Courage is a defining characteristic of great leaders. Everyone is born with the capacity to be courageous, but often we are inspired to be courageous when others around us are acting brave. Courage is a byproduct of risk-taking experiences, of exposure to challenging circumstances where we must act with integrity and oftentimes face opposition by choosing the path less traveled.
Courage and leadership are relevant as ever—particularly for actuaries, because of how the future of the actuarial profession and insurance are changing, along with the broader business landscape. While the situations in which actuarial leaders are being asked to demonstrate courage may be shifting, many of the fundamental components of courage and leadership have not changed. In fact, because organizational structures are becoming flatter and the economy is becoming more ecosystem based, having strong leadership and being a good leader are even more critical.
This article will provide some real-life examples and quick exercises for how to demonstrate leadership and courage. This impacts not only the c-suite, but also team leaders, project managers and even new hires—both within and outside of the actuarial field.
Walking the Talk
One of the quickest ways to establish an environment of honesty, integrity and trust as a leader is by following through on your words with action. That is why this entire article is focused on action and how to bring these principles to life. Regardless of what leadership principles are adhered to, it is important that your actions and incentives directly align with the tone you set. For example, it is easy to tell your team that the thought process they used to arrive at a solution is as important as their actual answer, but it’s another to hold true to that message. Be sure not to overly penalize team members if, in your opinion, they get an answer wrong.
Translating words into action is not always easy and may not pay off in the short run, or ever. Be honest with yourself as a leader: Are you comfortable doing the right thing even if no one ever finds out? Leadership is not only displayed in front of a conference room full of people—it is also present in the little things behind closed doors or one-on-one.
One-minute reflection: Consider the last time you sacrificed short-term gains or accolades because you knew it was the right thing to do.
Everyone’s Opinion Matters
Today, we are trying to solve more complex problems in new industries/functions, along with working in an environment with emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI). This is increasing the visibility and importance of knowing everyone’s opinion, as sometimes the most junior team members are the most technologically savvy. The best idea may not come from the most experienced professional in the room. In fact, we are finding the best idea may not come from within your function or even your organization. Based on my experience, the more I have honored everyone’s opinions and facilitated a culture of open dialogue, the more we arrive at better solutions.
One-minute reflection: Answer these questions:
- In group meetings, when was the last time you asked your most junior staff to contribute their ideas?
- When was the last time you implemented their idea as opposed to yours?
- When was the last time you celebrated your junior staff’s ideas and gave them credit for their ideas?
As a team leader, I encourage you to understand your team and their wants and desires. This goes beyond their professional career aspirations. One common technique to better understanding your team members is to start the work week by having a session devoted to discussing things going on outside of work. This gives each team member the opportunity to talk about what is happening in their lives and what is important to them that week. It could be a yoga class on Tuesday morning or a birthday party on Thursday night. It is important to gain insight into what matters to them and, more important, to respect and support them.
As we learn about each other and our desires, an enhanced sense of team emerges naturally, as well as a level of encouragement and respect that did not exist before. Team members will start supporting the team member training for a marathon in ways never done before. This will go a long way in establishing trust.
One-minute reflection: How much do you know about your team members outside of work? Do you know what they value in their personal lives? Should you?
A second way to establish trust is to give your team the right level of autonomy while concurrently providing a safety net—it’s finding a balance of checking in frequently enough without instilling a culture of too many meetings. For relatively junior team members or teams newly working together, one effective method I have seen is a sliding scale approach for checkpoints: two hours, four hours and eight hours of work dedicated to a project.
- Start with a meeting cadence of every two hours.
- Then move to every four hours.
- Then move to every eight hours.
- Then move to less frequent, as required.
The timing reflects two primary factors:
- Complexity of the problem
- The manager’s rapport and working relationship with the team
Establishing a cadence and balance is important to gaining trust. It allows you to foster innovation and creativity, while not creating an environment where the team members become frustrated because they do not have enough help. By establishing fixed touchpoints that reduce in frequency over time, you enable the team members to learn and be creative, because they know when help will be provided.
One-minute reflection: Think through your meeting cadence with your team.
