In a continually changing and fast-paced environment, upskilling and reskilling the workforce has become standard practice in the insurance and banking industry. However, while the idea of training a new employee to close a technical skill gap does not appear to be a problem, companies have become more and more inflexible on their requirements when it comes to soft skills. As a headhunting firm specialising in actuarial profiles, that’s a challenge we have to face on a daily basis: companies are now more and more looking for a personality with a set of technical skills, not the other way around.
Let’s put the classical cliché of the introverted actuary aside and focus on some facts. In the Influential Actuary, a book published in 2010, the author interviewed four American influential actuaries who shared their views on the key competencies to set yourself apart as an actuary. At the time, Laura Hay, one of the interviewees, was already pointing out the introverted nature of the actuarial training as a thing that holds actuaries back. “It’s a lot of self-study. I think preparing for exams is a lonely process in which you sit by yourself, you take them, and then you tell a few people that you passed, but it’s not a sharing experience. What you’re doing in a working environment is almost the opposite of your entire technical training.”
Although things may have evolved in the United States and other markets where actuarial training courses are increasingly aimed at training business-oriented actuaries, this statement is still particularly true regarding the Belgian market. Given the high level of technical requirements to become an Actuary in Belgium, and due to the fact that there is a limit to the number of courses that make up a university programme, universities have unfortunately little room for manoeuvre to integrate courses focused on soft skills development. On the other hand, the Institute of Actuaries in Belgium (IABE) encourages the development of soft skills by including CPD points in its continuous learning program. In order to place a greater emphasis on its importance, the IABE could make it compulsory as does the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (FOA) in the UK.
However, we must say that actuaries’ profiles have diversified over the years, by force of circumstance: on the one hand, thanks to universities’ bridging programmes allowing more business oriented students with less technical backgrounds head toward actuarial science masters, and on the other, because of the insurance companies’ structure becoming more transversally networked and flat, leaving actuaries’ no choice than to adapt.
“Actuaries’ technical knowledge is increasingly becoming an asset in non-technical departments.”
Things aren’t as bad as they may sound, but the demand for actuaries with strong soft skills is growing at a fast pace and working on them should not be an option anymore.
Actuaries are nowadays more and more expected to take up on less traditional missions and contribute to other areas of the business. Alexandre Jacobs, our Managing Director, says that actuaries’ technical knowledge is increasingly becoming an asset in non-technical departments. As this may seem to be a big challenge in terms of soft skills, remember that’s it’s above all creating strong career opportunities for those who are willing to take them. Are you in ?
“What would really be amazing, is an Actuary who …”
We heard this sentence countless times. Here’s the top 3 soft skills that give our clients a hard time in their research (and that’s what we’re here for;-))
1. 🎤 An Actuary who can communicate is gold: with colleagues from the same team, with the management, with other less technical departments and with internal and/or external clients, requiring the ability to explain (complex) actuarial topics in an understandable way, and sometimes even with a more commercial approach. Ability to present and speak in public is also very appreciated by our clients. Really, we are talking about communication all the way up, and maybe this is what makes our clients’ research that difficult, because that actually requires a whole lot of personal qualities : clarity and concision, organisation, open mindedness, respect, diplomacy, persuasion, ability to listen, and so on. Actuaries as a whole are often perceived as poor communicators (we have read some 50-page long publications on the subject). However, reality is more nuanced than that, as there has been a great evolution in recent years and we are seeing more and more actuaries taking on responsibilities in positions where communication skills are essential. In any case, we reassure you: it takes some work but everyone can become a great communicator!
2. 🤸🏻♂️ An Actuary with broad creative business savvy. Actuaries are expected to be able to have a broad-based knowledge of the business, outside their realm of expertise, which means understanding the purpose of other departments (whether they are technical or less technical). Only then will actuaries truly be able to grasp the whole of a problem or situation and develop creative, implementable solutions. The actuary with business acumen perceives quickly the essence of business situations, and acts accordingly.Leading actuaries have often worked within many different departments: technical departments, operational departments, risk management departments, … Having experience in both consulting and insurance companies also lead actuaries to build strong business acumen. This kind of experience inevitably strengthens soft skills and the ability to step back to have a 360° view of the business.
3. 👨🏻🔧 An Actuary who is able to adapt. The world is changing and it’s changing fast, especially in the insurance industry where there is still so much to do in terms of digital transformation. Actuaries are expected to play a role in this transformation, meaning that they have to be able to keep pace, be flexible and adapt in order to meet the changes that the actuarial profession is undergoing. “Remember the day when an actuary could get a practicing certificate and then rest assured that their future career was lined out until retirement? Those days are gone […] We need to have the ability to adapt to the needs of the changing business environment and apply our skills and knowledge in new domains and ways” says Mark Farell, a Fellow of the FOA and founder of ProActuary.com blog. In this context, there is no room for passivity: proactivity and curiosity go hand in hand with an actuary’s ability to adapt. The good news? The ability to adapt often goes with broad career perspectives. Employers who ask for adaptability are in general very willing to invest in their employees and to develop their potentials. So it’s a win-win situation!
The perfect combination
The perfect combination of both strong technical and soft skills is of course our clients’ initial goal. In Belgium in particular, in addition to that combination, the knowledge of several languages and especially French, Dutch and English is also very valued.
Clients favouring soft skills over technical skills exist. It’s not that soft skills became more important than technical skills, it’s that they got just as important in a sector that initially was an only hard skills world. Of course, depending on the nature of the position, its seniority and level of responsibility, clients will put more emphasis on one or on the other. For instance: one of our clients had several very strong candidates from a technical point of view, and yet the company chose a fresh out of school candidate. In this case, the client favoured soft skills and potential over acquired technical skills. Such a choice was motivated by the fact that the candidate had the attitude that the client was looking for and that was a perfect fit for the team. In addition, he came with a strong set of technical skills and an ability to quickly learn actuarial related topics thanks to his highly advanced technical training.
So, what now?
Of course, actuarial training institutions in Belgium should inevitably place some focus on the development of soft skills. But all the responsibility is not up to them: as individuals, each and every one is responsible for his or her own professional development. Remember: take initiative! For instance, getting involved in activities outside of school or work, such as getting involved in a scouting movement or taking theatre classes, is one way among others to improve your set of soft skills.
This makes even more sense in a Covid-19 context where companies had to adapt their way of working in a rush, and maybe you realised to what extend soft skills of each and one of you are key in a constantly evolving and unpredictable world. The way you managed to keep the business going and evolving, while keeping in touch with your team, your superiors, and the business, already says a lot about you.
There are so many ways to address the subject and there are many steps you can take to work on your soft skills: we should definitely look into it in another article. Meanwhile, keep in mind that you have so much to offer to the business as a whole, it’s time to raise your game!
Written by Sophie Kusmierek, Analyst at Asquare Partners