An interview with Cindy Forbes
by Joe De Dominicis, SOA staff fellow, Canadian membership
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” – Robert Frost
On her journey to the most senior actuarial position at Manulife Financial, Chief Actuary Cindy Forbes has certainly taken the road less traveled. I had the opportunity to sit down with Cindy and discuss a career that has, so far, spanned multiple countries over two continents. Find out how hard work and a spirit of adventure have contributed to Cindy’s success, including being named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women.
When did you first decide to pursue a career as an Actuary?
Like many actuaries, I did not initially choose actuarial science, but sort of fell into the profession. I originally enrolled in the math program at theUniversityofWaterloo, partially because of the co-op program… but also because it was close to home and I couldn’t afford to go to school out of town. Nor could I afford to attend school for 8 months at a time. When I started, I attended 4 months at a time then went to work to save money for the next term.
At one point I worked as a temporary secretary at a life insurance company, where I first discovered the actuarial profession. I met some actuarial students who encouraged me to take the aptitude test – which I scored well on. And, as none of the other options in the Math co-op program appealed to me, I chose actuarial science.
You have risen to Chief Actuary at Canada’s largest insurer – one of the most senior actuarial positions in the country. What are some of the keys to your success?
I suppose I owe some of my success to hard work, discipline and a conscientious attitude. I have always been very technical – which helps in this field – and I like mathematics which helped me in University and the early part of my career. Over time I’ve worked on developing my communication and business skills as well as the skills needed to manage and lead people effectively – all of which helped me move beyond a mid-level VP position in the company, to the position I am in today.
How much of your ‘day to day’ is focused on technical aspects versus management and leadership?
The chief actuary role is not as technical as you might think. Although I rely on my understanding of the principles of actuarial science and my technical skills to ensure things make sense at high level– I rarely get into any pure actuarial science calculations.
In fact, a concern I had coming into the chief actuary role was that it would push me back towards being more technical than I had been in previous roles [CFO of Japan, CFO of Asia or managing the high yield bond desk in the US]. What I’ve found is that the chief actuary is much more focused on the management and leadership side than one might think. Most of my time is spent on:
- people leadership;
- developing the profession within Manulife and within my own team;
- influencing the direction of the company; and
- communicating to senior management and our board, as well as professionals outside the company – including analysts, rating agencies and regulators. That requires an understanding of the technical concepts but also the ability to explain them to non-actuaries and others outside the industry.
You mentioned that a key to your success was developing people management and leadership skills. How did you develop those skills?
There are lots of ways to develop those skills. For me it was by practice, by trying different approaches and evaluating what worked and what didn’t. I also had to learn to think about problems not just from my own perspective – which we often tend to do early in our careers – but from a variety of perspectives. That helped me understand the views of others and develop solutions that met the needs of many stakeholders rather than just my own.
The time I spent working in Asia helped in that regard. Manulife operates in 11 countries and territories in Asia. As CFO I visited all of them and was regularly working with people from completely different cultures. I was forced to consider how I chose to interact with people – relative to the cultural norms of the country where I was working. That process of regularly reviewing my approach to solving problems, to dealing with issues, and to managing people, caused me to actively evaluate how I traditionally achieved results and, in some cases, to change my behavior.
What is a specific example of a cultural difference in Asia that affected your approach to managing and leading?
The more places I’ve lived and the more colleagues I’ve worked with, what I have found is that people are fundamentally the same in terms of what management styles they like and don’t like. North Americans have learned to tolerate what they dislike to a greater extent than have Asians. For example – in Asia, as a manager, you would get a negative response if you singled out an individual for criticism in a group meeting. By contrast, a colleague inNorth Americawould likely accept that criticism without the same reaction… but neither individual would feel particularly good about that approach. In Asia, where attracting, retaining and developing talent are so important in a growing operation, to succeed you must spend much more time on developing your team.
I learned that to get results, it is best to be specific and clear about what is expected, treat people with respect – for example giving feedback privately rather than in a group – and encourage people rather than discourage them.
Today many Canadian actuaries have opportunities to work abroad. Given your experiences living and working in Tokyo and Hong Kong, what advice would you give to others considering an international work experience?
When you move to a foreign country, you can be assured that you will find things that you like and things you don’t like. I found that the key to a positive experience as an expat is to focus on what you like about a place, and not worry about the rest – you will find that the negative things fade into the background.
Always remember that you are a guest in the country and act accordingly. That was a key reason why I constantly evaluated the way I achieved results – to make sure my methods were consistent with the cultural values of the country I was in.
Make sure that you can adapt personally and that your family can adapt. If your spouse and children are not happy, it will be difficult for you to have a positive experience. If you approach an international assignment with a spirit of adventure, as an opportunity to see the world and to experience a different culture, you will enjoy it and it will contribute to your success.
What advice would you give to actuaries trying to achieve the level of success you have?
In terms of career management young actuaries should try to get as much breadth of experience as they can. Be adventurous! Whether it is working abroad or branching out into areas you don’t know, the greatest development comes from being in areas and situations where you are not comfortable. That’s where you really learn…not just subject matter, but how to adapt to new and unfamiliar territory. That is valuable experience to get at any point in your career… and I think the earlier the better.
Cindy Forbes is Executive Vice President and Chief Actuary of Manulife Financial, and is a member of the Company’s Executive and Management committees.