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Lead and Succeed—Managing a team can be challenging … and rewarding

By Ari Szafranski

 “Congratulations! You’ve been promoted to manager … good luck!”

Some of us remember that day; perhaps some of us look forward to it. And, maybe a minute or two after the good news sets in, the risk-averse little actuary inside our heads starts with the questions:

What now? Where to begin? What do I do now? What do I not do now? What’s my formula for success?

How do I build a successful team?

What follows here will be an attempt to address some of these questions. But, like most actuarial communications, we’ll start with a couple of housekeeping disclaimers:

First, what follows in this article solely reflects my own opinions, and not necessarily those of my employer. In addition, I can only draw from my own experience and research I have done on this subject. I am not the expert by any means—but if any of what follows is useful to any of our leaders (current or future), then great! That’s why I’m writing. Additionally, if you have any other perspectives or comments of your own—divergent or not—please drop me an email; I’d love to hear from you so that I can learn more as well.

To begin to address some of these questions, let’s start with a vision of success. I’ll share mine, which was inspired by a trip that my wife and I took to one of our children’s 1st-grade class some time ago.

We arrived in the classroom slightly before class began, as the children were arriving. What I expected to see was something similar to what I recall 1st grade being like: playing, running, a little crying, and some kid sitting on my head (OK, so perhaps my 1st-grade class was a little rowdier than most). What I saw, though, was markedly the opposite: One child came in, walked to one corner of the room to hang up her coat, then walked to her seat in a different part of the room to put down her book bag, then took out her loose-leaf, removed her homework page, walked it over to a pile of papers on the teacher’s desk, took out her lunch and put it in some other designated spot, and then grabbed a book and sat down on the circle rug to read. Then another came in and followed the same pattern. Soon there was a classroom full of kids, all at different stages of this routine, busy at work like an army of ants. And perhaps the most remarkable of all? The teachers were not directing any of the children. Both teachers were equally busy; both were writing and highlighting away in their planners—one of them was preparing materials for the day, while the other pulled in one of the students for a pointed 60-second discussion on some topic or other.

Now, not to compare college-educated, credentialed and aspiring actuaries to a bunch of 1st-graders, but what I want to tease out of this story is my vision of a well-functioning team—it’s a motivated team that confidently does what it needs to do, does it in a focused and efficient manner, and achieves it with little to no intervention from their leader.

Of course, there’s a lot that goes into the sausage to get there. I’m sure the teachers didn’t get up in front of the class one day, rattle off some expected procedure, and then everything went like clockwork from there on. There must have been thought-out, well-designed strategies that led up to my observation. So it is with a well-functioning, smooth-sailing, healthy, and efficient team—a lot goes in to making it work the way it does.

Along these lines, I have made an attempt at putting together 10 building blocks that you can use in assembling and developing your team. (Again, this is not an exhaustive list; you can add your own.) We’ll start with some more foundational blocks; from there we can move up toward the aforementioned vision.

  1. Invest time

Know that managing a team can take a sizable amount of time. You may need to spend considerable time assembling the team of complementary pieces and setting the structure. Coaching and development will take a substantial amount of time as well: From molding the team, to sharing communications, to succession planning, to one-on-one coaching, and even to technical HR items (if that’s part of your job)—everything takes time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing so much on demands from your customers and your own manager that you have little to no time to focus on your team. If you skimp on the time necessary to focus on your team, you could send the message to the associates on the team that you do not feel that their development is all that important.

  1. Care

Along the same lines, it is important to show that you care about the associates’ development. While there may be techniques to show you care, I believe that the most effective way to succeed in this metric is to actually … care. Think what you would expect from your manager at this stage. Once you care, then express to them that you care, and create a healthy balance of personal and professional interest.

  1. Integrity

Your team will be more motivated to perform if they have a leader who demonstrates integrity, does what’s right, and stands up for what he/she believes in. If you fall short in these areas, you may find it challenging to motivate your team to go the extra mile (and you may want to take a long look in the mirror to understand why you’re falling short—remember Precept 1 of the Code of Professional Conduct!).

Also, show that you are human—it’s OK to be wrong. The first step to fixing any faults is to admit to a shortcoming. Most actuarial associates are pretty smart; if you’re trying to cover your missteps, they’ll likely pick up on it, and you may lose their respect and trust. Owning up to any shortcomings also sets a good example for the team—if they see that you put the greater good ahead of the fear of showing your vulnerability, they may do the same. (And the last thing you want as a team lead is for missteps to be covered up so that you are not aware.)

  1. Show appreciation

Demonstrate that you value hard work and good results—don’t wait for annual performance reviews. A failure to express gratitude conveys the same message as ingratitude. The only way an associate knows that their contributions are appreciated is for them to hear it. It’s not a bad idea to put a reminder on your calendar once a week to look over the list of those on your team (or other teams for that matter) and think if anyone deserves a quick thank-you email. As important as it is to deliver constructive feedback from time to time, it’s perhaps more important to deliver appreciative feedback.

