London

81 Chancery Lane
London
WC2A 1DD
0207 112 8493
View map

Edinburgh

1 Lochrin Square
92 Fountainbridge
Edinburgh
EH3 9QA
0207 112 8493
View map

Dublin

24A Baggot Street Upper
Ballsbridge
Dublin
D04 V970
0207 112 8493
View map

Registered Office

7 Bell Yard,
London,
WC2A 2JR
0207 112 8493
View map

Send us a message

CLOSE X
Contact Us
16.05.2023

Which soft skills are most valuable in actuarial work?

In this article I take a deeper dive and more data-evidenced look at the application of wider business skills in actuarial environments.  The aim is to identify some of the key skills that I commonly see in the most effective and high-performing actuaries, and try to separate them from the ‘corporate waffle’ that can raise its head in this area.

Softer skills, aka wider business skills, are an interesting quandary when it comes to assessing candidates against role specs or even in performance management.

It’s easy to see how generically worded softer skills such as “Good team player” or “Strong communicator” carry so little power as to be worthless.  Using the role or job spec example scenario, any individual (or agency proposing an individual) is unlikely to even actively consider the requirement, thinking it’s a trivial hurdle, and instead focus only on the core technical skills provided in a spec.

Yet it’s also true that softer skills undoubtedly appear to be of greater value in practice.  For example, an analysis of the client feedback surveys that we carry out as standard at the end of a staff secondment clearly demonstrates that the likelihood of a client believing a placement has materially exceeded expectations is much more correlated with a positive perception of wider skills relative to deployment of impressive technical ability.  Another perspective to consider is the relative pathways of those qualifying as actuaries.  There is less empirical evidence to back this up, but I have little doubt that, post-FIA, a trajectory to more senior (and often financially rewarding!) roles is more likely for the actuary who is “technically competent but with very strong wider business skills” than someone holding converse strengths.

Despite this I lose count of the number of entrants into the profession that invest heavily in their technical skills but rarely take active steps to improve these wider skills.

Here I present a few key examples of commonly discussed wider business skills, using some real-life extracts from client requirements or specs that resonate with me as being of particular value within an actuarial environment.  In my view, these act as a powerful differentiator between higher and average performing actuarial staff.

Communication

The last of these, i.e. listening, appears to be a commonly undervalued aspect in perception of what constitutes strong communications skills.  For example, poor listening skills can lead to too much haste in extrapolating a current situation to fit a previously satisfactory solution.

Problem-solving / Inquisitiveness

It should almost go without saying that individuals who prove themselves able to think deeply and navigate challenging problems are likely to be identified as high performing.  Work out where your strengths lie – some actuaries relish and excel in analysing and re-engineering detailed processes (e.g. to shorten financial reporting timescales) while the strength of others may lie in bigger-picture or more strategic-level issues.

Judgement

A key focus here is recognising and disclosing uncertainty, which is, after all, the core of actuarial practice.  The hardest part of this is the former, where too great certainty in one’s pre-existing view and a lack of inquisitiveness (see above!) can be causes of bad practice.  A common example in actuarial work would be recognising that part of a technical or calculation specification could be interpreted differently (or indeed written with a differing intention).  Personally, I have found such judgement to be one of the best differentiators in assessing capability of actuarial students.

Commercial focus

A common theme in these points is the need to understand that, as actuaries, we are often required to make conclusions and recommendations based on data and assumptions that are unlikely to be correct.  Understanding the commercial significance of such decisions and drawing out and quantifying uncertainty are again key themes at the core of the actuary’s skillset and are to be embraced.

Management / Delivery Lead capabilities

Core skills at less experienced levels, including many actuarial student roles, may commonly include requirements referring to management of self, such as:

For more senior roles or those requiring accountability or responsibility for delivery, we may see requirements such as:

An obvious question is: how does one develop the skills needed to bridge the gap between the first and second lists?   One approach I think to be useful for more junior actuarial staff is to actively ‘Think like a manager/reviewer’ and consider whether you are delivering what your manager or reviewer needs to most efficiently check or sign off your work.

For example, in an Excel model build:

  1. Is your model’s calculation logic as understandable as it could be?
  2. Is your model easy to run?
  3. Does your model include clear user instructions, data validation, version history, and permit an audit trail?
  4. Have the key uncertainties, interpretations and limitations in your model been made explicit?

Those that demonstrate empathy with the manager’s position are clearly providing a strong signal that they would be equipped to take on such a role themselves in future.

Summary

It is clear that the ability to improve and develop the type of skills detailed above first demand that an individual sees doing so as of at least equal priority to improving more technical skills.

The next step can often lie in seeking feedback from colleagues or managers.  The most value is to be gained not through generic feedback, but by asking for input on performance in a number of the specific areas discussed here, and working together to identify opportunities where there is greatest scope for improvement.

Any shortfalls may naturally close in time through additional experience, but more active steps, such as creating a development plan and so more actively considering these aspects of your work, or perhaps through some targeted training, can be expected to accelerate such a process.  The consequent benefits to not only yourself and your future prospects, but also your colleagues and employer, will reward the time invested in the development of soft skills many times over.

 

Gary Heslop

May 2023