Imagine being one of the first actuaries in your country to attain professional actuarial credentials, and then joining a startup life insurance company to kick-start your career. Fast-forward a few years and imagine you’ve risen to the ranks of chief actuary, chief insurance risk officer and deputy CEO, eventually making the entrepreneurial decision to launch your own business. These are just a few highlights of Tatiana Bitunska’s exciting career path as an actuary and industry leader in Bulgaria. In this article, Tatiana shares some of her thoughts and lessons learned on leadership and development.
Q: Tell us a little about your background. How did you make the decision to become an actuary?
During high school, I had so many different interests—astronomy, literature, chemistry. But my big love was math. Math is so beautiful! You can search for hidden rules and relations (like golden sections) for ages. Starting from the classical geometry of Euclid, you cannot ignore the magnificent theory of Lobachevski. … So, the most natural choice for me was to study math.
By chance, my tutor at the university was a strong supporter of the actuarial profession. I prepared a master’s thesis on probability of ruin, based on a Poisson distribution model for an insurance company. That was when I realized how interesting an application of math could be in the financial world. I was attracted to the profession by the scientific approach resulting in very pragmatic outcomes.
One year later, several Bulgarian professors from the Department of Probability and Statistics, with the support of the Institute of Actuaries in the United Kingdom, established the Bulgarian Actuarial Society and launched a postgraduate qualification program for actuaries. In 1996, the first 20 local actuaries were certified, and I was one of them. That is how everything started.
Q: Tell us about your career path. What are some of the key roles you’ve held?
My first job was in a new life insurance company in Bulgaria (now part of Uniqa Group). Within three months, I was assigned the responsibility of setting premiums for the new term life and endowment products. It was a fast-paced and inspirational start for my career—I had the chance to work with great professionals who set very high standards for business management, which I have tried to follow in my professional path.
The next big step in my professional career was when I joined ING Pension Insurance Company in Bulgaria as chief actuary at the beginning of 2003. One of my responsibilities was to develop and implement a valuation calculation model for our pension business. It was something completely new for me and, hence, extremely interesting.
Shortly after, I began working with the CEO of the company to identify new business expansion opportunities and to develop a growth strategy. The life insurance market in Bulgaria had already been established, and we were a new player to the game. A lot of large multinational companies—Allianz, Generali, VIG, Uniqa, KBC—already had a market position. Knowing ING’s insurance strength in other countries, it was decided to expand into this market in Bulgaria. The business plan for setting up the life insurance business in Bulgaria was prepared, and the implementation phase started only a few months later. It was a challenging and inspiring period with many new business relationships, cross border activities and valuable cooperation with ING colleagues abroad.
Over the years, I have held several additional roles within ING Insurance Bulgaria: chief insurance risk officer, member of the management board and deputy CEO. These roles allowed me to work with different departments to identify best practices and improve processes across the local organization. I learned how cooperative people are when they know you will support them and help them to become better at their daily jobs.
The last several years were particularly challenging and turbulent times for insurance specialists and actuaries in Europe. In 2012, we had to comply with the European gender-neutral pricing requirements and adopt unisex prices for insurance products. After that, the implementation of the European Solvency II insurance regulatory requirements was added to the agenda. As president of the Bulgarian Actuarial Society from 2010–2015, I worked closely with the Actuarial Association of Europe and with the local financial regulator on these topics. Solvency II still is a very hot topic for the Bulgarian insurance market, and I am engaged with it today, but in a different role.
Q: Can you tell us about a person who has had a significant impact on you as a leader? How did this person impact your life?
My first CEO, Mr. Jordan Genchev, taught me that a great leader is one who knows each day what is on everyone’s plate. Each morning, Genchev visited everyone in the company just to ask, “How are you today?” You can imagine how energizing and supportive such a behavior is for anyone! I took that simple but really big lesson from him and have followed it as rule No. 1 in my career. Caring about people gives them comfort and the motivation to do their best.
