Teaching an old dog new tricks for better managing change

By Michel St-Germain, FCIA, President of the CIA

Last February I took part in the CIA Pension and Investment Seminar in Vancouver. I renewed acquaintances with several West Coast actuaries and got some good information on the latest advances in the pension field. After the seminar, I took the opportunity to visit my daughter, who lives in the area. A daunting challenge awaited Grandpa Michel: take the grandkids skiing! But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and this meant that I had to push back my return to Montreal and extend my stay for a few months, until I could fly again.

Like everyone, I had to change my habits. I learned to self-isolate and adopt new communication tools, including Zoom. Indeed, the CIA’s last two Board meetings were conducted using this videoconferencing tool (and kudos to Marc Tardif for leading the way in adopting this technology).

While sheltering at my daughter’s home, I also got into the habit of watching the daily press conferences held by B.C. authorities, in particular Health Minister Adrian Dix and the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. In listening to them, it struck me that some of their methods of convincing the population to adopt new behaviours could prove useful for the actuarial profession. 

While we are all actuaries and have similar talents in analyzing situations and proposing solutions, we play different roles. Some of us have managerial responsibilities in insurance companies, while others employ powerful mathematical models to predict claims or pension plan finances.

Still others help their clients or employers adapt to a new environment and must begin by convincing them to adopt change measures. I fall into this latter category, and in my opinion, Dr. Henry has given a master class in how experts can successfully manage change. What she did was no small feat, to be sure: she had to convince her clients – the B.C. population – to change their habits in order to confront the greatest challenge of our generation. Here are my seven takeaways from Dr. Henry’s remarkable performance during the daily press briefings:

  1. Right from her very first public briefing, she took the opportunity to establish her credibility. The Minister, assorted politicians, and media – indeed, the entire province – quickly gained confidence in her messaging.
  2. She forged a collaborative bond with Minister Dix, one founded on mutual respect.
  3. She exhibited empathy toward those having difficulty coping.
  4. Her communications were clear and easy to understand. She had the gift of combining kindly advice with some fairly restrictive measures which, once in place, limited public freedoms.
  5. She patiently built and repeated a simple message: be kind, be calm, and be safe.
  6. She used complex mathematical projections concerning the spread of the virus and focusing on the pandemic’s impact on the health system, and not on the number of deaths, to illustrate the urgent need to adopt new behaviours, such as social distancing, but she used a simple language, tailored to her audience.
  7. She knew that the decisions made by the authorities and presented to the public had to reflect difficult compromises between public health and the economy.

I feel that she, as an expert, was remarkably successful in helping curb the spread of the virus. And from a global perspective, B.C. is one of the jurisdictions that has fared best during the pandemic. The province’s citizens have been very fortunate to have this calibre of captain steering the ship during the COVID storm. The New York Times recognized her in an article entitled “The Top Doctor Who Aced the Coronavirus Test” last month.

Similarly, our clients and the public are counting on actuaries to help them navigate these stormy seas. Often we must convince them of the need to make changes. We must take action in difficult situations and deal with – and quickly gain the trust of – a diverse clientele, even when our methods are not always perfectly understood. We must put into plain language the results we get from our complex projection models, as well as proposing compromises between conflicting objectives.

I found Dr. Henry’s press conferences instructive on a number of levels. Her methods opened my eyes to tie-ins with the skills needed to perform our professional duties, including the ability to convince our clients of the merits of our recommendations to foster adaptation to change. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to watch some of them. You too may learn some new tricks.

This article originally appeared in the CIA (e)Bulletin.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and does not represent an official statement of the CIA.

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