SOA Blog

Potential Pitfalls: How Even New Actuaries Can Make Mistakes

by Mark Spong, FSA, CERA

You polish that resume, nail the interview and land an offer. Then you show up at your first actuarial internship or full time position ready to impress your manager, build a professional network, and gain valuable knowledge and skills. Everything (even studying) seems to be going well until you realize some old habits and assumptions from your pre-actuarial life are holding you back.

Many great hires start out this way and despite having the best intentions they often fall victim to various pitfalls early in their career. Think of the following list as part of a mentoring conversation that pushes you to be your best.

1._Don’t confuse time and effort with value. If your manager wants you to spend four hours on a project, don’t spend eight and make it twice as good. You’ll always be able to pour more time and effort into a project but it is easy to lose track of the bigger picture. Remember the relationship isn’t linear and your goal should include efficiency.

2. Avoid inflexible “checklisting”. Tasks lists are great because they help you stay organized and feel accomplished. It is tempting to use the approach as you set your development goals and performance criteria with your manager. Unfortunately, people often don’t keep these up-to-date and find themselves having a mediocre performance review because they did everything on the list but the list didn’t keep up with changing business priorities.

3. Volume is neither insightful nor impressive. At first, your job might be to provide the numbers but if that is all you ever do your career will be greatly limited. When putting together a PowerPoint, crafting an email, building a dashboard, or delivering model results you should think about what is most important and focus on insights not lots of analysis. There are some questions that universally help: What should this number be? If my value is different than expected, what’s the story? Is each variance driver good, bad, or indifferent? How is what’s happening related to the business? For example: Spreads are down because we’re selling lots of new business (good), which is changing the asset balance (indifferent) in a low interest rate environment (bad).


4. Don’t consider opportunities in a vacuum. There will inevitably be opportunities to volunteer for special projects, serve in leadership capacities, or help with tasks like recruiting. They can significantly enhance your personal brand and be fantastically rewarding. Often when folks see the opportunities they ask “should I do this opportunity” which is really the wrong question. A better question would be “If I don’t do this opportunity, what will I do instead.” Honestly, most opportunities can enhance your development and you’ll need to be selective.

5. Don’t forget that you manage your own time. Get in control by forecasting your time using some best estimate assumptions. Even if it significantly off, it can still drive conversations in a much more productive way. For example, your manager asks you to take on an extra project or if you can meet a deadline. You’ll be more prepared to say yes and be able to talk about the tradeoffs you’ll need to make in order to make it happen. The following graph might lead to the following story: study time and project A clash in #1, vacation wasn’t planned for in #2, and there is excess capacity in #3. This is the information and perspective you need in order to manage your own time. Otherwise you’ll be guessing and making decisions based on how busy you feel in the moment not how busy you actually are.

6. Don’t accept comfortable roles. Roles where you learn and grow the most are often the ones where you’ll probably make mistakes. You have to get past your ego and then you’ll be in a better place professionally. For example, if asked to perform a peer review on a topic that isn’t explicitly covered on an actuarial exam you should be the colleague who dives into and learns something new. Don’t be the one that holds back any substantive comments. Those comments and follow up questions might have led to great learning opportunities.

7. Don’t fall into the I-know-nothing-so-I-can’t-contribute trap. Similarly to not accepting comfortable roles, it is more comfortable to abdicate responsibility and ownership. Long term though this is a very professionally limiting stance. Of course, there will be times where your contribution will be minimal and your main job will be to learn but try catch yourself if you start thinking like this because it can become a habit that you don’t want to have long term.

8. Building your personal brand shouldn’t wait. You don’t have to officially manage anyone on the organization chart to start being a leader. Here are three small ways to start: 1) Do your best work for the highly visible and the mundane parts of your job. People notice attention to detail and if you put forth variable effort based on how it makes you look. 2) Build a community in ways that feel right to you. That could mean anything from starting an after work basketball game or setting up lunches with people you want to learn more about. 3) Cultivate a positive attitude. In a work setting, this doesn’t mean being cheerful it means having a can-do spirit. For example, instead of just pointing out problems or obstacles also contribute possible solutions or recommendations.

9. Don’t ask for a higher salary without a good reason. You should have a sense as to the market value of your position, but calories burned trying to get more money now might be calories better spent proving it. Alternatively, ask yourself “how much, specifically, would be enough” and think about your rationale why. Employers want demonstrated results and often that takes time.

These are the sort of pitfalls that might distinguish a great actuarial hire from one that is merely good. Most of us have fallen victim to them at one point or another. What makes them so challenging is that they are natural mistakes for bright and ambitious over-achievers.


Mark Spong, FSA, CERA, is an actuary and Actuarial Leadership Development Program recruiting manager at MassMutual in Springfield, Massachusetts. He can be reached at MSpong@massmutual.com

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