Life is full of cycles. Round and round. Over and over again… Or perhaps I just notice them more often because of my professional training?
Two elements which immediately come to mind as fundamental to actuarial training are (i) models, such as financial models, and (ii) the control cycle. A key lesson drummed into us from very early on is that models are simply representations of reality, although they can be very helpful i.e. “All models are wrong. Some are useful.” They depend heavily on the chosen structure for the model and the assumptions inputted and should be stress tested to judge where the model may help and where it may fall down.
The second element (the control cycle) permeates much of actuarial thinking as it forms the basis for how actuaries add value. The basic cycle (which in itself is a model!) consists of a series of steps:
1) Identify & Specify the Problem, taking the environment and context into account
2) Develop & Implement the Solution
3) Monitor and Respond to Experience i.e. see how things evolve, improve your understanding of the problem, and update the solution
The fundamental strength of a cyclical approach is that it repeats (rather than being linear and coming to an end once the steps have been ticked off). And, while the control cycle can seem quite analytical/quantitative/technical, it can be abstracted more broadly – more on this later.
Given my professional background and personal interests, I was naturally keen to apply the ‘cycle’ approach to the world of career development. At Protagion, our approach/philosophy is to start with Knowing Yourself, then make Improvements, and Track Your Progress, getting to know yourself better in the process and making further Improvements i.e. repeating the cycle. This mirrors the control cycle above well. Knowing yourself includes understanding your aspirations, motivators and strengths, and reflecting on your career path and goals. Improving yourself involves gathering feedback and suggestions (both self-directed and external), challenging yourself and getting guidance from mentors and coaches. Tracking your progress is to ensure that the steps you are taking move you forward towards your career goals.
While it shares similar elements, a broader approach than ours is the Personal Development Cycle. Under that cyclical model, we each have a “self concept” i.e. how we see ourselves: who we are, what we do, what we’re good at. Next, something happens (positive or negative, and it may be an uncontrolled event) – some direct examples are: illness, loss of a family member, divorce, losing a job, natural disasters, financial crises, feedback from a boss, a significant raise, moving country, starting a new business… These life experiences cause us to reflect i.e. “self examination”, which leads us to new insights e.g. a commitment to spend more time with our families, or an idea to start a new business or side hustle. We then form new “personal expectations” i.e. how we want to behave, and ideally put in place supporting motivation to help us make the changes we aim for. Where our “self development” succeeds, it leads to an updated “self concept” i.e. personal growth changes us. In effect, maturing/growing is about going through cycles of learning & updating our self concept. It is important to note too that the prompt events causing us to examine ourselves can be indirect e.g. learning from others’ experiences (such as those of mentors), or exploring our inner drives and imagining possible situations (perhaps with the support of a coach). Although not as intense, learning from others can be significantly faster than direct experience, partly because there are more opportunities to learn from and we can dive into the lessons rather than living through the pain or joy of the event itself.
Control cycles: inner and outer
Back to the actuarial control cycle: the original control cycle is analytical in nature, and has been expanded into two separate, but related, cycles by Jules Gribble and Lesley Traverso. Jules is an actuary by profession (a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA) in the US and Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries of Australia (FIAA)) and Lesley has a recruitment background and is director of Talent Insights Group in Sydney. They posit that using two separate cycles “makes it clear that it is a process... to be applied in multiple and diverse areas”. The original control cycle is used as the inner cycle, focusing on technical skills: “The steps [1-3 earlier] can be rephrased as ‘What do you want to do’, ‘Attempt to do it’ and ‘See if it worked (and if not redress the issues)’.”
The second, outer cycle looks at broader issues around the inner model, and focuses more on ‘softer’ skills which pick up on behavioural, cultural and ethical matters i.e. it covers aspects like governance, interpretation and communication, and is more strategic and qualitative in nature. It requires synthesis of models used in the inner cycle and interpretation of results in a broader context to inform decision makers. The two-cycle approach implies a blend of specialist/analytical skill and generalist/interpretative skill is important – a topic explored in our past article on Specialising vs Generalising as a Career Strategy.
