For Sinead O’Connor, a planned two or three year stint working in the United States has quickly turned into 13 – and counting. Based in Boston, she is now chief actuary at John Hancock Life Insurance Company, the US subsidiary of Manulife Financial Services.
About Sinead O'Connor
Tell us about your educational background and early career
I did actuarial and financial studies in UCD, graduating in 2004. For my co-op during third year I wanted to get some international experience so I ended up spending six months at Aviva Life in Boston.
I was invited to come back and returned straight after my finals to take up a role as senior actuarial associate. I figured I had all my life to live in Ireland and I’d just go over for a couple of years.
In 2007, I started working at John Hancock, the US subsidiary of Manulife Financial Services. I’ve worked in several different business lines at the company, including valuation and asset modelling for our various insurance contracts I gradually took on more responsibility and became assistant vice president of asset modelling – or CALM, as we call it – and then moved into an oversight role for the US division for IFRS reserving.
What is your current role and what does it involve?
Four years ago I was asked to become the chief actuary and to centralise all of the company’s actuarial functions across the US. A major element is the oversight of our financial reporting and ensuring we’re holding the appropriate levels to cover all our obligations. We have over US$60bn in liabilities. I also manage many of the actuarial teams involved with supporting the US division. That includes experience studies, asset modelling, planning and forecasting, and the valuation teams themselves.
What is your leadership style?
I think my style is still evolving but would say I’m more hands on than not. I have a strong focus on people development. I’d be very much of the view that we need to focus on the people first and foremost and the organisation follows from that.
I’m also very concerned with change management, not just for the sake of it but because I truly believe it’s vital to have a strong culture and to ensure people feel engaged and buy into new ideas and ways of working. That’s very important because my job involves taking functions from different business lines and trying to harmonise and integrate everything into a single team, even if they’re in multiple locations.
What motivates you?
It’s both the people I work with and the quality of the work we produce.
I’m also very conscious that I made a decision to live 3,000 miles away from my family so it’s very important to me that I’m doing the very best I can do and can justify being here. That really makes me want to do a good a job and feel like I can get things done.
What has influenced or inspired you?
Certainly my parents set a very strong work ethic. I come from a very hardworking background and grew up on a farm in Tipperary: any crazy quarter end is nothing compared to what you do when you have to manage a farm.
I’ve also had a couple of good managers along the way who I felt truly appreciated the work I did. I try to emulate them and create an environment people want to work in.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
It has probably been improving the work life balance for a significant number of people in the organisation. When I was asked to take on this role the culture was very much all hands on deck and there was an expectation that everyone worked weekends and late into the evenings. By standardising and streamlining processes and really achieving our target operating model people now have a much better work life balance. So the impact that has had on people’s day to day lives is certainly up there when I think about greatest achievements.
There have been other achievements that are more business related but for me are probably not as impactful.
Any failures you want to talk about?
Sometimes the desire to get things done has fast-tracked me through steps where I should probably have broadened my network and made sure I’ve considered everything. I’ve had to consciously try to ensure I engage enough with my peers, get input from everyone else and leverage those around me. I think doing that is tougher for some of us – while I’m very social I’m also very keen on getting things done and being self sufficient. So probably the biggest failures I’ve had have been where end outputs may have been better had I brought more people in earlier. Now I work on that. I try to pick up the phone and talk to a few people, before I get too far down a certain route.
What are your tips and advice for success?
Make sure you truly understand what it is you working on and how it fits in the bigger picture. I’m a teacher’s daughter so I see that success comes to those who truly understand and have an appreciation for what they’re doing. If you work hard, make sure you work smart and take the time to understand what you do and how you contribute to the overall business strategy.
What are your plans for the future?
I am still one of those people who, almost 13 years later – 11 in Boston and two in New Jersey – is not ready to say I’m never going to move home. I still consider Ireland home but I have been given fantastic opportunities here. I’m also very open to other areas whether that’s Asia or mainland Europe. Geography doesn’t scare me much, it’s really around what makes sense for my family.
Work-wise, I’m focused on further expanding the teams I have and will provide more global support. I seem to do well with figuring out organisations and organisational strategies and would like to continue doing something in that vein. Even though chief actuary is considered a technical role I feel like my bent is more around people and the organisational structure.
What are your main interests outside work?
I have two young daughters and a new baby boy born in August and they obviously take up a lot of my time. We like to get out and explore but my days of running half marathons and trekking across Japan are over for a little while. We still love travelling though and thankfully my parents and family are very willing to travel with us.
How has your degree benefited your career?
So many opportunities have been afforded to me as a result of my BAFS degree. Most notably the co-op abroad, which brought me to the US and ultimately to John Hancock. Also having gained so many of the actuarial exam credits as a result of my degree I had a head start on getting the professional designation compared to many others.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD?
It has to be the lifelong friends I made there. They are among my closest friends still and despite long distance between us we still get together regularly.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My smart phone… but isn’t that true of everyone?
What is your pet hate?
People eating loudly.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Annecy, France. Ended up there while an au pair in Strasbourg and have gone back on vacation since. Just stunningly beautiful area with lakes and mountains and so much to do in any season.
What’s the best thing about living in Boston?
Seasons! Guaranteed to have at least two to three summer months where you can plan for beach weeks. I’ve also grown to appreciate winter, the key to survival is taking up ski/snowboarding and escaping to the slopes on weekends.
What do you miss most about Ireland?
Family and friends, as often as I get back there’s still plenty of events that I miss out on. Brown bread comes a close third.