Difference Maker

Q&A with Jennie McGinnis, chief life actuary at Farmers New World Life Interview by Jing Lang

Photo: Lara Grauer

During her college years, Jennie McGinnis, FSA, CERA, MAAA, was fortunate to have mentors who helped broaden her understanding of the feminist movement and sexism. Discussions about women being held back in the workplace, women not being given the same opportunities as men and men not doing enough to support their working spouse with household matters didn’t resonate strongly with her upbringing—which she recognized as a blessing and privilege.

Jennie’s family was different. Her mom, a successful and well-respected engineer, had always worked. In fact, her dad was the one who stayed home after her younger brothers were born and took on the lion’s share of household responsibilities. Outside of the home, both of her parents were heavily involved in their community—at church, coaching sports and volunteering with their children’s various extracurricular activities.

Today, Jennie is the chief life actuary at Farmers New World Life, and like her mother, she is also an influencer in her chosen field. Like her dad, Jennie’s husband, Mitch, also decided to leave his job and become a full-time stay-at-home dad after their first son was born in 2008. Another way Jennie and Mitch are like her parents: They both are big on giving back to their community.

In this Q&A, Jennie shares insights into her career and provides advice for other actuaries who may be looking to advance within the profession.

Prior to joining Farmers New World Life as chief actuary, you advanced from an actuarial student to a senior vice president role within a decade. Do you consider yourself ambitious?

My ambition is expressed in how I can help others. With each of my roles, I saw an opportunity to help a different or larger group of people. My personal development is the challenge of trying to help in these different ways:

  • Does what I do translate in this new environment/setting?
  • How can I help this team?

The insurance industry plays a key role in the financial ecosystem and, of course, society at large. I challenge myself to make a bigger contribution to the whole of society by doing things that move the needle in my industry.

Having said that, I actually don’t have an elevator speech. To this day, I feel compelled to use air quotes when asked what I bring to a certain role. I want to bring something useful and valuable to the group. Tangibly in the workplace, this could mean leading a bigger team, but more often it’s in the day-to-day that I find ways to be helpful. In short, since my time and resources are limited, I try to figure out how I can give more bang for the buck.

You made some big changes during the pandemic, including changing your employer and moving across the country with your family. How did you feel about making these drastic changes during such uncertain times?

Given what the changes were, I don’t think COVID-19 had that much of an impact. Regardless, I moved across the country and into a position that uprooted me from how I’d come to see the business. One friend and ex-colleague told me: “And you could fail! In such a big way! It’ll be great!”

What I’ve come to understand is that you can’t really grow without taking risk. And it’s not always about knowing what you want, but rather knowing what you don’t want. Eliminating options helped me narrow my path. When one is starting out in their career, it is usually advisable to keep many options open. But as one moves forward in their career, we are blessed with knowledge and experience and are guided by what drives us. Therefore, we can make choices that are more aligned with our individual purpose.

You have contributed tremendously to the actuarial profession. You’ve been Actuary of the Future section chair and a past Society of Actuaries (SOA) Board member, among many other leadership roles. What drives you?

When I see I have something to add (a unique viewpoint or history that rounds out the diversity of a discussion), or when I feel I can elevate others (help bring their ideas to life), I feel compelled to step in. This was the case with SOA podcasts, which I’m proud to see continuing to flourish.

I have been told I am good at drawing people out and ensuring they’re heard and that their viewpoints are not missed or neglected. A fellow SOA volunteer (now friend) often reminds me that the first time we met, I asked him to share his perspective at an SOA committee meeting. It comes naturally to me to share the space and the microphone in group situations.

What advice can you give to young professionals who aspire to take on more senior roles but haven’t been given the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership qualities?

Find a way to demonstrate leadership qualities however you can. For me, this was largely through volunteer work in the industry and in my local community. Being a leader is not about having a title.

