Making Good Students Great, Again
Last year, one of our partners Gary gave an overview of the wide range of material we aim to teach our junior students: https://aprllp.com/training-our-junior-students/
As APR prepares for its largest ever single intake of staff in September 2021 (12 new starters and counting), our induction manager Chris Nash reflects further on the key skills and traits which we aim to instil in our staff from their first day in the office.
It should be clear that strong numerical skills are vital for anyone aiming to excel in actuarial work. However, one of our key aims is not for our staff just to be highly numerate, but also to be highly analytical, with the ability to take a complex problem and develop creative or efficient solutions.
While our recruitment process targets candidates with an advantage in this area, we also see it as our responsibility to continue challenging our staff to develop their analytical abilities. Many of our initial training exercises deliberately present staff with large mathematical models or datasets and a relatively small amount of exposition or commentary on the purpose of the model. Far from an obtuse effort to frustrate junior staff, this is a helpful opportunity for students to learn how to find a way through a complex mathematical machine quickly and efficiently, feeling their way around the buttons and levers until they understand how each part fits together.
This sort of thinking is especially important for APR staff due to the nature of our work and the frequency of change between clients and projects. Our staff do not (usually) have the benefit of having been at the same company using the same spreadsheets for 4-5 years; being regularly parachuted into new teams with different approaches to modelling, data flows and spreadsheet design means that analytical flexibility is a key requirement for all staff.
Another key trait we aim to develop in our staff from the beginning of their time with APR is perceptiveness. While this may at first seem the same as the point above, there is a subtle difference. Being analytical means quickly understanding how a model fits together; being perceptive means understanding why.
Perceptive staff are those who are not happy to understand simply what the model does; they want to know how it does it, why it does it, and if it could do it differently or better. This includes understanding the mathematical principles which mean the model is doing the right thing, but also having the intellectual curiosity to want to understand the intent behind the model. This is key, since a sizeable amount of the work undertaken by APR focuses on model change and development.
When it comes to developing models, perceptive staff have the clear advantage, since they understand why the model does what it does and can therefore easily adapt existing functionality, often in creative and innovative ways. Our training aims to develop and encourage this behaviour by asking staff to consider solutions to the same problem using different tools. This approach ensures that the solution gets to the crux of the underlying issue rather than simply being a test of proficiency in a particular approach or technology.
There is perhaps a temptation to argue that this kind of thinking is the realm of more experienced staff; shouldn’t staff spend their first year or two just learning how the processes work and pressing the buttons in the right order? That’s not how APR sees it, and it doesn’t appear to be how most of our clients see it either. Junior resource requests from clients frequently state that they are looking for perceptive staff who are willing to ask pertinent questions and where appropriate, offer appropriate challenge.
It’s worth pausing at this point to consider another key element of being perceptive, which is in interactions and relationships with other staff. People are not robots and working alongside other staff members and interacting with a range of client stakeholders can sometimes be more challenging than a complex spreadsheet! Perceptive staff are those who can understand how to manage those relationships well, and who understand how to communicate difficult mathematical principles with clarity and brevity.
We aim to give our staff ample opportunities to develop in this area; both our recruitment process and our induction training for new starters contain communication elements, with staff being asked to present ideas or concepts in a clear and concise manner. This enables our staff to become more perceptive in everything they do, whether they’re dealing with a spreadsheet or a stakeholder.
The final trait making its way onto this list is perhaps the most controversial; after all, everyone likes to think they did it right the first time. However, the ability to listen to feedback, accept it and put it into action is an important skill.
When staff complete exercises as part of our induction, we are as interested in seeing an individual’s second attempt at an exercise as their first. Of course, we want them to get everything right the first time, but the reality is that most people won’t, and it’s important to make sure that staff learn lessons from what went wrong the first time.
We tend to see the value of this trait in reports from clients; it is not very common that clients ask us outright for staff who are responsive, but such individuals often receive positive feedback from clients. This ability to hear feedback correctly and take appropriate action ultimately benefits the client, APR and the individual, which is why we encourage our staff to be open to feedback and in many cases request it explicitly.
When our bumper crop of starters arrives at the office (virtually or otherwise) in September, our goal will not just be to teach them how to ‘do actuarial’; we have a more noble aim. The intent is to teach them to be all of the above and more. We are confident that they’ll thrive under such a programme.
Whether you are a client manager looking for high quality interim support, or a prospective actuary considering your options, when it comes to being Analytical, Perceptive and Responsive, the answer is clear… think APR!