Natasha Naidoo is the Chief Risk Officer (CRO) for a UK subsidiary of an international insurer. She has consciously and deliberately managed her career since her early roles as an actuarial student, through qualifying as an actuary, and completing her Executive MBA at London Business School, and has worked for insurers directly as well as a consultant. In these reflections on her career, she shares three elements fundamental to her career success so far:
“I realised relatively early in my career that I had a strong interest in risk management. I entered a risk role in my second year of work, and have performed risk-related roles for most of my career since. I also have the view that most of the benefit of risk professionals is when they are seen as a key decision-maker, effectively supporting and steering business decisions. As a result I have had, at times, an almost singular focus on managing my career path towards an executive risk role.
There were three elements that were common in the approach I took as I transitioned different career stages towards an executive position: (i) profile exposure, (ii) mentorship and (iii) sponsorship. Before I describe how I actively managed these elements in my career, a brief interlude on foundations in my education that I was fortunate enough to benefit from. In those formative years, the systems at school and university provided me with a blend of the three elements without me having to put in additional effort… Those experiences did highlight to me, however, their importance for me to manage in my post-qualification years.
High school scholarship and university bursary
I grew up in a colourful town in South Africa and started school there in a local institution. The educators were dedicated and superb, although the school itself lacked resources of the standard of semi-private and private schools.
The town was in a formerly designated Indian area under the Group Areas Act. Despite the Act being repealed in 1990 before I first entered the education system, access to a better education was not immediately available at primary level. When I was about to enter high school though, I was awarded a scholarship to a semi-private school. The scholarship had a built-in support system to ease the transition which, at the time, felt seismic.
When I applied for universities, I was awarded a bursary by a large insurer to study actuarial science at the University Of Cape Town. In effect, they sponsored my studies and early professional development.
Their bursary programme is in my view exceptional: from the interaction with senior actuaries right from the interview stage, vacation work while at university, a built-in peer community, to ongoing support from a dedicated unit at the company, it is designed to create successful professionals.”
As I went through university and entered the working world, the value of the support I received during my secondary and tertiary education, and what it had allowed me to achieve, was clear. From that point on, I sought to create as much of that environment as possible to navigate through the corporate world.
Profile Exposure: Role Choice
On my journey towards my career goal of becoming a decision maker, I attempted to find roles that were either close to decision makers from a reporting line or defined dependency perspective (see my later example). This assisted in learning how leaders think, the questions they ask, insights they bring and even gathering more practical hints such as how they prioritise or delegate.
The reporting line mechanism was a bit easier, in that it generally meant searching for roles where the team/organisation had a relatively flat organisational structure with not many layers before you interact with the top. Even while working for large organisations, I tended to favour independent units with a more direct line to the most senior executive. Arguably, this was probably more relevant after a few years of work experience.
The defined dependency perspective is a little more subtle to explain, so I’ll provide an example to illustrate. One of my earlier roles was in the asset management unit of an insurance-led conglomerate, which managed a substantial portion of the insurance balance sheet. The role was at analyst level and so one of the more junior in the unit. The specific responsibilities, however, mainly focused on the development and implementation of a risk capital tool to be used in pricing decisions and reporting to the life insurance company. This meant a direct line to the executive members of the unit, and to senior colleagues in the life insurance company, despite the junior level of the role.
Broader Profile Exposure
In addition to the roles I chose, I have sought to selectively gain broader exposure by speaking at industry conferences, particularly enjoying panel discussions for the opportunity to engage and share ideas with industry colleagues. In 2017, I decided to embark on an Executive MBA (EMBA) at London Business School. The EMBA is a part-time programme aimed at people who already have 7+ years of work experience. It was pivotal in my career journey, and was also a very enjoyable time – more so as the memory of the pain from a demanding day-job followed by nightly assignments fades!
[My Executive MBA] was invaluable to widen my network across different industries and geographies, and benefit from diverse perspectives.”
Mentors have provided support throughout my career, in the form of frameworks, transfer of their own experience and nudges – particularly at key decision points. I particularly remember having hours of discussion with a mentor before I transitioned from industry to consulting – and similarly when going back the other direction. I believe that mentoring significantly improved my emotional quotient over the years, which perhaps (hugely generalising) those of us from a strongly quantitative background need a bit help with sometimes...
...Mentoring significantly improved my emotional quotient over the years…"
In more recent years, I have had the advantage of strong professional sponsors within the organisations I have worked – a factor I considered when selecting these roles. Admittedly, earlier on in my career, I probably didn’t really distinguish between a mentor and a sponsor. Sponsors speak on your behalf at meetings you’re not yet included in i.e. they act as your champion within the business. What I found to be useful in obtaining a sponsor is to make it explicit, i.e. define the relationship and convince the sponsor of the value you are adding and why what you’re asking them for makes business sense. This clarity means that there isn’t a background expectation that may not fully meet what you intend, and that if your sponsor buys your business case then it should be easier for them to sell it to their peers and leaders.
I've enjoyed actively managing my career, and am grateful every day that the effort has been worthwhile, and hope it continues to manifest! Of course, there are a range of things that have helped me maintain a crucial sense of balance - travel, my amazing husband, cooking, to name but a few, but those are stories for another time! I hope that my experiences are helpful to you as you look to actively manage your own careers."