Julia Lessing - Director, Guardian Actuarial

Julia Lessing - Director, Guardian Actuarial

What do you see as key characteristics of innovative actuaries?

There are five key characteristics I see in innovative actuaries:

  1. They see opportunities: they are able to see what is not there, think outside the box and come up with a new idea.
  2. They communicate effectively: they can communicate their new idea clearly and in a way that people listen. 
  3. They collaborate widely: they listen to others and absorb different perspectives.
  4. They are courageous: they have the courage, and are supported, to try something new (and accept that they may fail!).
  5. They are flexible and evolve: they are curious, they respond to feedback, they adapt when something isn’t working as expected, they are patient and persevere. 

What factors do you believe influence the impact actuaries can have within their organizations? (tools, collaborative opportunities, leadership positions, support from leadership, etc.)

Leadership is key to empowering actuaries to make an impact within their organizations. In the first few weeks of my graduate actuarial role, I identified the need for a handbook for new starters – something that showed the team structure and photos to help new starters get to know the team, important admin information and some basic technical training to help upskill new grads. 

Fortunately for me, the leaders embraced my idea and gave me time to develop a valuable handbook that endured and was updated for years afterwards. This was the first of many innovative “people” initiatives, which were supported by strong leaders. This gave many of us the courage to think innovatively to create positive impacts for the people in our team.

Successful innovation requires creativity, which often requires time and wider collaboration. When organizations can foster networking and creativity, innovation is more likely to follow.

What are some key ways you see the actuarial profession evolving in the next few years?

Impacts of technology and big data will continue to impact the type of work and opportunities available to actuaries in the future. If we can get better at describing how we can help, even more opportunities will become available to us – both inside and outside insurance companies. 

As technology and software continues to take care of the more menial work, actuaries will be able to apply themselves to higher level problems and wider challenges. Hopefully we will see the end of the days of “turning the handle” on a model, or losing an afternoon’s work when Excel crashes… This is exciting, but we will need to be ready for this! Stepping away from our spreadsheets, we will have more time to engage with people outside the actuarial team, think differently about the problems facing our communities. How can our organizations help to solve these problems? Who do we need to build relationships with? How can we learn to speak the languages of those outside our actuarial teams?

I work with a lot of actuaries who are recently or nearly qualified and I’m seeing a lot of innovative thinking around what younger actuaries want from their careers and their employers. Better work life balance, more support for career development and opportunities to work on interesting challenges sooner. Having worked from home for much of the pandemic, younger actuaries have missed out on important connection through networking and mentoring. I think in the next few years we will also see innovative ways for actuaries to connect and network. What advice would you give someone considering an actuarial career today?

I’d start by asking them why they want to become an actuary! Maybe they want to use their mathematical skills to derive insights from data, make an impact on people’s lives and give advice on how future scenarios might play out. Then I’d say: 

“Welcome! You’ll be joining a fantastic global profession and you will have many opportunities to do interesting things. Remember that to be a successful actuary you will need to be great at maths, but you will also need to be great at communicating, working in teams, and explaining complex concepts in clear simple terms. Stay curious and keep learning. Ask for help if you need it!”

Despite there being significant collaborative potential between data science and actuarial science, the two fields don’t always mesh in insurance. How do you believe they can work together more successfully?

I think there’s a lot of overlap between the two, but sometimes we find ourselves in an “us” and “them” stand-off. As actuaries, we often trip ourselves up here and think that with our multiple years of study and grueling exams we are somehow as good or even better than data scientists. Some actuaries are data scientists, but not all of us are!

In my experience, actuaries and data scientists can learn a lot from each other and have different but complementary skill sets. Like most things in life, it comes down to the people: good communication and strong professional relationships can improve the way data scientists and actuaries can work together successfully.

What makes innovation impactful? 

Two of the interesting things about innovation are that you can’t do it alone, and if you collaborate with others it can deliver more impact than you set out to achieve. 

Over the last few years I have been delivering leadership and communication training for actuaries. Instead of the typical full-day workshop style of training, my training courses are run with actuaries from different companies, over several weeks or months, in small groups and are assigned buddies to do some of the exercises together and get to know each other. I built these programs knowing about the evidence that collaborative learning and coaching techniques deliver better learning outcomes. After carefully preparing the content to maximize learning outcomes, I was surprised to find that actuaries rated the connection and networking experience even more highly than the content! This wasn’t an impact I was expecting!

One of my favorite quotes is from Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” The impact of innovation never belongs to a single person. The process of creating and selling new programs wasn’t easy, but significant collaboration, listening to and incorporating feedback, practicing patience and perseverance have all contributed to it being successful. And whilst I initially developed and continue to facilitate these programs, the credit for the positive impact also belongs to the participants. 

What are some of the more impactful innovations in the actuarial field and why?

We are fortunate to have so many examples of impactful innovations in our profession. The ones that stand out to me are those where actuaries have used their training and techniques to make a positive impact in people’s lives. 

The “Investment Approach”, developed by the Australian actuaries at Taylor Fry, and their ongoing application of this to linked datasets to help governments get a person-centered view of what will happen to people (and what that will cost) if governments implement various policy and investment decisions.

There are also many actuaries who are forging careers in academia, simultaneously innovating the way students are learning actuarial science and contributing their own actuarial expertise to a range of problems across a range of industries, including public health. 

The Covid-19 pandemic saw actuaries on the TV in the UK and Australia for possibly the first time ever! While not trained to develop vaccines, actuaries had the experience and respect to be consulted to share their expertise in relation to risk management, modeling and mortality.  

What is the best type of change we can adopt as actuaries to become more influential in the insurance industry?

There is a lot we can do to become more influential but most importantly we need to get better at how we communicate. While most of us can benefit from improved communication skills, I’m talking about two specific aspects of communication:

  1. We need to get better at describing how we can help. Rather than just saying “I’m an actuary”, how can you describe what you do to help in a way that is meaningful to others? Keep it simple – even “I can analyze customer data to find out who is more likely to claim”. This is what will give you the opportunities to get involved in interesting projects.
  2. We need to get better at sharing our advice in simple and clear terms. Innovative actuaries think differently to see problems that haven’t been solved, or don’t have a clear solution. Once they find the problem and solve it, they need to be able to explain it clearly so non-actuaries can understand it. Rather than saying “Well we could do option a, which has a 70% likelihood of working, or option b which has a high risk rating and a correlation with option c…” try “I think we should try option a, as it’s got the best chance of working with the lowest chance of us losing money.”. It’s tempting to hedge answers and give options, but impactful change needs clear direction (even if we need to monitor and evolve as we gather new data).