  1. Share

Another way to gain the engagement of your associates is to share what you can, even if not directly related to what the associate is currently doing. If you attended an important meeting with your superiors or big clients and you’re allowed to share what went on, then do it! Share company direction. Share the big picture. Share your perspectives on how this compares to where the company was and where it’s going. Invite your team to be “part of the action” and not just left to feel that they’re operating on a “need to know” basis only.

  1. Know what your team is working on

This one may sound a little superfluous, but sometimes there’s effort involved in keeping up with everything. If your team is talented and motivated, your customers may reach out to them directly, and they will not need to check with you when they add items to their list. Why is this important? For one, you don’t want to overpromise what the team can deliver—if everyone is at their max, you may need to set expectations that additional asks may take a little longer to get to. Second, if someone on the team has taken on too much, you may need to be proactive on redistributing the tasks among the team, or pushing back on behalf of the team on tasks that might not be needed (or might sit more appropriately within a different group). Third, it’s important to have a good handle on what the team is doing so as to be able to communicate their value to others who may not be aware. Every now and then you may be in a conversation where someone from your hierarchy is asking why you need X associates on your team and why you can’t get by with X-1 associates, so you’ll want to have a good handle of where the time is being spent.

 

Now that we’ve hit some of the more foundational blocks, let’s build up toward the vision mentioned earlier.

  1. Efficiencies in assignments

I like to refer to this as getting into consultant mode, because it’s the way I interpreted the modus operandi when I worked in consulting. Which is: The lowest qualified associate on the totem pole should take on any given task. Besides being the most efficient way of doing things, it helps each associate develop in the maximum way. The lowest-level associate is pushed to complete a task that might be a stretch for him/her, hence it’s the greatest opportunity to grow; the mid-level associate gets some training in a quasi-managerial role of reviewing work and providing feedback; the manager then needs only give a final review, thereby being freed up to work on other more pressing items. If you find that your higher-level associates are often doing work below their competency level, then you may have the wrong balance on your team.

  1. You gotta believe

Believe in your associates! In our line of work, we generally manage very intelligent people, most of whom can rise to the occasion when push comes to shove. While it is important to refrain from asking someone to do something beyond his/her skillset, given the right skills, most associates in our working environment today will find in themselves the ability to live up to the genuine expectations of their leader if they sense that their leader truly believes in them.

  1. Empower associates

Once you have effectively set the stage with the previous building blocks, you are ready to empower your associates. Be confident enough in them—and in yourself, and the work you have done—to step out of the way and let them shine. Specifically, try this rule of thumb: Go into any project with the mindset of being involved as little as possible, only inserting yourself when really needed. Ideally, you have a team of associates willing and able to take on all parts of a project. That’s what they are paid to do, and that’s what they expect to do. So let them do that and get out of their way! Don’t be afraid to miss a team meeting—you may find that the team has more productive meetings without you. Additionally, the more the team owns the to-do list, the more motivated they will be to see it through. In this way you can effectuate the vision of success mentioned earlier to its maximum.

  1.  Adapt

All the above said, it’s always important to keep in mind that this is not one-size-fits-all. You will need to adapt to the expectations of your organization, as well as to the skillsets of your team members. What works for one team and situation may not work for another. There is no single form of management that guarantees results. You’ll want to consider what’s unique about the team and each associate on the team and adapt your approach to maximize their potential. Don’t expect the associates to necessarily adapt to you.

What’s In It for Me?

While there are many benefits to building a successful team, I’d like to close with the two that resonate most with me. First and foremost, you can sleep at night knowing that you’re making a difference in people’s lives. And not just any difference, but a difference in the area that they spend the bulk of their day on, and is often the primary source of their income. The associates on your team probably spent a considerable amount of time, money, and energy toward building a successful career.

And who are the associates on your team? Often, your team will be made up of very kind and giving people. Some perhaps are supporting their family; some give of their own time and energy to others in need or other worthy causes. Moreover, your associates are probably spending their working day focusing on the needs of others as a normal course of business. If their customers are successful, then they are successful.

We deal with wonderful people, by and large. If you are fortunate enough to be in a position to help them in their cause, and create for them a team and an atmosphere to help them succeed in their goals, then there may be nothing more fulfilling than looking back at the people who you helped work together and succeed.

Another benefit of building a successful team—perhaps the most basic one—is that success in this role will help foster success in your own career. You’ve likely developed plenty of actuarial and business skills in your arsenal that help you succeed in your career, and being able to build a successful team is no different. Moreover, it’s likely what your employer expects you to do—so how are you doing?

 

ARI SZAFRANSKI is a director and actuary at a national health insurance carrier.

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