David Alexander has had a varied 35 year international career so far. During that time he has managed Life, Pensions, Health and General Insurance, and Reinsurance portfolios, underpinned by his actuarial background. His functional roles spread across technical, management, governance, non-executive director, and business development roles - sometimes in combination! Geographically, David has covered all parts of Asia, including as CEO of the Hong Kong branch of a global reinsurer, and the United Kingdom, where he is now a consultant and advisor. These are David’s reflections on the skills, experience and behaviours that helped him on his career journey:
“Interested in a varied career? My career story may be able to give you a helping hand.
Looking back, my father gave me some advice at a relatively young age that I should get myself a trade or profession as the basis of my career. It was only much later that I saw what a good investment that was. I happened to become an actuary, but you may be an engineer, a surveyor, lawyer, doctor etc etc. It doesn’t really matter, but he was right that having a profession brings with it an ethical foundation and some professional support as well the technical knowledge you gain through examinations and continuing professional development.
Any profession brings advantages in securing work and gaining the respect of your colleagues. It also brings responsibilities towards the public interest, your profession and of course your client(s). A highly regarded profession brings opportunities. However, whilst that qualification gives you a springboard for your career, you still have to deliver in your work life in order to continue making progress.
Opportunities also bring change, and that means stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. You need to be motivated to take on the challenge and have some strategies to give yourself the best chance of success. The reward is potentially a series of engaging roles and development opportunities. These in turn lead to more substantial jobs and challenges. How far you expand your horizons and how substantial the roles you aim for is really up to you.
Let me tell you about some of the opportunities I was fortunate enough to come across and brave enough to have a go at and how I was able to be successful at them. Read more for my reflections...
During my career, I had a focus on the insurance and reinsurance industry which employs millions of people across the world from a huge variety of professions, in fact, all those I mentioned earlier, and more.
I was lucky enough to find opportunities to change role many times: across functions, lines of business, and geographies. I also put my hand up to support project work (for example, mergers & acquisitions (M&A) teams, business development opportunities etc). All this enabled me to build up the experience and profile required to take on more senior roles. By the time I had semi-retired during 2019, I was the CEO of Swiss Re’s Hong Kong branch – an operation with over 250 employees and over USD500m of revenue.
So how do you get from your first job to taking on senior roles? The following thoughts may help you and are drawn not only from my own experience but my observations on how successful people have managed their own careers. I am going to break this down into two key sections: skills/experience and behaviours.
Developing Your Skills and Experience
As I mentioned, having a profession is a great springboard for your career. It gives you the technical skills to start on your journey. However, if you want a varied career you’ll need to supplement those technical skills. The first step is to get good at delivery through project management. If people see you as someone who can get things done rather than simply “turning the handle” then you will get more opportunities.
A further valuable skill is to work in a client-facing role. Typically this will involve you representing your employer in front of a client, for example, in respect of a product or service that your firm offers. Sounds easy? Absolutely not! You’ll need to:
More useful experience is to get involved in industry-related activities such as with your professional or industry body. You will quickly find out what’s changing in your industry, make new contacts (potential new roles for you or new recruits for your own team) and improve your external profile. All three of these help with any client-facing responsibilities too.
As you progress, you would also do well to learn about governance, risk management and legal aspects of your business. You could work in one of these functions or perhaps simply make sure you are aware of their roles and responsibilities through your day-to-day interactions with the professionals in these teams.
Whilst you are on your journey, you need to be successful in each of your specific roles. You will not get everything right and everyone has setbacks along the way, so learn from your mistakes and celebrate your victories! Timing also plays a role in your development. Sometimes, you might find yourself in the right place at the right time for a stunning opportunity. At other points in your career, you might be faced with a dilemma of balancing your family with your career progression. I have certainly faced this situation more than once, and benefitted from speaking with my mentors about the opportunities and challenges.
The route you take to pick up all these skills and experiences really is up to you. Maybe you will start in one direction and end up in a completely unexpected place. My journey took me through different product sets, then various management roles, to client management and business development and finally, towards the end of my executive career into senior management and governance roles. If you are pursuing a development path and would like to brainstorm ideas with me, I would be happy to speak with you. Signup as a protege with Protagion to book a mentoring session with me.
Finally, you need to be able to manage the transition from one role to another. That is a skill in itself to ensure you find the right role and get off to a flying start.
Developing Your Behaviours
Some people are naturals in multiple roles. They have drive and determination, integrity, charisma, are well organised, great team members/leaders and looking to improve continuously.
I have seen all these attributes in relatively junior staff and you can tell they are going places… and fast! However, most people need to work on these behaviours in order to improve their performance and prospects.
I’ll also put communication skills in the “behaviours” category. During your career, you will need to engage and motivate people from different cultural backgrounds, at different levels of seniority to you and with potentially different objectives. Being able to deliver your message and bring those people along with you is going to be critical to your success. I certainly found that this is an area which requires constant development.
You might challenge me about whether you can actually train anyone to improve such behaviours. My response to this is … absolutely YES!
In some ways, these behaviours are more important than the experiences you have had. If you are seen as having exceptional behavioural attributes, you can succeed at almost any role. On the other hand, who would employ a manager with no drive or integrity?!
Find some techniques to break down these behaviours into observable pieces and make sure you get feedback regularly on which behaviours are your strengths and which are areas to develop further. Often your manager or your peer group at work are good places to start. Mentors and coaches can also help you to improve the behavioural aspects of your performance significantly.
So I wish you good luck in your career, wherever that may take you, and I hope these thoughts give you some pointers that help you along the path to long-term success!”