A big step up

"Being good at something in one area does not guarantee that you have the skills you need to move forward."

Robert Attwell

Head: Corporate Actuarial & Procurement at Discovery Insure


Leadership isn't a destination, it's a lifelong journey of constant change.

After seven years spent in actuarial roles, Robert Atwell’s success propelled him from a technical role to an executive leadership role in his organisation. Discover how our Accelerated Development Programme helped him to become a more confident and considerate leader.

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As a trained actuary, I’ve invested heavily in my education.

 In 2011, I graduated from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with a degree in Actuarial Science and Mathematical Statistics. I then went on to qualify as a Fellow of the Actuarial Society of South Africa and to gain a higher diploma in taxation from the International Institute of Tax and Finance.  An actuary is a very technical role which focusses on the measurement and management of risk and uncertainty. I invested a lot in acquiring the skills and qualifications I needed to be successful in such a specialised role.

I started my business career in 2012, working as an Actuarial Analyst for Discovery Life – a South African financial services organisation.

 In five years, I worked my way up to become an Actuarial Manager – responsible for developing and expanding the advanced analytics capabilities for the business. In August 2017, I moved from the life assurance business to join Discovery Insure as Head Corporate Actuarial, leading a team responsible for all corporate actuarial functions. 

When moving to Discovery Insure to join the executive team my scope of responsibility had increased tenfold.

 My role shifted from being technical and detail oriented to focussing on strategic leadership with board exposure. My portfolio of functional responsibilities expanded, and I became responsible for procurement – which couldn’t be further away from my actuarial experience. I went from being in the back of the office to a very commercially focussed role, managing working capital and negotiating commercial contracts with panel beaters. I was out of my comfort zone and it was a shock when being suddenly required to operate in new ways.

Taking a big step up within my organisation made me realise that being very good at something in one area does not guarantee that you have the skills you need to move forward.

 Being faced with greater responsibility spurred me on to identify my blind spots and develop the skills I didn’t know I needed. It’s at this point I started considering business schools. I needed a programme that would help me move from a technical role to an executive position – something that challenged me rather than just looking good on my CV.

When researching programmes, the ADP instantly stood out.

 What attracted me initially was the focus on managing and leading people and the 360-survey review and coaching. I wanted to review and refine myself, to look at what I’m doing well, what I’m not doing, and what I need to work on, so to have this at my disposal was a huge draw for me. I also quickly discovered that the international exposure I would get at LBS would be unlike any other business school I’d looked in to. I saw that the School was renowned for attracting executives from all over the world and different professional backgrounds and wanted to see how people from other industries solved similar problems to what I had.

I was hoping for a diverse group of classmates and the programme didn’t disappoint.

My class had executives from the Netherlands, America, Saudi Arabia and the UK, in industries including banking, utilities, mining and recruitment. It was really interesting to learn that the business problems we were facing were incredibly similar, despite our different backgrounds and industries. It was also interesting to learn how the ways of doing business I’d become accustomed too were different to that of my classmates in other parts of the world, which is something you’d never learn unless you crossed paths professionally, which in my line of work is unlikely. Being exposed to such a diverse range of perspectives gave me a much more global view of business and new ways of seeing my world.  

The diversity of my class helped me learn that every country has its own social challenges.

 In South Africa, we are still struggling with the legacy of apartheid and racial equality. In Europe, the focus is more on diversity and inclusion as driver of innovation. It was interesting to hear different perspectives on the problems that managers and business leaders like myself will need to address in the future.

Uncover professional blindspots

"Today, i'm striving to be a more human leader that focuses on the actual people in my team, not just their roles."

"I'm now much more pragmatic and see perceived problems for what they are, perception, not reality."

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The coaching sessions helped me uncover my professional blind spots.

I discovered that being 30 years old and having an executive job with huge responsibilities was making me doubt myself and suffer from imposter syndrome. My coach really took me through this and challenged my thinking, which removed those mental barriers and has made much more confident in my role. I’m now much more pragmatic and see perceived problems for what they are, perception, not reality.

The professors at LBS are truly world-class – and aren’t just intelligent, they’re good at getting inside your head.

I loved the leadership sessions with Randall Peterson - Professor of Organisational Behaviour. He gave us evidence-based tools and the skills to make sense of our feedback and context. But most importantly he pushed us to apply these and take action.  You wouldn’t get this from self-study or many other programmes. What was insightful for me, was that he encouraged us to go home and work on one or two things, not everything.  I chose to work on being more outspoken and the focus was very beneficial.   For me it was one of the most valuable parts of the ADP.

The programme truly reawakened my leadership skills.

Before starting my business career I’d been a tutor for four years – firstly at St. Stithians College tutoring maths, science and accounting, followed the University of the Witwatersrand where I tutored actuarial science. These roles helped me build some leadership skills, however, when I went into a technical role they were put on the back burner. Talking through those skills again makes you want to refine them and put them into practice. It also made me realise that leadership isn’t a destination, it’s a lifelong journey of constant change.

Something that stuck with me was when Professor Randall Peterson said ‘’if you’re a cow you shouldn’t be swimming with dolphins, and if you are it’s going to be a real struggle’.

He was talking about the importance of assembling an effective team and playing to your own strengths, which has revolutionised my mindset - making me now think about my own team in a completely new light. I’ve since stepped back and become a more observant leader, looking at what makes the individual members of my team tick and encouraging them to focus their attention in an area that suits their skill set.

On no other programme would you find a group of senior, high-flying business executives climbing a pole together.

This physical representation of climbing the greasy career pole as part of the programme’s outdoor day was one of my most memorable experiential activities, as it really broke down professional barriers. We’re all fearless in our careers, but when it comes to climbing a pole, suddenly some people would be terrified. The rest of the group would come together to support that person who was nervous or anxious, which helped to strengthen the bond between the class.

Some of the most valuable lessons I learnt are the simplest.

An actionable piece of advice I remember was that staying quiet in a board meeting is the least effective thing you can do. It doesn’t seem like much, but with the pandemic hitting and Zoom being the new normal for meetings, we’ve entered a world where all of a sudden it’s easy to sit back and fly under the radar – something I’ve tried to avoid through what I’ve learnt.

COVID-19 has probably made my network of classmates even more valuable.

We stay in touch through a WhatsApp group, and instead of the usual jokes we’re now sharing international research and news about the pandemic from our respective countries. This has given me a constantly changing global view of what’s happening where, which I wouldn’t have without such a diverse cohort.  

Before the programme I was doubting myself, now I know I’m definitely equipped for the expansion of my role.

I’ve gone from a back-office role, to confidently engaging with stakeholders on a day-to-day basis. One of the ways this has been made possible is through my coach, who directed me to the concept of a personal boardroom. This means holding myself accountable and using a rigorous decision-making process in every area of my role, which is something that I’d never done previously.

Today, I’m striving to be a more human leader that focusses on the actual people in my team, not just their roles.

You must care about them and take an interest in their personal lives – because when staff don’t feel understood, they don’t excel at work. During COVID-19, I’ve been running non-work related coaching with my team, one-on-one, listening to try and help people with their issues both at home and at work. It’s a challenging environment we’re living in – people are sometimes working away from their families, and at the same time worried about their livelihoods – so I’d like to think I’ve helped to keep my staff motivated in these difficult times.

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