One thing that has stuck with me from a training course was the idea of leadership as filling a void. Everyone is standing around a circle—a black hole. It’s some nasty problem, or dirty work, and it’s hard to figure out what to do next, or to get over what the lift is going to be to get it done. It takes stepping away from that circle, into the middle and saying, “Here’s what we do next.”

Take on the tasks others don’t want. Show that not only can you do it, but that you were the brave one who stepped up to tackle the work when no one else would.

Any tips on effective communication?

I have always been intentional in my communication and clear about the level of communication I expect from others. With my recent job change, I find myself in a new setting, communicating with different audiences. But if the idea is to ensure you’re “heard,” then the same fundamental principles apply—it’s about trying to learn the “language” the person you’re talking to understands best and how to speak that language, even if it’s not natural to you.

For example, I’ve found I need to say the same thing multiple times when presenting, but I never say it in the exact same way. There’s a slight twist each time, because I’m trying to connect with as many people as possible—fundamentally, I’m trying to drive home one or two key points.

In your career, have there been setbacks where you didn’t get the roles you were hoping for? How did you deal with those setbacks?

Yes, there were certainly a couple of setbacks that broke my heart, and I recovered by realizing there’d be similar chances in the future. I kept my head down, did good work and worked on the areas where I was falling short to be better prepared for the next opportunity.

In other cases, I can say I was “hoping for” something, but with a different level of interest and investment. I was intrigued by an opportunity, I would have loved to have tried the new thing, but I didn’t feel the heart tug—so these smaller setbacks were easier to get over.

In all cases, the recovery was based on taking feedback from others and figuring out what it meant for my development, so I could better understand what the next good fit could be instead.

In our personal conversations, you have made distinctions between an “internal yardstick” and “external validations.” How do you strike a balance between them?

It’s hard to break from the external validations. There’s so much emphasis on grades, exams passed, social status and job title. These are the things that are most visible to others and often used as the only measure of how “successful” someone is. But even more important are our own measures. We should know what drives us, provides a deeper meaning to our being and fulfills us on a more sustainable basis. We should know how hard we’ve tried and how much effort we’ve put into something, and if it didn’t work out, at least we are comforted knowing we tried our best.

For a long time, I was motivated by not disappointing others and meeting what I thought were other people’s expectations of me. The first time I didn’t get an A as a class grade, I cried in worry of disappointing my parents. “But did you try your best?” was their response. And I had! I set this expectation based on what I thought others wanted of me.

I eventually have come to understand the importance of defining my own yardstick, recognizing still that even when I think I am defining that yardstick, there are many other opinions weighing into that—it’s not easy work!

One question I ask myself on a daily basis is, “Does this matter?” Another question that can creep up is, “Why do I feel like I’m failing at being a wife, mother and an employee all at the same time?”

I have had to decide what really mattered to me, and what really mattered to me at that given point in time. I am doing my best to consciously choose what to give my attention to and why.

What are your core values?

I was raised in the Christian tradition, so I would say that “to love my neighbor” sums up my values well. It’s not about me—it’s about creating something better for those around me. I get to do that at work with my colleagues, and we get to do that as a business and industry for our customers. Then I get to do that at home and in my community (which is virtual at this point—it’s been hard to make connections in a new location while still largely in a lockdown environment).

On the home front, putting boundaries on the workday has been challenging during the pandemic. At a minimum, my aim is to be available and present with my family in the evenings. It is rare that we don’t all sit down for dinner together. If I have to log back on once they’re tucked into bed, so be it.

What is your vision/dream for the next five to 10 years?

I want to travel again, take advantage of the Pacific Northwest and be outdoors more, advance in Pilates, see my kids off to college and keep up with my husband when running. Additionally, I want to keep finding a way to make a difference every day and continue to find new and better ways to make a difference.

Jennie McGinnis, FSA, CERA, MAAA, is chief life actuary at Farmers New World Life.
Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is VP and product manager at iptiQ. 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.