The Continuous Exploration Process of an Actuarial Career

An in-depth career-planning conversation with Shihao Zhuo, FSA, of Citic-Prudential Asset Management SOA Staff

Chinese Version

Shihao Zhuo, FSA

The Society of Actuaries (SOA) had the privilege of conducting an in-depth exchange with Shihao Zhuo, FSA, head of the supervisory committee of Citic-Prudential Asset Management Co. Ltd., to explore how actuaries should stick to their original intentions, break through and grow, and develop their actuarial careers in a constantly changing environment. Whether it is answering questions from novice actuaries who are just starting or responding to the confusion of middle-level managers, Zhuo, who was involved in a joint SOA and China Association of Actuaries (CAA) training course, “Career Development of Actuaries,” shares his insights through examples in an easy-to-understand and profound way.

What is the first thing you think of when considering an actuary’s career and planning for the future?

Whether you are a newcomer to the workplace or a veteran, you need to be serious about your career plan. It is an organic, continuous exploration process that will be adjusted and revised with the changes in your career and unexpected opportunities. This is not only about career choices but also life choices. It is not 100% absolute, nor can it be 100% perfect, but it can help you move forward on the path to a better future.

The same is true for actuarial career planning. In the constantly changing social environment, many actuaries are confused about their career development. Common questions among actuaries are: Can I only work in the actuarial department if I study actuarial science? Are there any other career choices? In fact, the employment field of actuaries is not limited to the actuarial departments of insurance companies. In addition to positions related to insurance companies, actuarial talent is also needed in insurance agencies, brokerage firms and related departments of the entire financial industry, such as securities, banks and funds.

What essential skills should actuarial science students learn in advance and what capabilities should they master? What are the recommended directions?

I think students must seize opportunities, and I suggest they do more internships with companies during summer or winter vacations or when preparing for their graduation thesis. They should try to participate in more projects, which will help them start their career path. Through internships, students can learn more about insurance companies and the actuarial profession, which will help them make better choices when they graduate.

But the fact is, after entering this field, students have more than 30 years to make choices, so the first two years of choices are not that important. They can try more. People who took the actuarial exam with me went on to work at investment banks, in risk management and even started their own companies. Everyone’s career path is different, so don’t be too wrapped up in debating what to do in that first job.

The social and economic environment in which the insurance industry is located, the actuarial work itself and the technical tools used in the work are constantly changing. How can new workplace entrants and experienced practitioners break through and achieve greater upward development?

Everyone’s career development path is different. From my years of experience, I think the development of actuaries can be divided into two stages:

Stage 1: Entering the industry

In this stage, the main problem that actuaries face is taking exams and obtaining licenses. I suggest that everyone use weekends and spare time to prepare for exams and take them as soon as possible so they can devote more energy to work. Working and taking exams at the same time is challenging, and the first few years of work are a process of accumulating knowledge. Only with the accumulation of knowledge can we achieve breakthroughs. I recommend that everyone explore and learn in their work and develop toward their own goals as much as possible.

When I first entered this industry, I faced the situation of changing departments every 18 months, which is the requirement of American insurance companies for actuaries. So, I set a basic goal for myself: No matter which department I go to, I must be able to independently complete basic tasks within six months. In the remaining eight to 10 months, I will find ways to improve in terms of work processes and efficiency. For example, in the first six months, I needed two days to complete a task, but in the next eight to 10 months, I tried to only need one day.

In summary, you can always find breakthrough points to improve your work. And no matter how much or how little you improve, it is a contribution to your work.

Stage 2: Bottleneck period after working for many years

Generally, after working for three to five years, everyone will become project managers, but they don’t know how to move up and break through to the next level. So many people are often confused and enter a bottleneck period. The main problem is many actuaries are still at the level of managing projects and have not paid attention to how to manage people.