Q: What are the most important decisions you face daily as a leader in your organization?
Proper prioritization and delegation of tasks to the right people are the most important decisions in my daily work. It is critical to understand what is really urgent and should be solved immediately, and who is capable to do it.
Q: How do you foster creative and innovative thinking within your organization? How are ideas shared and implemented?
Some of my colleagues and I recently set up a new actuarial consultancy in Bulgaria. It is a new kind of role for me. It is not only about managing your own tasks, but also managing clients’ needs and expectations. It is something completely different from the work in a big multinational corporation.
It is a challenge because development in the actuarial field depends on innovations, but sometimes these innovations are expensive and, hence, not affordable for the small players in the local insurance market. Efficient consultants are able to step into the shoes of their clients and be aware of local market practices. My perception is that the local actuarial consultancy is the missing link between the innovations and achievements of the large global consultancies and the needs of local businesses in developing countries like Bulgaria.
Q: What challenges do you face in balancing actuarial development of your team with business needs?
Ensuring proper development of the actuaries on my team is a big challenge for me. Actuaries are often a bottleneck for so many different initiatives running across the company. That is why there is no suitable period for specialized trainings. It is challenging to balance the training needs of actuaries with the business demands coming from various stakeholders.
Also, the Bulgarian Actuarial Society has difficulties in meeting its initiative to keep local actuaries well informed about recent developments in the actuarial field. Usually, we manage to organize one or two seminars a year with international lectures. It is not easy for a small professional organization.
Q: What is one characteristic every great leader should possess?
Every great leader should really know each member of his or her team. Understanding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses enables the leader to assign the right roles and responsibilities to leverage everyone’s strengths. Knowing people means they are predictable for you; therefore, you as a leader are not exposed to significant turbulence or surprises. The really great leader is one who is able to delegate the task to the right people, support them throughout the execution and, most important, is the one who remembers to say “thank you!” at the end.
Every leader needs smart employees, but smart employees will not accept a mediocre manager. That is why you, as a leader, also should be conscious of your own personal and professional development.
Q: What do you do to ensure that you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
It’s very important to me that I continue to grow as a person and as a professional. Therefore, I have never stopped challenging myself, often daring to take risks and try new things. Take my startup consulting business as an example: It’s something completely new and challenging for me. During the last three months, my team and I have been working on the Solvency II Balance Sheet review as independent external reviewers. The Solvency II Balance Sheet review for the Bulgarian insurance market is an extremely ambitious project with extensive scope. That is a project of the European insurance regulator, the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA), and the local financial regulator, the Financial Supervision Commission (FSC), which aims to check the compliance of the local insurance market with the requirements of the Solvency II framework.
Q: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
To believe in the people he or she is going to manage. And listen to them. To ask (require) them to work as a team and to support each other as family members. Sometimes it is not so easy, but if you manage, it works. The leader is not always a manager, but the leader is someone people respect and are ready to follow. The leader is able to recognize the bright ideas, analyze the situation and organize the people to realize the idea in the best way.
Q: What advice would you give to young actuaries starting their careers?
Actuarial work is at the heart of the insurance business. Actuaries play the role of the great equalizer—they need to find the right balance among the interests of all stakeholders, including customers, distributors and shareholders. Therefore, actuaries need not only a strong mathematical background, but they also need to properly understand the economic and business environment, to know the legislation framework and to be able to assess financial consequences for every decision.
Sometimes, actuaries are negatively perceived as being too academic. It is important for them to be able to step into shoes of others and to explain ideas behind sophisticated models in a simple language. To strengthen their position, actuaries need to learn how to present their work in a clear and concise way.
I would advise young actuaries to sit for qualification exams as early as possible and to start practicing immediately—they will collect valuable experience that way. Never stop learning, and follow innovations and IT solutions. Last but not least, it is extremely important to listen to your clients and the business.