Professionalism Counts, May 2017

Critical Stages: Professionalism at Career Transition Points
By Joeff Williams, Vice President, Professionalism, and
Keith Passwater, Chairperson, Committee on Qualifications
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Life stages are defined in many ways. Several months ago, we were sharing our family activities, talking about how quickly our children grow up. Our children are at different stages in their lives, but we both see the milestones pretty vividly: a daughter got married and bought a first house; another daughter graduated college and began her journey into a future legal career; a son planned to spend the summer away from home—in Africa.

The metaphor of stages and the changes they bring resonates with our volunteer work on professionalism, too. At January’s Council on Professionalism (COP) meeting, we invited some local actuaries to a roundtable discussion about the practical application of professionalism to issues that they deal with every day. The attendees consisted of a wide spectrum of actuaries at various stages in their actuarial careers, ranging from recently credentialed actuaries to more experienced chief actuaries.

We found that most actuaries encounter similar career stages. You start taking that first exam either in school or during your first job. You pass a few exams and progress through the student ranks, and then attain your first professional designation. After a few more years, you may move to a new management position overseeing a few actuaries and a specific area. Then you may find yourself in an executive position over several departments. You could be consulting and dealing directly with clients. Before you know it, you are being asked to sign NAIC statements and need to consider specific qualification requirements. All through this process, the professionalism issues are changing as well. Student, newly credentialed actuary, manager, chief actuary—over the course of your career, the roles you play, the actuarial services you provide, the organization in which you work, and many other practice parameters will change. And, at each stage of your career, the Code of Professional Conduct provides guidance on how to put professionalism into practice.

The COP meeting discussion confirmed our belief that professionalism needs to be reinforced at each stage of an actuary’s career. When actuaries first start taking exams, they may view professionalism as an abstract moral code. But after they pass a few more exams and earn their first professional designation, suddenly actuarial professionalism—adhering to the Code, and by extension, standards of qualification and practice—becomes a requirement for every actuarial service they provide. And beyond actuarial services, the Code requires actuaries to uphold the reputation of the actuarial profession in everything they do. Moving up the career ladder can bring new practice, professional, and personal demands, such as overseeing the work of other actuaries or being responsible for signing NAIC statutory statements that have specific qualification requirements.

Actuaries may also face other types of career transitions, such as moving from a big company to consulting, or even starting their own practice. Outside factors—such as a promotion within a large corporation or an unplanned early retirement—may present new professionalism challenges. For example, Keith recounted that he was honored to be named a chief actuary. In that role, relatively distant from the staff performing the actuarial work, he could not possibly check everyone’s work, nor could he personally ensure every actuary in the group was referencing the appropriate standards for their work. Instead, he focused on fostering a culture of professionalism in the organization.
As actuaries progress in their careers, professionalism moves from the realm of the abstract to the realm of the practical. They begin to see situations where more significant professionalism questions come into play. It is at these times when actuaries can use the many tools the Academy provides to help handle those situations and incorporate professionalism into their daily practice.

The Code lays the groundwork for career transitions by stating that an actuary “must be familiar with, and keep current with” the Code. That is, an actuary must know each precept of the Code, as well as the standards of qualification and practice, and participate fully and cooperatively in the counseling and discipline process. The scope of the Code is broad and covers issues ranging from those that are directly relevant on Day 1 of your actuarial career to problems that may not emerge until you have had years of experience. As your career changes, you need to refresh and reinforce your knowledge of the Code and standards to understand how they apply to your current practice.

The same can be said of the standards of qualification and practice. The U.S. Qualification Standards require actuaries to “maintain necessary expertise through continuing education” in order to stay qualified to issue statements of actuarial opinion throughout their actuarial careers and to “regularly review their qualifications.” Precept 3 of the Code not only requires actuaries to “observe” and “keep current regarding changes” in the standards of practice, but makes it clear that they are responsible for ensuring compliance with those standards, whether they perform the actuarial services themselves or oversee the work of another actuary.

At each transition point in your career, we encourage you to think about the professionalism implications of your new position. Professionalism is not just something you need for your exams; it stays with you throughout your career. Just as parents adjust their approach to parenting to fit their child’s stage of life, so must actuaries adjust their approach to professionalism at each stage of their careers.

(Featured in the May 2017 Actuarial Update.)