I think there are three points to help break through this bottleneck period:

  1. From a personal perspective, you need to expand your thinking and master communication, coordination and organizational skills. When you become a mid-level manager, you will have many projects that require cross-departmental cooperation, which is a good opportunity. Through these collaborations, you can understand the work of other departments and the connection between their work and yours. At the same time, cooperating with other departments is a process of improving your coordination, organization and communication skills. These are all skills that a manager must have.
  2. Learn to manage others. When you want to become a manager, you need to pay attention to the development of the entire team, maximize the team’s efficiency and achieve complementary advantages. If everyone on your team considers something carefully, the probability of making mistakes will be low but the efficiency will not be high. If all team members are impulsive, the efficiency will be high but the probability of making mistakes will also be high. Therefore, balance and comprehensive considerations are needed.
  3. Learn to cultivate others. As a manager, you need to understand your direct reports’ aspirations for career development and try to cultivate them so they can grow. Because when you want to develop and move into a higher position, you need to cultivate successors who can handle your current work, which in turn improves your personal management skills.

In summary, when you become a manager, you need to work hard to cultivate yourself and go out and see different things and do different tasks as much as possible. This aids in your career development because when you communicate, coordinate and organize with other departments, you are also opening new paths for yourself. If you narrow yourself at the beginning, your career path will become narrower in the future.

When you reach the director or CFO level, you are a manager and an operator, and all the company’s indicators are related to you. So you have an obligation to use your accumulated knowledge, communication, coordination and organizational skills to help business channels and other departments achieve these indicators.

Everyone has their unique personality traits, growth experiences and skill strengths. In choosing their future direction, how should people make choices? What abilities can be exercised and prepared in advance?

I believe that personality is innate, but it can also be adjusted. The most important thing is your personal will. If your job or the job you want requires a certain skill, you must force yourself to learn rather than saying that I am naturally this personality and not suitable or struggling in this job—that kind of outlook will not only limit you but also make future work difficult. You must overcome these things, put aside these so-called personalities, think more about how you can do the job well, then force yourself to move in that direction.

When I first worked in actuarial science, I felt that it was a profession that I really enjoyed. After I applied to come to China to be a CFO, I spent more than 50% of my time communicating with various channels, personal insurance and telemarketing insurance to understand their business models so that I could give effective financial advice. This brings us back to the skill of communication.

In fact, many actuaries create high-quality reports, but they may spend 95% of their time doing content and only 5% of their time considering how to effectively share the content in PowerPoint. However, much of the detailed content in the presentation may not be necessary for a general manager. The focus should be on management’s perspective, such as the impact of new regulations and rules on finance, industry, products, market and investment. This way, everyone will have a common language to continue to communicate. Therefore, I think communication skills are particularly important for most actuarial career development.

How should one strive for more opportunities as a starting or mid-level actuary? Whether changing jobs or staying in the same position, what should one actively try, change and learn?

As an employee, I think you need to have the willingness to grow your knowledge and skills, learn to communicate and actively seek opportunities. Many actuaries think they should only be in the actuarial department and are unwilling to develop in other departments, but those who are willing to take this step almost always change their minds. Some people go from actuarial to channels to markets and finally become CMOs and CEOs. There is actually an opportunity gained by constantly going out. Therefore, don’t limit yourself to one path; there are still many opportunities for you to develop in your career.

As a supervisor, I think you should cultivate your own leadership skills and those of your direct reports. As I said before, when you become a supervisor, you must actively participate in cross-departmental projects and promote the success of the project through communication and exchange. At the same time, you need to communicate with your team members regularly, understand their wishes and dreams and cultivate them to become successors so they can stand alone and go further and higher. Because when they are promoted, their scope of management will become wider, and they must learn to make decisions. If you still have to ask for approval for everything, neither party will be promoted.

When we enter the middle or even higher levels of management, the focus of our work tends to be more on communication. Can an actuarial background play a helpful role in career advancement? With the development of technology, will actuarial advantages be replaced?

I think actuarial science is helpful for career development, and I prefer to regard actuarial science as a skill. Although when I became a CFO, I did not introduce myself as an actuary because I was in a managerial role in that position. But the actuarial skills I mastered help me understand how the entire insurance company is profitable. Whether you are a CMO, CEO or on the investment side, you need to understand it. In fact, CEOs who come from actuarial backgrounds are uniquely positioned in insurance companies because actuarial science can help you better understand how insurance companies operate and how to make profits, which is a good advantage.