Always Do the Right Thing
Doing the right thing is so simple, yet so difficult. It can take many forms and flavors, including admitting when you are wrong. In the world of leading teams and organizations, this can be particularly difficult. So, courage, based on my experience, simply can be admitting you do not have all of the answers or that you were wrong.
As problems become more complex, it is impossible for a single person to have all of the right answers. Leadership can simply be admitting you do not know something and taking action to find the answer by tapping into your network to find the solution.
One-minute reflection: Has there been a time when you gave an answer that may have been wrong, rather than admit that you were unsure?
In today’s work environment, the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. working hours apply less frequently, so work-life balance continues to be an important topic. Pressing deadlines and night/weekend work can be a regular occurrence. An important attribute of doing the right thing as a manager is to provide the team with advance communication on workload and expectations. Be realistic on how long something may take and whether night/weekend work will be involved. If your team members have personal conflicts, see whether the deadline is flexible, and/or if you can bring in other team members to help.
References on Leadership and Courage
While it is true that “actions speak the loudest,” it is always helpful to have references, context or recommendations to fall back on. Many situations that occur in our professional or personal lives also have been experienced by others who often have words of wisdom from which we can learn …
One-minute reflection: Recall your latest deadline. Did you stay late with your team, or were you helping your team throughout?
The physical workplace is changing—more work is being performed remotely and virtually. Because of the flattening of organizational structures, the notion of a “command-and-control” working style is becoming less and less common. The importance of team building and collaboration in the workplace is increasing. Virtual team rooms are a necessity and no longer optional. It is important for everyone, including leaders, to have a baseline of tech savviness to work together, collaborate and lead.
One-minute reflection: Contemplate your leadership style. Has it changed over the past five years? Do you modify your leadership approach depending on whether the work is virtual or in-person? If the answer is no, consider enrolling in some technology training to be sure you’re getting the most out of your teams.
Pausing for growth and development is a challenge with the day-to-day pressures, deadlines and fire drills. I’m a firm believer that I was given the chance to write this article as a result of my mentors sacrificing for me. My primary example is when I was considering going to business school. Going back to school would have required me to leave my consulting firm for a minimum of two years, and more likely, permanently. When you consider that, I felt my leadership likely was incentivized to find a way to prevent me from pursuing my MBA.
But my leadership supported me with their words and deeds. They invested hours writing my business school recommendation letters, and after I was accepted to business school, they kept in touch from a distance, letting me pursue my passions in sports business. This enabled me to strengthen my communication, leadership and other enduring skills, which has helped me upon my return to Deloitte Consulting. My leadership’s “true colors” were apparent, and they built trust and showed their integrity.
Likewise, for me, going to business school was a step into the unknown, and that took some courage. Pursuing an MBA is a helpful step for actuaries who also want to pursue their dreams in nontraditional industries and professions.
One-minute reflection: Outside of the day-to-day work, have you made a personal investment in your team members’ development, even if it would not benefit you?
The simplest way to see if you are being a good leader and exhibiting the attributes described in this article is to see if you have followership. Having “followers” and team members who work with you does not need to mean that people like you—the term “followership” is not meant to convey a popularity contest. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to please everyone. In fact, having honest conversations on performance is not meant to make you popular, but these discussions will be in your team members’ best interest. Taking a stance about what’s wrong and what’s right may not please everyone, but it will instill respect over the long run.
One-minute reflection: Look back on your career and think about the people who have worked for you and with you. Have you established a sense of followership? Do people ask to work with you again after their first project with you? If the answer is yes, there is a good chance you are being a good leader and exhibiting the necessary qualities of honesty, integrity and trust.
Strong, courageous leadership is in high demand and will continue to become more important for actuaries. Imbuing the qualities of honesty and integrity in leaders, project managers and their teams is essential. This can be achieved by following the guidance in this article, including:
- Walking the talk
- Incorporating everyone’s opinions
- Ensuring we are doing the right thing, even if these decisions appear small
- Being flexible in our management approach
- Respecting others
- Pausing occasionally for growth and development
Perhaps most important, a good leader has the courage to inspire others, takes accountability for their actions, knows the importance of creativity and innovation for a successful outcome, empowers the team, and communicates with their head and heart.
As Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.