Connecting the Dots

Tips for making the jump to a nontraditional role Mavis Shang

Among the many labels I like to give myself, “foodie” is probably the most important one, as I pride myself on trying new restaurants and recipes. But last year, I was happy to add “actuary in a nontraditional role” as a new label when I became vice president, operations, at RBC Insurance.

How Did I Get Here?

Like many of my colleagues, my career path after obtaining my master’s degree in actuarial science was clear: Take actuarial exams, obtain professional designation and rotate through various actuarial functions. In one of the best decisions of my career, I accepted an offer from RBC Insurance and started to progress through roles across portfolio valuation, risk appetite, capital management, financial reporting and pricing. In my last actuarial role as vice president, pricing and analytics, I was exposed to much more, including partnering with product design, underwriting and sales. I had a range of experiences but felt there was one missing piece in my toolkit: operations.

I was offered my current role of vice president, operations, last summer and had to fight off what felt like “imposter syndrome” when I learned I would be responsible for a series of key functions beyond the traditional scope of an actuary. These included building the data foundation, maintaining relationships with third-party suppliers, executing enterprise-level initiatives and projects, quality assurance, service call centers, cyber and privacy risks—the list went on and on. This was all very fun and exciting stuff, but I had no clue where to begin.

Sweet Actuarial Skills

Switching from 15 years of actuarial training to daily operations matters was like jumping into the ocean—I was just trying to keep my head above water. Luckily, I have a very strong team to support me. After a few interactions with the team, I realized one of the skills I developed through my actuarial experience came in handy: translating complex and technical matters into layperson’s terms.

When I was an actuary, I had to explain the regulator’s newly designed capital management framework to senior executives. I put on my foodie hat, using pictures of fruits in my presentation to emphasize that the new and existing frameworks were an “apples to oranges” comparison, so not to compare the numerical capital amounts directly. This skill was really helpful in the first few months of my new role when I had to filter foundational issues out of massive technical details.

My team also provided feedback that I ask basic, to-the-point questions, which triggered new conversations and perspectives. Translating key points into simple summaries helped me absorb and memorize them faster, so that I could confidently climb up the very steep learning curve.

Unforeseen Challenges

Another label that many actuaries have is “precise,” which added some unconscious challenges as I stepped into this new role. If you asked me what most of my actuarial decisions were based on, the answer would be “experience studies.” In other words, traditional actuarial principles are based on the foundation of data, proof and facts. My first instinct of seeking proof to an exact decimal place often conflicts with the ability to try and make decisions with uncertainty. I had to put a sticky note on my laptop that said “don’t overthink” to overcome this instinct.

Actuaries also are known and labeled as “conservative.” This is another area where I fight my instincts to always put on my risk hat. Thankfully, I had conscious training about this when I was in my pricing role, so it wasn’t too bad of a transition for my operations role.

Looking to the Future

Now that I’ve had a taste of a nonactuarial role, I feel there are so many possibilities for the future. Actuarial roles usually account for less than 3% of positions in a well-established insurance organization, and many other roles and areas in insurance are fascinating, fulfilling and influential.

Looking to the future, insurance companies are facing the same transformational challenges as other financial institutions and industries. Client purchasing behaviors are changing—their patience is getting thinner, while expectations are higher than ever. While traditional actuarial practice relies on the law of large numbers, more effort is needed to eliminate intrusive medical examinations. While digitization becomes the focus, cybersecurity risk comes with it. Many of these important solutions are being built outside of actuarial roles.

Interested in a Nontraditional Role?

My advice to you is to explore! Actuarial roles have a natural advantage in connecting the dots, as they interact with almost all key functions in an insurance company, including underwriting, claims, product and so on. When going through International Financial Reporting Standard (IFRS) 17 requirements, you also can explore the downstream impact on administration, licensing and information technology (IT). When refreshing experience studies, explore consumer segmentation, lifestyle attributes and predictive modeling. Use transferrable skills of working with key stakeholders, impact and influence, that is, listening, communication and interpersonal skills to persuade or reach agreement with other parties holding different views, and observation to broaden your exposure. I promise it will be rewarding!

Mavis Shang, FSA, FCIA, is vice president, operations, at RBC Insurance in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. She is on the board of directors of RBC Life Insurance Company and RBC Insurance Company of Canada, and she is also a member of the board of directors of the Conservation Halton Foundation. Shang was also among the recipients of the 2019 Women’s Executive Network (WXN) Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Awards, in the Emerging Leaders category.

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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