SOA Blog

An interview with Dean Connor

by Joe De Dominicis, SOA staff fellow, Canadian membership

A commitment to lifelong learning and the ability to “get things done”:  two important attributes that separate top performers from the pack, according to Sun Life President and CEO Dean Connor.  Mr. Connor’s own ability to adapt to new challenges, continually develop new skills and get things done, have helped him succeed in roles that cross the actuarial spectrum – including leading two of Canada’s largest actuarial employers. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dean to discuss a range of topics including his career progression from actuary to senior leader. Find out what advice he has for actuaries who aspire to be leaders in business and in the profession.

When did you decide to pursue a career as an actuary?
I would characterize my path to becoming an actuary almost as an accident … but a fortuitous one!

Dean Connor, FSA, FCIA

I studied Applied Math at the University of Western Ontario but didn’t pursue actuarial science. At the end of my second year the head of the department approached me and said,  “ You are the only student going into third year honors applied math, you can have any schedule, any courses, any professors you  want,  we are here for you.” My first reaction was … “Wow, this is great!” My second was … “Where did everybody else go?” I realized that there weren’t many jobs for applied math grads. So I switched my major and graduated with a degree in business.

When I graduated I applied for a job at Mercer – not as an actuary but as a pension consultant. When I saw what the actuaries were doing I thought … “That looks interesting.” I wrote my first exam in 1978 and finished my fellowship five years later in 1983.

When did you first move into a leadership role?
It was 1988, I was 32 years old and I was asked to lead one of Mercer’s Toronto offices. I was responsible for about 100 people and $10 million in revenue. That was my first P&L responsibility. I carried the responsibility of that P&L home with me on my shoulders every night and, looking back, the weight of that felt as heavy to me then, as the P&L that I am responsible for now.  [Sun Life’s 2011 revenue was approximately $22.6 billion.] 

In your experience, what distinguishes top performers in an organization?
There are some people who have the unique ability to get things done.  These people have an amazing knack, when they hit a barrier − a large multi-year problem, or resistance to change − to somehow get over and around that barrier. You can see this among the best consultants working with their clients and among business leaders.

Getting things done is not just a skill set, it is a mindset. It is a question of how you spend your time. You could come to work every day and do nothing but answer email – every job is like that.  And you could go home every day and feel good that you have been able to “volley back” every email that came in. But when you sit down and think about it, what have you actually done to advance the business?  I find that successful people, whatever world they operate in, have a mindset toward getting things done that, on the margin, actually advance the business they are in.

There are many gifted professionals who aspire to be CEO of a major corporation, but only a few will achieve the level of success you have. Is there a key skill or strength that helps some individuals continue to progress?
The more senior you get in an organization, the more the strengths that got you there are taken as given.  What starts to hold you back are your flat spots. Everybody has flat spots. The question is whether you can keep working on those areas, learn new things, and continuously improve where you are weakest.

What was one of your “flat spots” and how did you overcome that “flat spot”?
Early in my career I took many things as read.  In other words, if a colleague prepared a piece of work, completed a robust analysis, and wrote a complex report, I might have taken that report without question, and assumed that the analysis was correct.  I learned to overcome this flat spot mostly through mentorship. I have had the privilege to work with individuals who have great independent minds, look at issues in an independent way, and don’t always take things as read. That is something I had to work on early in my career and still work on today.

What is one part of your job that you find highly rewarding?
I love the idea that you can take a business that is a combination of customers, employees and capital, and as a leadership team figure out how to make that business run more efficiently and produce a lot more power. Achieving that goal is about accountability, alignment (making sure the right people are in the right jobs), inspiring people about the mission of the company, providing feedback, making sure that our people understand their contribution, and that they are rewarded for that contribution. That challenge is one I find highly energizing.

