President’s Message TOM WILDSMITH
What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Professional’?
WE, AS A SOCIETY, OFTEN USE THE TERMS “PROFESSION” AND “PROFESSIONAL” without much
thought. What do we mean when we say that a waiter or barista is very “professional”? Nothing more than
that they are good at their jobs and have a businesslike demeanor. These traits are worthy of recognition in
any job, but is that all there is to being a “professional”? Sometimes we use term “profession” to describe an
occupation that requires specialized training and is highly paid. Education is a wonderful thing, and we would
all like to be paid well, but is that really all there is to it?
Historically, the three “learned professions” were medicine,
law, and the clergy. These were not just jobs, but callings. Each
did require specialized training, but that’s not what set them
apart from other occupations. Members of these professions
were understood to have a higher obligation: doctors to the art
of medicine, attorneys to the law, and clergy to
God. This obligation could trump personal self-interest or the interests of a client. In each of
these professions, there were things that a person simply could not do and remain faithful to
How does this apply to us today? The heart of
professionalism is not business skill or a polished
personal style. Instead, it’s the recognition that
we have a moral and ethical responsibility to everyone who may be affected by the work we do.
We have a professional obligation to the public.
Indeed, as actuaries, one of the core principles
underlying our Code of Professional Conduct is that there are
things we simply cannot do if we are to remain faithful to our
Individual actuaries have a clear responsibility to their
clients. But some have said that the individual actuary has
a responsibility to his or her client, and the profession has a
responsibility to the public, in a way that implies individual
actuaries don’t also have a responsibility to the public. This
is an interesting rhetorical maneuver. It creates a distinction
between “actuaries” and “the profession” that can allow me to
criticize “the profession” without criticizing any specific actuary. But while the distinction may be rhetorically useful, it’s
We are the profession. Are there things that our institutions
can do that no individual actuary could accomplish acting alone?
Of course—that’s why they were created. The Academy, in par-
ticular, was created to provide the standards and disciplinary
processes necessary for U.S. actuaries to be recognized as a self-
regulating profession. But to minimize or deny the individual
actuary’s responsibility to the public is to strike at the very heart
of what it means to be a professional.
Our standards and disciplinary process are necessary to assure the public that we can, as a profession, be
trusted. But the essence of professionalism is our
moral and ethical commitment to doing the right
thing. The standards and institutions are tools
that help us, both individually and collectively,
live up to that commitment.
I have been fortunate enough to work with
several senior actuaries over the years who, when
things went seriously wrong, had an almost uncanny ability to set them right again. In addition
to knowledge and skill, they had the wisdom and
character necessary to address the most difficult
ethical challenges responsibly. When there was a
price to be paid for a mistake, whether it was additional work
or the loss of a client, they paid it without complaint—and the
long-term consequences for everyone involved were reduced
because they acted responsibly. Their example has shaped my
understanding of what it means to be a professional.
The culture of professionalism those senior actuaries shared
with me was nothing new. Just over 40 years ago, Bill Halvorson,
one of the early leaders of the Academy, wrote, “Our profession
must be prepared to put its responsibility to the public in a first
position, and to demonstrate that this responsibility is consistent
with our personal responsibilities to our employers and clients.”
Commenting on these words, Ernest Moorhead, the president of
the Academy at the time, said, “Those responsibilities can and
must be shown to be compatible.”
1 They are compatible. But
demonstrating this compatibility and living it out in our professional lives is a challenge that we must face anew each day, just
as it has been faced by generations of actuaries before us.
1. From the “Address of the President” in the 1975 Year Book, American Academy of Actuaries.