of the accomplishments I am most proud of is implementing the 1-2-3 strategy. At the time, foreign exchange (FX) products were being introduced to Taiwan’s market and Taiwan’s interest rate had dropped below 6 percent (the U.S. rate was about 6 percent at that time). Hence, we were considering introducing foreign currency products, but our agents had concerns. So, the first thing we had to do was communicate with the agents.
We began by sharing the current situation with the agents—that FX products were the trend in the market. By sharing this information, we were inviting the exchange of views. The agents will digest what we shared, combine their own experience and then better understand how to respond. Sharing information is a good way to invite new opinions. By sharing, we could collect feedback; from the feedback, we could analyze the potential problem; then, we can find a solution that works for all parties.
From the feedback, the agents’ major concerns were:
- Worries about the FX rate
- The fact that they would need to acquire a license to sell FX products since it was a new product type in the market
After understanding the concerns, we collected information to prove to agents that the product would perform poorly only when the FX rate dropped to a certain level, which was unlikely based on historical experience. Having resolved this concern, we then developed the 1-2-3 strategy:
- Assist agents with getting a license.
- Sell the first policy.
- Copy the successful experience to sell the second and third policies.
The strategy was successful. The key was to listen, communicate and be well-prepared—and we could solve the problem.
What I am doing now at RGA is the same—I’m listening to the customer and disassembling their requests into executable parts and determining aspects that are not feasible to act on. We’re doing what we can execute, and then communicating the unfeasible portion and providing alternative proposals to the customer, which in turn helps the customer set reasonable expectations. That way we can possibly do more than what the customer expects.
Career Plan Decisions
I don’t have a well-designed plan regarding who I want to be and what abilities I want to develop, but my career journey has resulted in me developing various abilities along the way. My experiences and relationships gave me choices, and I choose to be an actuary with broad experiences, especially as they relate to customers, distribution and marketing.
But without a clear career plan, how can we make choices to take the next step in our career? That is a good question. For me, there are two indexes. One is “different,” the other is “interesting.” If I have the opportunity to do something “different,” that will be my first index. “Interesting” will be another. If there is an experienced person in the other field who can expose me to different ways of thinking, I might have the ambition to enter the new field. It could inspire me to learn, to join them.
When my former CEO asked me to become the head of marketing, I only asked myself one question: “Do I want to be a traditional actuary in the next five years?” The answer to that question was “no,” so I took the role. But to be honest, the first two to three years as head of marketing were painful. No one understood what I was talking about: I only focused on risk, risk and risk. Like a traditional actuary, my communications were too professional and always added lots of concerns and proviso: “Only under X condition, so the result is X and X.”
Salespeople have no interest in the background or your proviso. They are narrowly focused on the end result. So, I spent a few years learning how to adjust, fit in with the target audience and relay the key messages I wanted them to remember. Fortunately, I had a good mentor from distribution, who gave me the confidence to fine-tune myself.
The other important element in my experience is that I have the courage to face frustration and self-reflect. Even now, not every day is peaceful. There are often new frustrations and challenges, but I have the courage and ability to digest setbacks and learn from them.
Changing Conditions in Taiwan
As Taiwan’s market changes, actuaries must take their technical knowledge along with the ability to communicate and understand the concerns of agents to help insurance companies succeed. This market has a lot of potential because Taiwan’s people are already well-educated. People are aware that insurance is necessary and part of life. Taiwan’s Supervisory Authority also sets the rules well and leads the market in a healthy direction. The pricing is clear, clause definitions are consistent and customers trust the products.
Today is a turning point. Although it is still difficult to forecast the future, it is expected that this year’s focus may move from saving products to protection products.
Saving products have been very popular, but I think the story will change after July. First, since interest rates remain low, saving products are not as attractive as before. Second, there will be a new corridor rule regulation on whole life products, which will require all whole life products to have a certain minimum level of death benefit. I believe it is a good trend.
Interest rates remaining low will result in most products becoming more expensive. It will also enlarge the differences between products. In the past, a company might have been able to rely on a few products selling well, but now customer segmentation and good value proposition have become more and more important. For example, when designing products for high net wealth customers, products for the middle class and so on, we must understand the needs of various customer segments to differentiate products.
As the trend moves from saving to protection products, it will highlight the need to upskill to gain a better understanding of customer needs, distribution behavior and so on to design good products with appropriate pricing. The low interest rate environment is worldwide, and it will emphasize the importance of actuaries. Our abilities and expertise with regard to experience analysis, distribution communication and product mix planning will be critical.
The Skills Needed to Succeed
There are some points that are always on my mind, and they have helped me to break through many barriers. They include:
- Have the right attitude and mindset—to grow both the company and team members, to upskill team members with designed training.
- Understand the need of agents and design a good value proposition that helps them close sales. Agents are also customers—think of how to serve them well with a good customer experience.
- Understand the market—by remaining curious about market movements and maintaining a good network in the industry to gain insight, by having good and wide connections to senior officers of life insurance companies in Taiwan to gain insights.
- Maintain strong actuarial and financial knowledge with regard to life insurance.
- Maintain connections to academics—they will initiate new ideas.
- Share what you like to do/why/how with various stakeholders.
- Always be positive—everything can be solved.
- Keep learning new things and having new thoughts every day.
- In the end, you should have a very strong ambition to succeed. Always think about how to make your current project succeed; do not think about how difficult it is.
I hope sharing this information is helpful when you look for an example of career development for actuaries, especially as it relates to becoming a broad-scope actuary.
Copyright © 2020 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.