The Call to AdventureQ&A with Alberto Abalo, FSA, CERA, MAAA, chief executive officer, Life and Health, Southern Europe and Latin America, at Munich Re September 2021
Photo: Lawrence Bassuk
While passing through Madrid on a family vacation in 2017, Alberto Abalo, FSA, MAAA, CERA, reached out to a friend to catch up over coffee. His friend, then-CEO of Munich Re’s Life and Health operations in Southern Europe and Latin America, spoke at length about the challenges and opportunities faced by the region he managed.
As coffee turned into dinner, the CEO laid it all out there: “Alberto, my chief actuary is moving back to Germany next year. Do you know anyone who might be interested in the role?”
“Yeah, I might,” Alberto responded.
Although Alberto’s gut instinct was that he wanted the job and was ready to take this next step in his career, questions crept in once he dwelled on it longer. Will this be a growth opportunity for me? Is it a fool’s errand, or does it present a meaningful challenge? Will it derail my career prospects in the United States?
Professional considerations aside, a move abroad would mean a career break for Alberto’s wife, who is an attorney, and uprooting their daughters, then 2 and 4, from a strong support network of family and friends in Atlanta. Ultimately, the call of an adventure won. Alberto and his wife sat down with their girls and told them they would be moving to a place with lots of castles and real-life princesses. The rest is history.
Today, Alberto is the CEO of the business he joined three years ago. In this Q&A, he shares insights into his journey.
You were the chief actuary for the region before your recent promotion to CEO. How has that transition been?
As with any transition, challenges abound. In a short period, you need to identify your clients and stakeholders and understand the expectations for the role, the various power maps and how success is measured. There is no manual, but after a few experiences, you begin to understand these patterns and, hopefully, learn to take on the challenges more gracefully.
Before moving to Spain, my role as appointed actuary required an intimate understanding of the regulatory framework in the United States. When I took on the chief actuary role in Madrid, my responsibilities expanded to several European and Latin American markets. The scope of my understanding had to expand accordingly—and quickly. Three years in, though my role is different, I am still actively engaged in this apprenticeship and am lucky to be supported by highly knowledgeable and professional local teams in Madrid, Milan, Bogota, Sao Paolo and Mexico City, as well as our clients, who are always the best source of information.
You were the appointed actuary for Munich Re in the United States before taking on the role of chief actuary in Madrid. How was that transition?
There is an entire cultural context underlying the insurance ecosystem I took for granted in the United States that I had to relearn for a broader region when I moved to Europe.
Focusing only on Spain, where I live, it begins with the motivation to purchase life and health insurance. Since Spain has a strong social security and public health system that aims to provide for the basic needs of the entire population, the types of products that are needed and demanded by the community are markedly different. Private health insurance, for example, mostly serves to complement—not replace—the asistencia publica. It is a parallel system that an increasing number of policyholders choose due to perceived benefits with regard to speed, agility and choice. The socioeconomic and demographic realities of the country also imply a different type of product innovation that particularly caters to an aging population.
As in the rest of the world, the rise of InsurTech startups continues to challenge the traditional business models for distributing and underwriting, not only in Spain but across the entire region I oversee. Insurance penetration is low, largely due to how most life and health policies are sold. To offer digital distribution and instant (or near-instant) coverage, we need simplified (automated and/or accelerated) underwriting and relevant, well-explained products that can be easily understood via a direct web- or app-based journey. Some countries are more advanced than others, but the current COVID-19 pandemic is driving a huge acceleration in this evolution within all of our markets.
What are some differences in working culture between the United States and Spain?
Working hours: I am sorry to say the siesta does not exist in the corporate workplace. In fact, workers in Madrid put in some of the longest workdays in Europe—about 12 hours on average. The flip side is that weekends are off-limits and, as in the rest of Europe, “holiday” time is sacred.
The role of food: Many important business relationships are nurtured at the table, and I have seen firsthand many difficult business issues resolved between courses. The long workday I mentioned includes a one-to-two-hour lunch that is fundamental to life in Spain. Even in a professional setting, conversations about food can arouse passions, trigger childhood memories and are almost limitless in where they can take you. Eating a sandwich at your desk, while common in the United States, is not the norm in Spain.
