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Tales From the Chiefs: What it's Really Like to be CAS President

by Elizabeth Smith

With the increased interest in the CAS election process and recent changes in the election rules and procedures, The Actuarial Review staff thought it would be helpful to members to learn just what it's like to be a CAS president. Four past presidents and one current president responded to a series of questions on their terms as president. Our respondents include: Stan Khury (1984-85), Irene Bass (1993-94), Bob Anker (1996-97), Alice Gannon (1999-2000), and Bob Conger.

Smith: What did you expect the role of the president to be?

Bass: I expected the president to be an active participant of the board, and to be one of the representatives of the CAS to other organizations. In the end, I expected it to be more of a job than an office. It was.

Khury: I had a really good understanding of what I needed to do in that spot—as it fell to me to initiate a lot of procedures and organization to complete the transition. On a higher level, I don't think the role of the president is something that exists in the abstract. I think it is what the situation calls for. The times and circumstances define the role. As it is, power is so widely distributed around the CAS that the president just has the loudest megaphone for a twelve-month period, so that he or she could influence outcomes during his or her tenure but only to the extent that the times and circumstances call for such leadership. I saw the job, at a very generic level, as one of stewardship over the care of the institution in order to maintain and improve its capacity to serve its main constituency: the members.

Gannon: The nature of the work was pretty much what I had expected. I knew the office was primarily one of administration and indeed that is the majority of the work involved. There was a somewhat greater role of representing the CAS to non-CAS audiences than I had expected, although that was still a fairly minor role compared to the administrative one.

Anker: I expected to serve as a combination of COO for the volunteer organization and CEO for the overall organization. That turned out to be a reasonably good assessment, made much easier by the excellent office staff, a great Executive Council, and volunteers who contributed work and ideas in equal measure.

Conger: I had a pretty realistic expectation of the nature of the position, having been involved in a wide variety of CAS roles, including the board and executive council (EC) previously. The job is focused on shepherding the forward progress of the CAS mission and goals, as guided by the board of directors. The board (not the president) is responsible for establishing the overall direction, strategy, and policies of the CAS. In many ways, the president's job is most like a COO, responsible for the successful execution of the agreed strategy and goals. One aspect of the job that has grown in recent years is the "ambassadorial" component, both to groups within the CAS (Regional Affiliates) and outside (actuarial organizations in other countries and other insurance associations). The CAS relies on an extraordinary amount of work by its volunteers, and an excellent office staff. Virtually everything the president does involves extensive input from and collaboration with other people. The willingness and ability to reach consensus are central to the job.

Smith: Was being president mainly a "figurehead" role, or did it give you an opportunity to make changes?

Gannon: It is definitely not a "figurehead" role. On the other hand it is NOT an opportunity to make policy changes or at least it doesn't give you any greater opportunity to make policy changes than any CAS member who is willing to put in the time and effort necessary to know the issue and "lobby" the board for the desired change. The president's primary responsibility is to work with the other EC members, committee members, and staff to implement board policy. The president is in a strong position to find and fix inefficiencies in operations or to uncover things that just aren't working the way the board intended them to work, but the president does not have authority to make any policy changes. The one-year term the president serves also limits the amount of change any one president can make, even with regard to administrative items.

Khury: It was hardly a figurehead role, as the whole institution was looking ahead to some definite organizational form and had the opportunity and I was at the right spot to effect it.

Anker: I did not find it to be a figurehead role at all. There are, of course, some figurehead activities that come with any top executive position but they were all within the bounds of expectations. There was a great deal of problem solving and many emerging issues on which new ground needed to be plowed or change needed to be accomplished. The president has the most influential voice in all change but certainly not the only voice. The ultimate responsibility, once you have assured the board has the best information and advice you can give, is to respond effectively to board policy and direction.

Bass: I don't think the CAS presidency is a figurehead. On the other hand, it is not a dictatorship either! I think that the president of the CAS is simply "the first among equals." After all, the president gets the same number of votes (one) as every other member of the board of directors, and the president is just another member of the CAS. Those who have not served on the board may tend to think that the president has more power stemming out of the office than he or she actually has—whether that perceived power is to make things happen in the CAS or to make things happen with respect to other organizations that interface with the CAS. All power in this type of situation flows not from the office, but from the individual's ability to lead the way, whether that person has the title "president" or not. What the president has is the ability to get the ear of other CAS and non-CAS leaders simply because of his or her position. However, if the president has nothing useful, thoughtful, or valuable to say, the ear will quickly become deaf—president or not.

Conger: I characterize the president as having, first and foremost, a stewardship role. CAS members have created a very special organization that provides some excellent and very important services. They have collectively created a strong, positive culture of volunteerism and involvement. The overall responsibility of the president is to oversee the deployment of resources to keep these services and this culture on track. I think it is a very positive aspect of our structure and tradition that each president does not come into office with a new agenda that takes the organization in a different direction. The president has no dictatorial powers. On the other hand, each member of the leadership team has the opportunity and responsibility to observe if there is a need to change the deployment of resources in order to accomplish the organization's stated goals, and to work with other members of the leadership team to accomplish the necessary change. The president has the same kinds of opportunities and responsibilities in this regard as the rest of the leadership team, only to a greater degree. (I define the leadership team to include the executive director, committee chairs, vice presidents, president elect and president, and board of directors.)

Smith: Did you come into the office with an agenda?

