Committed to Leading

Lisa Forbes, FSA, FCIA, shares how core values and diverse experiences impact leadership Interview by Jing Lang

Photo: Kendra Foerster

Energy, commitment, enthusiasm: Lisa Forbes, FSA, FCIA, brings all three of these attributes to life as chief financial officer at Manulife Canada. She has a strong commitment to the growth and development of talent and has chaired many actuarial development committees during her career.

In this interview, Lisa discusses the changing role of leadership, the importance of strong core values and professionalism in today’s business world.

You have an impressive career that crisscrosses business sectors, including product, pricing, valuation, distribution, retail market and finance. What motivated you to move into different areas?

First, thank you for your kind words. I have tried to make the most out of the roles that presented themselves. A key motivation for me was to learn something new and continue to grow and develop. I pursued new roles that I hoped would broaden my background and experience, and I saw each opportunity as an additional tool in my work belt. The trick is to make sure you don’t double up on tools along the way.

I saw opportunity for growth in roles where I could build relationships with new people who had different leadership styles. I have always been drawn to teams that collaborated well and focused on winning together.

Ultimately, I wanted to challenge myself with roles where I could make an impact. I was never afraid to step outside of my comfort zone to learn. Each role offered new challenges and skills that I viewed as not only an investment in myself, but also in the company.

Aside from the technical competencies, how does your current role as CFO differ from other leadership roles you’ve held at Manulife?

In my first role as a business unit CFO, I remember telling my boss, “I am an actuary; I have never received training on how to be a CFO, and I need some help.” She supported me by sponsoring my enrollment in a CFO Series education program that involved guest speakers and CFOs from various industries. The advice of one of those speakers remains with me to this day: “Be relentlessly forthright.”

Although the role of CFO is different from my previous leadership roles, there are many transferrable skills. Strategic thinking and foresight, influencing and decision-making, employee development and strong communication skills are all good examples.

As a CFO, you are the protector of the business; you go beyond controls and financial reporting and really push hard to drive performance. Being more direct and outspoken, and having the courage to share with others what they may not want to hear—“being relentlessly forthright”—is what is different. Although this can be uncomfortable at times, it is critical to moving the business forward.

How have you seen the profession evolve over the years?

When I started at the University of Westrn Ontario (now Western University) in the late 1980s, I wasn’t any different than most people who didn’t know what an actuary was.

Today, the actuarial profession is more broadly known and remains highly respected. When I started, the work of the actuary was largely focused on traditional work, such as valuation and pricing. It was more one-dimensional. The role has evolved to be more dynamic and participates in many aspects of the business.

Actuaries are well-positioned to be highly impactful by driving automation and efficiency and by sharing data-centric and decision-driven strategic insights to propel our stakeholder groups forward. Also, the on-the-job training and discipline gained through our studies makes our profession quite versatile and capable of taking on a wide variety of roles beyond the traditional ones. I recently recruited an actuary to head our expense team because I knew their background and experience could provide a unique and diverse perspective to move us forward.

You’ve invested time mentoring new employees at Manulife. What are a couple of things that were unexpected?

I am impressed by the caliber of the talent starting their career journeys and our future generation of leaders. It gives me a lot of optimism about our future. In some respects, when I look back to when I started my own career, new employees today seem miles ahead—not just with their technical skills, but also with strong communication and interpersonal skills, as well as confidence and conviction. They have diverse views and opinions and are not afraid to share them.

My role as a leader is to cultivate those skills, to create an environment where employees can flourish by ensuring everyone’s voices are heard, and to help remove roadblocks so they don’t become discouraged with how hard it can sometimes be to get things done—especially in large organizations. Having regular discussions with our new employees helps me do that.

What does professionalism mean to you?

The pandemic has made many of us reconsider what we traditionally would have considered professionalism. Many traded in the business suit for pajama bottoms, and we had the opportunity to glance into the personal lives of our team members more than ever before. In its simplest terms, professionalism to me is about respect, and this shows up in many forms: respect for other people’s opinions, respect for people’s time, respect for how you communicate and respect in how you do your job.

What are your core beliefs/values?

“Share your humanity” is one of our core values at Manulife, but it resonates with me on a personal level, too. It includes building a supportive, diverse and thriving workplace where people can bring their authentic and whole selves to work. It links to my core value of kindness and showing compassion and empathy for others. There is a misconception that kindness is associated with softness or incompetence. I believe kindness provides safety in the workplace, and when we feel safe, we are more likely to share our ideas and opinions, which in turn enables the diversity of thought that ultimately drives corporate performance.

What are your daily rituals, practices and tools?

Like most people, I have a full daily agenda planned out on my calendar, which leaves little time to think and reflect. There are always changes, challenges and unknowns that ultimately affect the scope of what I am able to accomplish. This is what makes the work interesting, but it can also lead to frustration.

To keep some perspective, I start and finish my day the same way. In the morning, I take a moment to say what I am grateful for. This lets me start the day in a positive and optimistic mood. At the end of the day, I take time to reflect on and evaluate the progress I’ve made, and I set my priorities for the next day. This combination allows me to focus on what matters most both personally and professionally.

What are key challenges and decisions in your life?

I know this sounds cliché, but I have difficulty putting time aside for myself. I recognize that everyone needs balance in their life, and I fully support taking time for yourself. I enjoy my work—I find it challenging and am constantly learning, and I hope my contribution positively impacts our business well into the future. It’s sometimes difficult to pull myself away. It’s one of many things that I am trying to improve upon, and, like anything, it takes practice.

Who are your sources of inspiration?

From a professional perspective, I have been fortunate to have had leaders who inspired and supported me to get me where I am today. I’ve also been privileged to be the leader of some amazing teams at Manulife, including my current Canadian Finance team. I am inspired daily to see how they have navigated through the pandemic, supporting quarter ends, year ends, strategic/financial planning, our businesses and, most important, one another.

On a personal level, the individual who has been a constant inspiration to me is my brother. He was diagnosed with a mental illness when we were both in university, and he since has struggled to overcome the challenges this illness brings to his entire life. His personal situation and his ability to overcome adversity and persevere is a reminder to me of the importance of kindness, resilience and not sweating the small stuff—all easier said than done.

What is your vision/dream for your professional and personal goals over the next five to 10 years?

Last summer, while working at home during the pandemic, the book Legacy by James Kerr arrived on my front porch from a senior leader at Manulife. It’s an excellent read and broadened my perspective on leadership from both a personal and professional lens. One of my favorite chapters in that book said: “True leaders are stewards of the future. They take responsibility for adding to the legacy.” I think this is equally important in both personal and professional life. I want to grow into being this kind of leader and individual.

Lisa Forbes, FSA, FCIA, is chief financial officer at Manulife Canada.
Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is director, Pricing and Portfolio Management, at Manitoba Public Insurance. 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.