You are a longtime volunteer for the Society of Actuaries (SOA). What are some of the benefits to you?
Connection: From my first volunteer role as an exam grader to serving on several special interest sections as a council member, the biggest benefits have been building relationships with colleagues and being part of conversations about the future of the profession.
Brand credibility: An indirect but no less important benefit is that your work and that of other volunteers strengthens the value of the SOA brand. While practicing abroad, I have directly benefited from the respect that actuaries outside of the United States hold for the SOA’s credentials. We should preserve and expand this credibility.
Leadership opportunities: The opportunities the SOA provided allowed me to practice my influencing skills in a nonwork setting. Managing a volunteer-led project is different than managing a project in the office. When there is no formal reporting relationship—and nobody is getting paid—you need to fully rely on influence, inspiration and collaboration to get people on board. These skills are highly transferable to a workplace setting and everyday life.
What is your leadership philosophy?
Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.” I have always believed that a good leader engages people not through command and control, but by influencing, inspiring and revealing the talents and abilities of those on the team. My experiences have convinced me that there is no better path toward success than assembling and empowering the best team possible.
Empowerment also comes with responsibility. Before we all started working remotely, the first thing anyone visiting my office saw was a wooden statute of a sitting, smiling Buddha. My team interpreted it as an invitation to relax. That’s true, but there’s a more subtle meaning as well. If we consider, as the Buddha would, that the majority of our problems in the workplace are of our own creation, then the solution to these problems lies within us as well. I value solutions and results. My door is always open to discuss problems, but I also expect that you come ready to discuss solutions. When you do, like the Buddha, I will always greet you with a smile.
What is something you overcame during your professional journey?
I used to struggle with public speaking. Whenever I saw other people give a speech, it always seemed so effortless. The speaker oozed confidence and seemed to know exactly what to say. As someone who chooses their words carefully, I actively avoided situations that required me to speak in public—until I couldn’t anymore.
When I joined Oliver Wyman to help launch a life actuarial practice in the United States, it was understood that we had to put a strong focus on our marketing efforts. This meant, among other things, regularly presenting at industry events alongside other experts. It was a crash course in getting over one’s fears. In my first year alone, I presented at more than 10 public events and countless internal pitches. Some were good, some not so good, but nobody died! And despite my hesitation, I was always invited back.
Now in my CEO role, I am often invited to speak at various forums. I still get the occasional bout of stage fright, but I take comfort in knowing my speech doesn’t need to be perfect. Rather, each talk is an opportunity to connect with colleagues, clients and anyone else in the room.
You were one of the 10 actuaries featured in the “Don’t Rush Challenge—Actuaries Edition.” Was there any arm-twisting involved for you to sign up?
None! I’ve seen similar video challenges done by other professions—aircrew, nurses and military—and I thought it was a great opportunity to demonstrate that actuaries can also pull off something fun and playful. The video producer who recruited me is an actuary and a fellow SOA volunteer. She later told me she had long hoped to cast me in a creative production. I must also thank my family, who were game to help me out: My wife filmed, and my daughter appeared in the scene. My only regret, after seeing the premiere, is that I didn’t do a floss dance as well!
Any final advice for your fellow actuaries?
The ability to separate the important from the unimportant is a fundamental skill you must continually hone as you progress throughout your career (and life). I am generally loath to offer broad advice, but something I have been thinking about lately is that, to be truly productive, you must be clear about what your priorities are and be disciplined about rejecting things that fall outside of them. If you don’t define this for yourself, someone else will.
I’ve tried dozens of “hacks” to get better at this, but what seems to have worked best for me is the practice of meditation. In our era of information overload, just a few minutes away from the noise and clutter can make you more productive and focused and more adept at separating the wheat from the chaff. I began by meditating a few minutes a day using guided meditations in apps like Calm and Headspace, and today I do 20 minutes of unguided meditation each morning. It’s not a secret recipe for success, but I personally have experienced improved mental clarity and would recommend the practice to anyone who is interested in reminding themselves of their priorities.
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