Speaking of social changes and technological development, although many internet and technology companies are talking about breaking the actuarial black box, I think technology will ultimately serve actuarial science. With the development of technology, we can obtain the desired data and models faster and more accurately. Maybe it used to take several days to sort out the data, but now it can be done much more quickly. This will not affect our analysis and judgment of data, strategies and tactics. Therefore, I think technology will not affect our application of actuarial science.

I also know there are discussions about whether the actuarial profession will be replaced, and some say that the actuarial profession may disappear in the future. But please think about it: If actuaries disappear from insurance companies, what will be left? In fact, there is still a lack of actuaries in the market. Every time new regulations related to accounting standards, solvency, asset and liability management or comprehensive risk management come out, you will find that the market needs a large number of actuaries to do this work. Therefore, I think that, at least in the short term, actuaries are irreplaceable.

On the career development path of actuarial science, one may face the choice of starting at a company and working to the top or constantly challenging themself and changing tracks. Which is better?

Both paths are feasible depending on your interests, preferences and career development. While working at MetLife for 23 years, I did different jobs such as pricing, financial reporting and group insurance. Later, I chose to do annuities because it was a big business. Still, I also found that asset and liability management was important in the insurance industry, so I went to do asset management. Later, due to some fortuitous opportunities, I moved to the investment department for strategic decision-making and then became the chief actuary and CFO. Although my roles were constantly changing, I enjoyed them all.

When you encounter an opportunity, you should be clear about whether it is the direction you like and the career path you want to take. Some people may choose to change jobs due to poor work, bottlenecks or other problems, which is not advisable. Any job has two sides, so you need to have a balanced mindset and not let small setbacks or minor factors affect your judgment of your entire career.

Someone asked me, if you had another chance to consider your career development, what would you do? I said I never think about this issue because it has passed. Why bother to think about it again? It is a waste of time. Since I have made a decision, I should think about how to do the current job well, which is more important.

Therefore, my opinion is to carefully consider the ramifications before making a decision. If you think it’s right, go for it. After making the decision and choosing to move forward, don’t keep looking back.

When social pressure increases and there is internal competition in the workplace, how can actuarial professionals balance work and life?

The key to balancing work and life is to improve work efficiency. As a mid-level manager, you should consider the team’s perspective and ways to improve everyone’s efficiency, and many things should start with you.

For example, I am accustomed to asking the people who report to me about the progress of reports a day or two in advance, then arranging my schedule and reserving time to review the reports. I do not want to cause my team members to work overtime because of my personal meetings. Because sometimes, many team members complete their work at noon and give it to the manager, and the manager may not have time to review it until after 6 p.m. After reviewing it, the employee may have to spend time modifying it until 9 p.m. Therefore, as managers, a large part of our work is management, and we should communicate more with direct reports and reduce the burden on them. This way, both management and their team members can achieve a balance between work and life.

Although “involution” (the pressure to achieve academic and professional success, but getting trapped in a cycle of endless work and study without much reward or satisfaction) is very popular now, I think everyone should not be too trapped by this word and think this industry is all in involution. In fact, many people have the opportunity to develop in this industry and develop very well. Competition has always existed, but I think opportunities are always left to those who have worked hard and are prepared.

Career planning is also life planning. To be great, you must constantly seek breakthroughs, say goodbye to your comfort zone, challenge yourself and stimulate your potential to embrace more possibilities. As motivational speaker Brian Tracy said, “Success is goals, and all else is commentary.”

This Q&A article is based on the dialogue from the 2022 joint training course “Career Development of Actuaries ” by the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and the China Association of Actuaries (CAA).

Shihao Zhuo, FSA, is the head of the supervisory committee of Citic Prudential Asset Management Co. Ltd. He is based in Shanghai.

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 © 2023 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.