CCA President Ellen Kleinstuber

Looking Back and Moving Forward

October 12, 2022

Written by: Ellen Kleinstuber

I have certain strongly held beliefs, one of which is that The West Wing was the best TV series ever written or acted. In the closing scene of the series, President Bartlett’s wife asks him what he’s thinking about as he looks wistfully out the window during their final ride home on Air Force One. Instead of his iconic “what’s next?” line, he surprises many viewers with the one-word answer: “tomorrow”. 

As I prepare to hand the presidential gavel to Derek Guyton at the close of next week’s Annual Meeting, I’ve been thinking about “tomorrow”.  I’ve also been reflecting on the past year and want to share with you what I’ve learned leading this phenomenal organization.

Be flexible and nimble

Leaders must often make decisions quickly, using imperfect or incomplete information. I learned the importance of being flexible and nimble very early on in my presidency. There were times when I had the luxury of gathering more information and seeking input from others, and other times when expedience was crucial, necessitating quick and decisive action. Weighing these two factors was sometimes challenging because I want the best outcome for our organization. I’ve learned that how a decision is made is often more important to a successful outcome than the decision itself. A wrong decision can usually be fixed without major adverse consequences. I’ve learned that when a leader’s decision-making process is sound it establishes them as credible, trustworthy and effective.  A leader must have the courage to make decisions knowing that they won’t please everyone and be willing to change course quickly when necessary while having the discipline to not overreact to every new piece of information that becomes available. 

Know when to speak and when to stay silent

One of my goals for this year was to attend meetings of our standing committees as often as I could to stay in touch with the work they are doing and to show my support for our volunteers. This created an opportunity for me to share my perspective and offer guidance when I felt it was appropriate. When done right, this input allows the team to put forth ideas that have the support of leadership and anticipate questions or concerns that may be raised by other decision-makers. 

People need to know what their leaders stand for and what they expect. However, if they have preconceptions about what you want from them, they may self-censor good ideas. Leaders need to speak up when direction or clarification is needed, then set others free to do the work entrusted to them. A leader brings the most value when surrounded by talented people who have a clear understanding of the goal and the freedom to share their best ideas in order to develop a path toward attaining the goal. 

Work in your zone of brilliance

Your zone of brilliance is that place where you excel with relative ease and where work flows almost effortlessly. It’s where you maximize the qualities that make you unique and allow you to shine. Find your zone of brilliance and operate from there as much as possible. This optimizes your time and provides the greatest benefit to your organization and members of your team. 

There’s another way to look at this: Leaders should only do the things that no one else can do and allow others to do the things they can do or learn to do. When working with a volunteer association like CCA, there are some exceptions to this. You may, at times, find yourself wearing two hats: leader and volunteer. Be aware of which one you’re wearing, and if it’s the leader hat make sure you delegate work that provides other volunteers the opportunity to contribute and learn new skills. 

Leaders retain certain responsibilities that aren’t appropriate to delegate, like being the external voice of the organization and serving as a unifying figure within the organization. Presumably, you’re in a leadership role because doing the things that cannot be delegated falls in (or near) your zone of brilliance. Finding others whose zones of brilliance complement yours and collaborating to maximize your collective ability to get things done can lead to great outcomes for an organization. 

Use every opportunity you can to challenge yourself in new ways

I’ve always been a decent writer, especially when it comes to technical writing. Creative writing, however, is most decidedly not my forte. Shortly after becoming president, I wrote my first blog post. No pressure - just write about something that will inspire 1500+ members, then do it 11 more times. Piece of cake!

Sitting here almost a year later, I’m writing my final blog as president. What I’m most proud of is that I challenged myself to do something I found intimidating. I’ll leave it to all of you to decide if I’ve been inspirational. I feel confident in saying I, at least, cleared the “sometimes good enough is good enough” hurdle. Despite the frayed nerves and recurrent bouts of writers’ block the last few months, I’m now looking forward to continuing to challenge my writing skills in new ways.

My hope is to inspire you to take a chance on something that is a stretch for you. When you go outside of your comfort zone, you start a journey toward your growth zone. Along the way you’ll have to face your fears and learn new skills. Eventually you reach the growth zone. In time, your growth zone becomes a new comfort zone as you learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  When you get there, the sky’s the limit. 

Looking to tomorrow

The last year has been the most challenging and rewarding of my career. Thank you for joining me on this journey of self-discovery. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to challenge myself in new ways and help others around me elevate in their roles, together moving CCA forward as the premier actuarial organization for consulting actuaries. I’m blessed to be surrounded by a cadre of talented people, volunteers and staff, whose passion for piloting CCA into the future as a strong, member-driven organization is inspiring. 

I hope to savor this last week as president and be fully present with those joining me in Austin for the Annual Meeting. Thank you for all you’ve taught me this year. When the Annual Meeting ends, I will be thinking about… tomorrow.

The hardest step she ever took was to blindly trust in who she was. – Atticus

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