Professionalism Can Set Actuaries Apart

By Simon Curtis, FCIA, CIA President

As my year as President quickly passes by, one area I have found myself spending more and more time thinking about is professionalism and how it impacts our work as actuaries, and as members of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries in particular.

Today as actuaries we face increasing competition in the market from individuals who are trained with or have developed broadly similar skillsets—financial engineers, finance MBAs, Masters of Finance, financial economists, and others—which leads to the question, what are the key differentiating qualities we offer?

From my perspective, the one that stands out most is our professionalism.

A professional is described in dictionaries not only as a member of a profession that requires specialized knowledge and often intensive training, but also, importantly, as somebody conforming to technical and ethical standards of a profession. It is this "quality assurance" of a consistently high level of technical training, plus strong standards governing not just technical work but also behavior, that provides the "branding" for us as actuaries and makes us sought after as providers of services that others could also strive to provide. This, more than simply technical ability, is what ultimately separates us from others.

As a professional association we have a dual responsibility: first, a duty to the public and users of our members’ services; second, to attend to our members’ affairs and see that they are fairly dealt with. We also have a guiding principle to manage potential conflict between those responsibilities: we cannot ethically attend to our members’ needs at the expense of the service to their clients or the community’s welfare.

Despite its importance, my own observation is that, as a group, we take our status of respected professionals somewhat for granted. I think this is potentially dangerous as there are a number of challenges facing us:
This latter point is a particular challenge to the profession in Canada, where the number of employers is quite concentrated in several of the practice areas. The extensive in-house training and strong cultures and capabilities of large organizations have the potential to create "islands" of professional practice and reduced engagement with the broader profession. This is particularly challenging in Canada, where we substantially use a principles-based as opposed to rules-based approach to practice, a key requirement of which is a need for strong communication across the profession on appropriate practice. This concentration can challenge our independence as a profession. With a few exceptions, you will be hard-pressed to find the word "independence" in most books and textbooks about actuaries. You will find competence, freedom, stewardship, and loyalty. You will also find many references to the pitfalls of conflicts of interest. I believe the concept of independence is a lynchpin in what our profession should stand for. Independence set our standards for professionalism somewhat, and it frames our guidelines for ethical behavior.

Independence as a professional does not mean an inability to advocate or adopt a certain perspective or view. What it does mean is ensuring that we seek out, consider, and disseminate competing perspectives, and remain respectful of the views of our professional peers.

It also means ensuring we are not unduly influenced by those who would use their position or power contrary to the public interest (i.e., we should be mindful of our stewardship role), and taking care to remain free of associations and activities that can compromise our integrity or credibility.

The good news is that the degree to which the CIA (and other actuarial organizations) retain or even increase their professionalism is entirely in the hands of the members.

Volunteerism is key—a lot of Institute members are passionate about CIA involvement, but we have to have more involvement, particularly with younger members. The willingness of members to step up and take leadership roles (e.g., on councils, the Board, or as committee chairs) is also vital. A strong commitment from all members to take continuing professional development (CPD) requirements seriously, and complete CPD hours via a broad number of sources, is important. Support for our standards and discipline process and their continued development (including the emerging area of international standards) is essential. Finally, creating the time and getting out regularly and interacting with your colleagues across the profession is critical.

Simon Curtis, FCIA, is President of the CIA.