AfterLife 3/4 – Leadership journey

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Summary (reading time: about 9 minutes):

 Actuaries are traditionally considered taciturn, but that is changing along with changing world

  • What does a new actuary need? Learning to be a leader
  • Where does one begin?
  • Knowing your and others’ personality types; and what works with them
  • Developing negotiation skills
  • Learn to tell a compelling Story
  • Be an informed leader
  • What underlies a good leader? A good human!
  • Go beyond work! 

Three cornerstones for developing a successful career for a new actuary are professional excellence, leadership journey, and personal resilience. Leadership is what the world sees. Building one’s brand is very important. Professional excellence was covered here, and here, In this third part of the blog series, I have tried to articulate my lessons learned (sometimes quite the hard way) and what I have admired in my mentors, bosses, and influencers.

My career started with the Government of India; I spent almost a decade there. From a bureaucracy that took shape since British ruled India, moving to an individualistic American Life Insurance company was a cultural shock. PNB MetLife was on a growth path then, setting up start-up-like processes and systems, requiring major unlearning of influencing. Now at Swiss Re, another shift was needed to work in a very consensus-driven culture at the global level. Working across cultures is a great teacher of leadership insights.

Actuaries are traditionally considered taciturn, but that is changing along with changing world:

Actuaries traditionally were considered taciturn math geeks, but the profession has come a long way from those dull and long commutation tables. Actuaries manage collective risk-sharing; by very definition, this will need to work together with many stakeholders. It is also an all-encompassing profession. The wider your learning is, the better you become good at taking holistic long calls on risk. This broader outlook percolates into other areas of life too, naturally.

Emerging data science has created new opportunities for actuaries. The core technical subjects learned by freshly minted actuaries are deeper and richer than data science, and machine learning applications need. Linear algebra, GLM, partial differential equations, and Bayes’ principles are some examples. Being able to think stochastically is a bonus. Actuaries can best talk to data analysts in their language and have the advantage of bringing clarity to data insights.

What does a new actuary need? Learning to be a leader:

Leadership, at its core, is influencing others to make things happen. On one end, it is about bringing in necessary clarity to the team and colleagues, taking ownership of the team’s shortfalls, and letting successful ones shine. On the other hand, leadership is communicating insights/outcomes with financial impacts, which are hard to explain with so many informed underlying assumptions. Along with traditional stakeholders like operations, finance, risk management, IT, underwriting, actuaries will be influencing a new breed of data analysts too.

Technology is transforming knowledge sharing; decentralized knowledge now is real-time and transparent. Traditional hierarchies in knowledge-based workflows are being transcended. Future leadership will be less of leading with authority. Instead, data-informed thought leadership will be what gets things transformed. More like influencing with knowledge and conviction. Good to see that actuarial Institutes have mandated communication as a compulsory subject!

Where does one begin?

An excellent place to start is understanding how we collectively think and interact. We, homo sapiens, started evolving somewhere around 550 to 750 thousand years ago. We have spent most of our time as hunter-gatherers communities; our long learned fight or flight instincts in the survival-of-the-fittest world have been hard-wired into us. Only yesterday we discovered agriculture and money; complex financial constructs have been only around a generation. We have spent hardly a generation drawing a pension. So basically, our primary drivers, the fight/flight responses, and the risk/reward instincts buried deep down in our lizard brain are transported into a totally alien space of modern hyper-connected world in a blink of an eye.

If data science feels like wizardry, then human psychology is like alchemy. Our hunter-gatherer instincts are stuck on ties/boots/dresses. These instincts now get triggered in our daily interactions to handle conflicts and compromises. Physical prowess is so confusedly mixed up with the money-driven social status. Since our social upbringings differ in myriad ways, our primary fight or flight triggers get triggered in such a kaleidoscopic way individually for any given situation. You never know; a laugh with a presumed inappropriate tone or pitch might trigger passive aggression as a fight response. 

Knowing your and others’ personality types; and what works with them:

It is good to know about different personality types early in one’s career. Character traits help you understand what motivates people, how they make decisions, and how to approach a particular personality type. You will also need to understand your own natural and dominant style. Although these are the ones that you will default to under pressure, cultivating different styles will help you deal with complex situations. Usually, more than one type of personality assessment is needed to get a good grasp. Some good tests are here and here.

Developing negotiation skills:

Once you know about what drives people, you will progress into the art of negotiating. Come to think of it, our social structure is nothing but negotiated arrangements. By very definition, negotiation is adjusting/adapting/settling for an arrangement that isn’t exactly what one prefers. Two things help in this regard, not taking things personally and letting go of grudges. Most important is separating people from situations. A very common reason for someone to differ from you is a lack of appreciation of information asymmetry and a relative lack of complete picture (at early years in your career, it is most likely you who is on the deficit side!).

A google search throws up very many links on learning the negotiating skill. But most of them appear to be based on selective psychology research. Beware of phrases like “In this study, one group of interviewees we are asked to …, while the other group was asked to ….”; they can be severely misleading; group size could be statistically not that significant. But what you should know is that it boils down to playing around with fight/flight triggers or tricking our way into reward cues in negotiation.

Keep on experimenting with what you learn to suit your work environment. The mindful practice of these strategies will help you to some extent. But without a solid ethical outlook, professional depth, and genuine empathy, soon the skills will degenerate into being phony.

Do subscribe to HBR; I have liked the quality of articles, insights, access to current thinking on negotiation, and other aspects. I recently started using the app BUNCH, an exciting concept of bite-sized learning to be an effective leader.

