During a recent interview, CM asked QBE North America Chief Underwriting Officer John Beckman, a former chief actuary and chief risk officer, to talk about the qualities of the best underwriters—and CUOs—in 2020 and beyond.

Q: What does QBE NA look for as it hires underwriters—traditional old school experience? An understanding of data science? Technology? Risk management?

Beckman: There are three things I look for in almost any job…One is “smart,” which in QBE’s DNA language will be technical expertise. You’ve got to have people who understand the requirements to their job. Two is communication. Can they explain their thought process internally and externally so that people understand what we’re doing? And three is, do they care, because if they care, they’re trying to solve customer problems and [if] they see something, they’ll come talk to us and say, “Hey, I don’t think this is a good idea. Why are we doing this?”

Those are the three things that really matter. Certainly, the more OK people are with technology, the better off we are. But if they’re smart, we can teach them that.

Q: What about CUOs? What are their biggest challenges in 2020? How can they prepare for the future?

Beckman: The two challenges are keeping up with how fast the world is changing, and how that impacts insurance risk [and] communication.

“If I’m keeping up and I can’t explain it to the underwriting community, we’re still not going to react as a company. So, how do you work together as a team and share experiences and knowledge that we can go out and execute well?

If we keep on top of stuff and we do a good job communicating, we’ll be in a good spot.

Q: How do you keep up with emerging risks and changes that will impact underwriting going forward?

Beckman: No. 1 is curiosity. [Also], one of the great things about being a bigger company is we’ve got a diversity of people and they’re all interested in different things. So, I have someone who reports to me who is very passionate about climate change. We’ve asked her to help us do the research on climate, because she’s motivated to learn about it—it’s really important to her, and it’s something we need to understand.

Then there are other people who are really, really into the latest technology. Those are the kinds of people that when we have an IT project and we’re trying to change something, we’ll ask them to help, again because they’re motivated, they’re interested. We’re going to get a better outcome.

There is no one person who can do all that.

If QBE is relying on me to come up with all the good ideas, they’re going to fail miserably. But having a group of people who have diverse interests, and then allowing them to pursue those interests, moves the company forward.

Q: Do you have any personal tips other than being curious to help others seeking to ascend to CUO roles?

Beckman: Curiosity covers a lot of ground. The other thing for me is I was just being interested in why people do stuff. Why does a client move from one insurance company to the other? Sometimes it’s price, but not always. Why does someone take this action? What do I have to do to win? If you figure out that, why, you can do it again.

If you’re a chief underwriting officer, the big thing is making sure that you got everything covered and you don’t have holes. Do you have a blind spot? Are you missing something?

I’m actually, surprisingly for an actuary and an underwriter, reasonably optimistic, but every now and then I have to put on my pessimistic hat and say, “What should I be worried about today?”

I think it’s just keeping your eye on the insurance risks you’re accepting and making sure that you’re happy with them. It’s a line I like to use when somebody presents something to me: “Does this make me happy or sad?”