People Person

Q&A with HR analytics specialist Ilana Sullivan

Photograph: Nick Berard

Q: What about your current position in human resources (HR) brings you the most satisfaction?

A: The best part of my job is when I can use the results of my analysis to make recommendations that make our organization an even better place for all employees. I like to help people, so when I see my results being used for workplace improvement, it makes me proud of my job.

Q: Many in the actuarial arena say risk is opportunity. What opportunities have you discovered having moved from a traditional actuarial role to a position in human resources?

A: Actuaries have a great analytic skill set; they are taught how important it is to understand the business they are analyzing; and they learn to communicate in a clear and concise manner. I’m in the business of HR, and as an actuary, it’s my job to learn the business, do analyses and make recommendations—all while following all of the ethical and professional responsibilities of an actuary. I hope that I serve as an example and inspire other actuaries to make the move to a nontraditional role. It’s good to show that actuaries can do so much more than price insurance products.

Q: What advice can you provide to other actuaries who are thinking about making a move to a job outside of the traditional actuarial career path?

A: Start learning about the business you are interested in. I learned a lot about insurance products and the insurance industry from actuarial exams, but I didn’t know much about HR when I moved to my current role. Actuaries have strong skill sets that can be very valuable in various parts of an organization, but it may be difficult getting leaders around the company to recognize the unique benefits an actuary brings to the table.

Q: How has your background as an actuary positively affected the work you do in your current position?

A: One thing I learned as an actuary working in life insurance was that I was expected to do work at all levels of difficulty. There wasn’t any work that was beneath me, and with enough effort, there wasn’t any work that was above me. I was expected to do work across the spectrum of complexity. The manager who hired me in my current role said the willingness to do all types of work is a rare trait. Many people want to have all of their work in a very narrow spectrum; however, one of the things I love most about my work is the diversity.

The importance of structure is helpful as well. I always considered myself to be someone who disliked the restrictions of rules and procedures. Once I began working outside of the actuarial team, I realized that actuaries like things more structured—often because of professional and legal requirements—and that my perception of myself was only accurate while in relation to other actuaries. Within HR, I have found I’m the one who is structured and procedural, which is amusing to me.

Q: How are you and your team using predictive analytics and metrics?

A: Examining gender diversity across management roles is one example of the work my team does. This work ranges from providing simple counts of how many women we have in management, to determining how we can recruit more women, to preparing women for leadership roles. The team is using predictive analytics to understand how many women will be in leadership roles in the future based on hiring and turnover trends.

Q: How important is teamwork in your department?

A: Teamwork is critical in my department, especially for someone like me who doesn’t have the HR background. I depend on my team to help me learn about the work HR does and to understand where data is stored. Most of the projects we work on individually affect the entire team, so it’s important to have an awareness of everyone’s work.

Q: What does a team with diverse skill sets (e.g., MBAs, Ph.D.s, scientists, communication generalists, etc.) bring to the success of a project and to a company in general?

A: Some examples of the degrees that members of my team hold include Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Interpersonal/Organizational Communication, Operations Research and Public Administration. This allows us to work on a broad spectrum of projects because our backgrounds and experiences are so diverse. There is usually someone on the team who has experience with a similar project who can serve as a resource or mentor.

Q: What kinds of problems are you solving using data analytics? How is this different from the issues you would address in the role of a more traditional actuary?

A: The issues I addressed in a more traditional role were all related to insurance, but my analyses are now focused on people. Some of the problems we are working on include assessments for our hiring process, predicting employee turnover, social network analysis and effectiveness of training courses. We have implemented assessments to use during the hiring process to give managers more information about potential candidates. We recently worked on a social network analysis to understand the communication patterns among employees and how they relate to important employee outcomes. This gives us a better idea of how and how often different teams work together, which will hopefully guide a greater understanding of team engagement and productivity.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

A: Workforce analytics is fairly new to my company. It can be difficult to make complex analyses a priority for our team when there are still many valid requests for metrics and reports. While we have unlimited ideas for analytics, we have a limited amount of time. This challenges our team to prioritize analysis projects.

Q: What professions did you consider before deciding on becoming an actuary?

A: I considered becoming a teacher because I enjoy helping people learn new things and explaining things in various ways so people can better understand them. This is a very valuable skill for an actuary because a lot of the work we do in a traditional or nontraditional role is complex, yet it often needs to be explained to a nontechnical audience.

Q: What skills positioned you for work in predictive analytics?

A: Communication is one of the most important skills in this role. I’m required to explain difficult topics to others, so I need to read the room and know when people don’t understand me.

Q: What has been the most exciting project you have worked on during your career and why?

A: One of the most exciting projects I worked on in this role was an analysis of our current leadership. Our leaders took a few assessments, including a 360 performance review, which has ratings from supervisors, peers and direct reports. I combined the results and analyzed them to determine what traits leaders have across various divisions. My analysis is now used to guide future training of our leadership. Furthermore, divisions are now aware of skills missing on their current teams. They can either look for these skills in future hires or offer additional training opportunities for current employees.

Q: Where do you see the role of predictive analytics in the next five to 10 years? Where will actuaries fit into the equation?

A: I think every company will be using predictive analytics in the next five to 10 years to guide nearly every decision. Using insurance as an example, I see predictive analytics guiding which claims to settle and which should go to court; to identify customer or employee fraud; or to decide what areas to audit or what investments to make.

Predictive analytics can also help decide the best locations for new buildings; where and how to market to customers; and how often to send communication and on what topics. Actuaries need to develop and expand their predictive analytics abilities and make an effort to understand the business. I envision actuaries doing the basic predictive modeling, with data scientists and statisticians handling the very complex models while hopefully utilizing actuaries to assist in cross communication with the business.

Q: What advice do you have for people who may be interested in positions in predictive analytics?

A: Learn how to use a statistical software system now. Once you understand one, it won’t be difficult to learn another. It doesn’t really matter which one, but R or Python are great because they’re free and open-source programs with extremely helpful communities.

Q: How do you measure success?

A: I know that I’m being successful in my job when new committees and/or projects request me as a resource. I strive to be the best at what I do, and I feel successful when others want my input on decisions.

Q: What is something our readers may not know about predictive analytics, such as possible opportunities for actuaries in this arena?

A: If you took your exams a long time ago, there is a lot of material to review and a lot of new content to learn. Every area is moving toward predictive analytics, so it’s important to develop this skill. I hope you will consider working in an HR analytics role. It’s a perfect fit for an actuary. If more of us are working in the field, more doors will open for others.

Ilana Sullivan, ASA, MAAA, is an HR analytics specialist at American Family Insurance in Madison, Wisconsin.