Application to career management
This approach of dual levels of detail in the overall process can be applied to career management and personal development too. The inner cycle concentrates on the individual actions on a regular basis, concrete steps to take (and track) towards your career goals like a promotion or new skills to master. However, the Know, Improve, Track (in Protagion terminology) framework can be applied at an abstracted, outer level too i.e. a strategic perspective on your career, including broad concepts like purpose and meaning. Do you fully appreciate your long-term resonating goals and are your compounded short-term actions leading you to achieve them?
This post has concentrated on elements from my actuarial professional background and corollaries in career development. Do similar cycles exist in other professions? Please share your thoughts in the comments. For example, I don’t recall such cycles being part of my Chartered Financial Analyst studies (barring economic cycles) – but that may be my memory… For example, reflective practice in the medical profession is one application of steps 1-3 in a continuing professional development context. Which others have you come across in your professional experiences?
It’s rare that a book resonates with you on so many levels, especially one that’s not aimed at you! One of Protagion’s coaches recommended Tara Mohr’s work to us, and while on the surface it’s aimed at women, it has practical insights for all of us looking to step up into our unique purpose. It will take many articles to pay homage to her amazing work, so over the coming months I’ll try by diving deeper into some of the topics I touch on in this article.
...I listened to them talk, in awe of their intelligence, their ideas and their character – their honest concern for others and their commitment to doing the right thing. I kept thinking, these are the kind of people I wish were in charge: hardworking, wise, ethical women and men who care a great deal about people.”
A number of times in Playing Big, I felt echoes of Brene Brown’s insights on courage and vulnerability. Two examples: (i) when Tara refers to taking back authority of her own work and not being triggered by praise or criticism, and (ii) when she describes sharing our own stories to support change: “Even when our work is informed by research and professional expertise… it gains power and resonance when we remove the mask and imbue it with a vulnerable sharing about why it matters to us”.
Read more to uncover uplifting insights from Playing Big, including what drove Tara to create the programme, where her material comes from, and how the book’s structure shifts from our inner thoughts to taking and sustaining positive action. The article ends with Tara’s vision for our future world, one shaped by our individual and collective actions to dream, play, and leap bigger.
Our next real-life example concerns passing on a promotion within a culture which prizes competition and quick personal advancement through stellar immediate results on projects.
Shared by Tara Mohr in her writing, it is based on a conversation with one of the graduates of her Playing Big programme, Margaret, a director at a major global professional services firm. Their conversation took place several months after Margaret had finished the course, and Tara describes it as a story of positive change that moved her.
“[Margaret] explained to me that she’d been offered a highly coveted promotion, a role for which all her peers at the firm had competed. When Margaret “won”, everyone assumed she would take the job, but she turned it down – making company history as she did so.
Why? When she was offered the promotion, Margaret was 50 percent of the way through a multi-year project she’d developed from inception. She didn’t want to abandon the work or her team. She valued relationships. She valued seeing things through to the end. Plus, Margaret believed that part of what created corruption and waste in her industry were the practices around promotions: a professional workforce that greedily leapt from job to job to advance as quickly as it could, one in which employees were held accountable for their immediate results but not their long-term impact. That led to poor decisions that weren’t really in the interests of people – the clients, the shareholders, the investors – who were impacted by them. Participating in that did not feel right to Margaret…
When Margaret turned down the promotion, she let people know why she did it, and she established her reputation as a leader focused on long-term impact, not merely her title. That led to some even more high-profile opportunities coming her way. Further, she started a conversation with senior leaders about the costs of the frequent promotions and employees’ resulting short-term focus.”
Some thoughts on this example:
Please share your thoughts on this real-life example with our readers – have you seen this in your professional career? How did taking a stand against the status quo turn out for you or them? Were you/they able to influence the culture through your/their action?