Learn to tell a compelling Story:

In an increasingly complex and inter-connected economy, telling a compelling story becomes essential for professional success. With information overload, people have a short attention span. Cultural aspects further cloud and lead to myriad interpretations of any given story. One culture might prefer building up to a grand-standing articulation to decide where a coffee machine should be installed. Another might come with plain bullet points, assuming you will ask what you want to know (mostly Americans :)). Having this cultural sense, being prepared both for an elevator pitch and a comprehensive story, and anything in between will help you develop the right articulation on the fly in a multi-cultural workspace.

Many of us try to add loads of information and assume insight is evident by the volume of data. But elephants in the rooms are the hardest to see right? You will be surprised at the naivety, like rigging up a line chart for unrelated numbers. Buying the book “Clarity and Impact: Inform and Impress with Your Reports and Talks” by Jon Moon has been one of my best long-term investments over the last 5 years.

Keeping things simple and being mindful of the intended audience is a best practice that takes a long time to cultivate. One trick is to take one of your presentations and see if you can come up with a 30% and a 60% shorter versions. If it is an extended summary, do use a service like Grammarly, you will be surprised at the wrong patterns we get used to.

One practice that helped me is reading aloud; it works wonders with e-mail responses. Hearing your writing aloud brings out inconsistencies in sentence formations. And don’t send a reply immediately if it can wait. Returning to your reactions later sometimes makes you wonder what on earth you were trying to say!

One doesn’t have to write in a perfect enchanting style; all needed is brevity to write what you are thinking clearly. Like all simpler things in life, it is harder too to learn to do right 🙂

Be an informed leader:

Our corporate culture has been evolving rapidly. The Baby Boomer generation dealt with brick and mortar assembly lines and paper file desk jobs not so long ago. Walking with a newspaper and cup of coffee and punching into work. Most of our labor laws and management principles began there. Now, Gen X or MTV generation is the senior leaders; they have seen massive changes in work processes and ethics. The impact of digital transformation can be approximated by computers to the internet to international travel to video-calling story-line. Along the way, the alpha males learned to cope with and adapt to equal opportunity practices.

The transition from knowledge-as-power to knowledge-demonetized hasn’t been an easy one. Now Gen X is getting into the driving seat, a generation with a sense of entitlement and fierce independence.

If you look at the timescales, you will notice every new change takes lesser time than the previous one. We didn’t even have half a generation experience to move between Baby Boomers to Gen X to Gen Y start-up millionaires. The recent pandemic only has accelerated the disruption in everyday office culture, various shades of hybrid working are emerging. Disrupted supply chains are necessitating new ways to de-risk.

This means a young actuary needs to be mindful of how the workspace is evolving. Digital innovation and cloud will lead a new way of info-lead decision making, where age and seniority may have no experience. Blockchain may even push freelancing into the mainstream.

Hence the need for one to be an informed leader. Get familiar with how leadership philosophies evolved [A good article here]. Keep a watch on sites like HBR for emerging leadership insights. As one grows in career, one needs to put in more effort to understand emerging tech trends and how they transform working cultures and transform collaboration. It might be challenging to adapt to a fast-changing corporate culture and expectations of ever-sharper generations unless tuned in.

New-age leadership will need robust ethics and empathy as the base and an outward coaching mindset. Leadership may soon be about enabling younger generations to find an answer than traditional knowledge hand-down. This will require courage to acknowledge the lack of expertise and willingness to play the role of mirror, facilitating clarity in developing solutions.

Some of the recent books that are refining my own perspectives are:

1.     Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know & Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant

2.     Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them by Gary Hamel, Michele Zanini

3.     Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious by Margaret Heffernan

4.     The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives by Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler

What underlies a good leader? A good human!

Ultimately it is about being a good human; you can’t separate that and have a chosen leadership style mask on. Far more than what we think we say and act is told through subtle hints in non-verbal communication; any conflict between what we preach and what we practice is bound to show up. One needs to work upon self to be a good human, more on personal resilience in the following (and last) part of this blog series.

A responsibility of a good human is to perpetuate the learnings. That means developing a coaching mindset. In its simplest Zen form, coaching is about leading one to discover and find answers, not being attached to the person or outcome. In the work area, it can translate into asking the right questions from professional and domain expertise and leading teams to a direction desired. To desist from preaching and immediately provide a solution, which certainly makes us feel important and feeds our ego, is really hard. Some books that can help you to start thinking about these skills are:

1.     The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life Hardcover by David Brooks

2.     Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M Sapolsky

3.     The Essential Drucker: by Peter F. Drucker

4.     The Coaching Mindset: 8 Ways to Think Like a Coach by Chad W. Hall

5.     Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives by Henry Kimsey-House

6.     Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership by Sir John Whitmore

7.     A Manager’s Guide to Coaching: Simple and Effective Ways to Get the Best From Your Employees Anne Loehr, Brian Emerson; and not the least;

8.     The 48 Laws Of Power (The Modern Machiavellian Robert Greene, 1)

Go beyond work!

Leadership, like said before, is the duty of a good human to perpetuate one’s learning. You have got only one life; why stop at one workspace leadership? Do use your negotiation skills, understanding of personality types, and growing information pool in you that starts making connecting things and making sense in a more disruptive world at large. Take the lead in building your family tree, leading your social group to clean drives, leading a team for a day trek, reading to blind students, and bringing joy and fun to your circle. A knowledge that is not practiced, the food that is not digested (bear with me for gender insensitivity here), young women to an old person become poison; a Sanskrit adage I read a couple of days ago!

Hope you find this helpful. After writing this, I feel lighter somehow. Parting thought, there is no right or wrong; all are shades of one’s perceptions in the world we create in our head.