Many professionals today struggle to maintain balance.  In addition to your role as CEO, you sit on various boards, you have three children and you play guitar in a band.  How do you balance your various responsibilities?
One of the most important things professionals and business people need to ask themselves is, “Where do I spend my time?”  Over my career, that has really become a question of what I say “no” to.  Whether that is getting involved in a board, playing golf, playing in a band gig or going on a business trip – I would be on a plane every week if I said “yes” to every trip request.

The demands on all of our time are infinite whether those demands are from the community, our families or work … especially work. To maintain balance in this business, you need to surround yourself with outstanding people and develop a system of working with those people that you can rely on.  That will allow you to say “yes” to the right things, and ask others to handle the things you say “no” to. For example, Sun Life has subsidiaries all over the world, each with its own board of directors. I have made a decision, where practical, not to sit on all those boards. Rather, I have other members of my management team sit on them. That is an example of saying “no” to something but still being able to count on other people to do a really good job in my stead.

What advice do you have for other actuaries who aspire to senior management positions?
Lifelong learning is very important. If I look at individuals who keep growing and moving up in an organization, their ability to learn new things quickly, immerse themselves in new areas and become an expert in those areas really distinguishes them. The opportunity to develop a broader knowledge base is very important. I started in pensions, then I moved into group insurance. I did some asset management consulting, then client relationship management. Now I work in life insurance.  Each of those changes required me to learn new skills and knowledge.

Other important advice for actuaries:

  • Develop all aspects of your communication skills. By communication skills I don’t just mean presentation skills. I mean listening skills, understanding the views of others, persuading others of your views and arguments, debating skills and being able to think on your feet.
  • Find, and stay close to mentors that you can learn from – learn the things you want to emulate and the things you don’t. Use those mentors to find your own path.

You are known as a leader who, once an issue is identified, can implement changes quickly to address that issue. What are some important issues facing Canadians and how can the actuarial profession help address them?
In general, when it comes to public advocacy, the profession needs to do more and move more quickly. For example, the discussion recently initiated bythe Federal Government around raising the OAS commencement age is one where actuaries have a lot to say.  The profession in Canada has spoken and written about the broader implications of an aging population. However, with all of these big topics, one or two papers is not enough. We need to be part of an ongoing and continuing dialogue to look at these problems from different facets on a repeated basis.

Another important issue for the country is healthcare, including:

  • Factors affecting the affordability of healthcare,
  • The impact of  wellness on the productivity of the country, and
  • What can be done to influence the health of Canadians in the workplace.

These are huge issues for Canadians, that fall directly in the “bulls-eye” of the actuarial profession, but where, as a profession, I don’t think we’ve done enough. Actuaries are well positioned to help study, analyze, and shine a bright light on these issues for the benefit of the Canadian population.

Dean Connor is President and Chief Executive Officer at Sun Life Financial.  Dean joined Sun Life in 2006 after 28 years at Mercer where he served as President for the Americas.

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6 responses to "An interview with Dean Connor"

  • Mike Austin says:

    Thank you Dean and Joe. There are a number of excellent points to take away from this interview that I can use on my path to becoming a successful actuary. Please keep the great interviews coming Joe!

  • Ellen Whelan says:

    Thanks Dean and Joe. i also worked under Dean’s leadership at Mercer and know he is wise and knowledgeable. I agree with Dean that there is more that the actuarial profession could be doing on many fronts to provide insights or lead change in health care to financial literacy. I think we all need to encourage all members, but especially new and young members to contribute their time to the profession as well as their career.

  • Sumit Garg says:

    Thanks Dean. Lot of good inputs and learning. All your interviews have been inspirational and motivating…I particularly liked the approach to maintain balance. There is lot to learn from you…

  • Ali Murtaza says:

    Great interview. Is the audio/video available on this website?

  • Ali, thank you for your comments. We did not video tape the interview. The written form above is the only version available.

  • Moneeta Khera says:

    Great insights very simplistically put. The ‘working on your flat spots’ and the approach to balancing various responsibilities were particularly thought provoking….thanks for sharing your views…

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