Going for Gold

Q&A with Travis Gaertner, FSA, EA, senior director at Willis Towers Watson

Photo and video footage: Steve Utaski

What do you like most about the work you do?

There are so many things I love about my job. First, my employer is fantastic. They challenge me to be my best, and I’ve learned so much that not only applies to the job but also to everyday life. Work/life balance is very important to me, and I’m amazed at how much support I’ve received to pursue my goals outside of work. We’ve developed a very trusting relationship where my employer knows I will come through on the job.

Second, I enjoy working with a variety of clients. I’m a subject-matter expert in pension risk, so I get the privilege of talking to many different clients. This gives me the chance to help clients work through their very specific issues and find ways to either make their pension plans more sustainable by reducing their risk exposure or to help them offload their plan in a cost-effective way when they are no longer benefiting from it.

Third, working with a team really engages me. I enjoy coming together, being accountable to one another, and helping everyone contribute to a better work product. I’m a very social person, and I enjoy both the internal and external aspects of being a pension consultant.

Video Exclusive: Travis Gives Leadership Advice


What skills should actuaries strive to learn?

For those of us who enjoy direct contact with our clients: Learn to listen and read the room. Because we all have so much knowledge in such a complex subject matter, our natural inclination is to talk. But we should learn to let the client express their views first. Then, be concise in your response, guiding them to a place that will produce better outcomes in line with their objectives.

I have always loved to talk, so this doesn’t come easy for me—I still have to tell myself to be quiet sometimes. But taking the opportunity to listen and read the room gives us a chance to notice the body language of others and be more engaged. Show some emotion as well!

How do you define success?

I do not define it based on the outcome; rather, I define success as when you have done everything you can to execute well. At work, it’s serving our clients by learning their needs, giving them your best and being there for them when they need you. Outside of work, when I’m racing as a hand cyclist, it’s executing my race plan. Hitting the power numbers I want in the right places, hitting the right lines, and being very aware of my competition during a road race to be sure I’m well-positioned at the right times. If that means we sell some work, great! If that means I make the podium, fantastic! But those parts aren’t up to us.

Tell us about your Paralympic adventures. What leadership qualities does competition cultivate?

I am a two-time Paralympic gold medalist in wheelchair basketball, having competed in the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 games. I retired in 2004 to focus on my career as an actuary, but the competitive bug came back to me in 2016. I’m now on a four-year journey to attempt to go back to the Paralympics for the Tokyo 2020 games in handcycling. It’s been a hard road training at such a high level when my body isn’t as young as it once was, but my pathway to Tokyo appears to be pretty decent.

Working within a team structure in sports has taught me just about all of the most important skills I need as a consultant—meeting people where they are, communicating with people who have very different characteristics, finding common ground, being efficient with my time, and often needing to put others first.

Video Exclusive: Travis on Pushing Your Limits and Always Learning


How do you achieve a work/family/competition balance?

This is a difficult one, and probably my biggest challenge. I train about 15 hours a week during the year on my handcycle and in the gym lifting weights. Two to three times per week those sessions are very high-intensity interval training, which is quite painful. I’m not sure why I picked a sport that is all about how much you can suffer, so that the next day you can suffer even more!

My employer has really supported me in these pursuits, which is huge. I’m up every day between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. to get my first workout in, so that I can be at my desk by 9 a.m. A few days a week, I need to work efficiently to be able to get a second short workout in by a decent hour so that I can be at the dinner table with my amazing wife and three children to really focus on being present while I’m with them.

How do you foster team spirit, inclusiveness and good communication?

I try to respect different personality types. I reach out and hear the stories of those around me. Again, I don’t do this well naturally, but I find it really does bring people together when you are engaged in their story and genuinely care for them. Specifically relating to good communication, I acknowledge people and am accountable. If a client reaches out for something and I’m on the road traveling, I try to at least respond and acknowledge receipt of their email even if I can’t answer their question yet. This shows them I respect their time and their needs.

Who do you admire and why?

I respect people who work hard, put others first and generally try to do the best they can with what they’ve been given. As a disabled athlete, I get a lot of people who say they are sorry I was born with one leg. Don’t be, because I’m not. Do the best you can with what you have and in whatever situation life deals you.

Travis Gaertner, FSA, EA, is senior director of Retirement Risk Management at Willis Towers Watson.

Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.