Anker: Because I did not consider the position a figurehead role, I had an agenda. I wanted to continue the effective execution of the unfinished agenda items of those whom I had the good fortune to follow; significantly raise awareness of the international environment; resolve the education issues that arose from exam partitioning; and involve the president-elect more in the presidential role so as to smooth the transition, make it easier to complete tasks during the presidential year, and make life easier in general. I believe I accomplished all the objectives although I won't claim successful results on all.

Gannon: I had an agenda when I was elected to the board of directors, two years before I was elected to the position of president-elect, and I think that was appropriate. I was intentional about NOT having an agenda as president. I think that having an agenda would have only interfered with me doing the job of president-elect and president. The CAS is best served by the president-elect and president having no agenda other than to do their very best to implement and administer the policies established by the board. The primary influence that a good president has on CAS policy is to assure that the board considers all aspects of implementing various policy options, including the practical ones. The president and other EC members are usually more knowledgeable than the other board members about a lot of practical constraints since they are working with the practical aspect of implementation on a regular basis.

Smith: What were the toughest aspects of the job?

Khury: The only wish I have is that we [could have had] the office infrastructure that we have now. That made the job very difficult for me, as everything had to be done by my assistant and me. The office was not able to do but a small fraction of what is done today to support the president and the institution.

Conger: Not having enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that I would like to and constant e-mail. Effecting change in a volunteer organization is a difficult but rewarding exercise in collaboration, cooperation, and persuasion.

Bass: The most difficult aspects of the job for me personally were attending all of the COP (Council of Presidents) meetings and the international actuarial meetings. These meetings did not seem to accomplish much of value for the CAS, and the travel to get to them was time-consuming and exceedingly expensive to the CAS.

Gannon: The time commitment and travel requirements are pretty demanding. Probably the hardest responsibility to fulfill is the challenge of explaining the CAS perspective on various matters to non-CAS groups such as the SOA leadership, the academic community, and actuaries in other countries who do not have separate organizations for casualty actuaries. Communication issues are always tough!

Smith: What aspects of being president were most enjoyable? Least enjoyable?

Khury: It was most enjoyable to see the very first halting steps into a new organizational form that was only an idea just a short time before. Least enjoyable? Some of the obligatory meetings that simply required the president's presence, while interesting, returned very little on the time invested in them. Perhaps an examination is in order to see if most of the ambassadorial functions of the president and president-elect could be divided among the vice presidents or other positions.

Conger: I enjoy working with other volunteers at all levels of the organization and our excellent staff. Also, I have found it very satisfying to see (and participate in) marked progress with the CAS visibility internationally, and to meet other actuaries from around the world. The least enjoyable aspect is feeling less than totally successful at balancing CAS responsibilities, other job responsibilities, and family life.

Anker: The most enjoyable was simply the incredible honor to be president of the Casualty Actuarial Society. It was a real rush.

Bass: Some of the most enjoyable aspects were writing the president's column in The Actuarial Review and giving short speeches to the membership.

Gannon: The most enjoyable aspect of serving as president is the opportunity to get to know and work with so many fascinating people. Actuaries are really great people! The least enjoyable aspect for me was the traveling. I can't sleep at all on airplanes and I don't sleep well in hotels, so I was pretty sleep deprived by the end of my year.

Smith: What advice would you give to someone seeking the office?

Khury: Test your motives. Know exactly why you are seeking to be of service in this particular manner. Anything less than 100 percent dedication to a successful stewardship in service to the members must be examined very carefully. The CAS exists to serve its members and all efforts need to be aimed in that direction.

Anker: Expect surprises! No matter what you expect, no matter what you are prepared for, something else will happen. It may be in your personal life, your business life, your professional life or the CAS, but you will encounter something totally unanticipated. The probability is 99.93 percent at a ludicrously high confidence.

Bass: I think that no one (especially including elected politicians in the U.S.) should hold office who seeks it. This is Thomas More's position as presented in his work Utopia. If you are seeking to be president, examine very thoughtfully and honestly the reason for your doing so. The honest answer will have relevance for you personally and for the CAS.

Gannon: Serving as CAS president is a labor of love. If your motivation for seeking the office is to have this significant "servant leadership" opportunity within the casualty actuarial profession, then go for it. If your motivation is anything else, then I think you will be disappointed.

Conger: Park your ego. Your job is to further the agenda of the CAS through collaborative efforts, not to install your own agenda. Make good use of the president-elect year to observe how the processes works and to identify elements of the CAS strategy and plan that will need the most attention from the EC during your year as president. Keep the list short. Nurture our volunteer processes and other aspects of our culture that cause our members to feel that they are part of the organization. Be prepared for a very busy, but exhilarating year.

Smith: Any other comments on being president?

Gannon: I don't think we should confuse the office of president of the CAS with federal- or state-elected offices, or think the election process should be similar. The CAS has a very limited and well-defined purpose compared to federal and state governments. The price society pays for "competitive elections" of its highest government officials is a price justified by the wide range of issues and type of issues that elected public officials must address and by the huge diversity of the citizenry. That is not the case with regard to the CAS. Let us not make the price of serving as president of the CAS even higher than it already is or we may find few willing to serve in the role who can and will do the job that is needed.

Khury: Service as president is just one of many hundreds of ways one can serve the CAS. I believe that one becomes president as a natural by-product of a long tenure at the wheel, serving the CAS in various capacities. A job well done begets other service opportunities of greater leverage. The end of that line is marked by serving as president—a receipt for a long journey of service. Sometimes I wish we would change the title of president to that of convener. That would clearly delineate the idea that our president is simply the first among equals. Not more, not less.