Nalen Naidoo – an Open Book

GM of Property24 and ASSA President-Elect Nalen Naidoo talks to Head of Insight Life Solutions, Pamela Hellig

GM of Property24 and ASSA President-Elect Nalen Naidoo talks to Head of Insight Life Solutions, Pamela Hellig, about all things books, leadership, and leaps of faith.

It’s commonly said (by me, if by no one else) that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep, the snacks they enjoy and the books they read. And what better way for actuarial bibliophiles to get to know one another than by talking about all things reading?

I recently sat down with Nalen Naidoo, General Manager at Property24 and President-Elect of ASSA, to record the inaugural episode of Open Books, a new series on the Insight InFocus podcast, in which we get to know fascinating and inspiring figures in the actuarial community through the books they have read and loved.

In each episode, we ask our guests to bring five books that have influenced their lives and left a lasting impression. In between talking about the books, we also cover their career journey to date, things they’re passionate about and details of their reading habits.

Below are some snippets of my conversation with Nalen, in which we chatted about leadership, sleep, the hidden powers of actuaries and everything in between.

 

 


Catch the full interview here

Episode 1

Youtube
Spotify
Apple

Episode 2

Youtube
Spotify
Apple


 

How did you move from a traditional actuarial role to heading up arguably the best-known online property- and cars- classifieds business in South Africa?

During the last five years of my time at Liberty, various changes in the business meant that some of the Fintech and Insurtech assets and investments that the company had made over time needed someone to look after them. I was fortunate enough to have some of those assets move into my area of accountability, so things like business agility, agile methodologies, innovation, and design thinking were brought into my world.

This also meant that tech elements became a much bigger part of my job. And that’s where the common ground with my current role started. Also, I spent a lot of time in distribution at Liberty, which gave me sales exposure (which is also important for my current role).

Around two years ago, an opportunity arose to take on my current role (Head of Property24). At first, it appeared quite daunting. Given the big change, it was an extremely long process to decide that this was the right role. Still, there were also a lot of similarities, given my career progression into innovation, technology, etc. So, I decided to make the move.

I’m very grateful I made that leap of faith – so far, it’s been fun and a fantastic two years.

 

What are some things keeping you busy at Property24?

We’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the next three to five years, specifically, what it means to deepen our property classifieds vertical. In other words, what can we do to become more entrenched in the property sector in South Africa?

We’re also exploring more emerging opportunities, like generative AI applications for online classifieds businesses. Early evidence suggests that the fears around replacing jobs are not as dramatic as first communicated. In fact, it seems to be about productivity enhancement in more skilled jobs. So, we’re seeing interesting applications in marketing and IT and how our customers can use these tools to become more productive.

 

Since a young age, you have held leadership positions and are clearly passionate about leadership. What is your leadership style?

When I worked at Liberty, I completed a course that introduced me to the concept of servant leadership, and so much about it just made sense to me. In a nutshell, it’s about putting the people around you first and focusing on their growth and development. The principles of servant leadership include listening, empathy, awareness, and a range of other skills that enable this collaborative style. It emphasises leading from the back, not from the front, and building other people up. All of these elements of this leadership style resonate with me.

 

What actuarial skills have you brought to your new role?

The actuarial skillset is quite broad. There are the technical skills, but there’s also the normative professional component. As actuaries, we know that the latter is there, but we don’t engage with it as we should because it is actually a differentiator. Our technical skills are good, but training and working as an actuary allows us to build strong professionalism, problem-solving, ethics, leadership, and communication skills. It’s all transportable: doing the right thing, clear communication, being a professional. One could argue that that’s more than 50% of what being an actuary is – and all of that has come across with me. On the technical side, the general financial maths concepts are valuable everywhere. Even just the technical complexity we deal with as actuaries – with insurance businesses being much more complex than most other businesses – allows us to understand the drivers of different business models more easily than someone who hasn’t had to deal with that complexity.

 

What advice would you give to actuaries to play up these normative skills and potentially apply them to wider fields opportunities?

I think the first thing is to realise that they exist and that you have them and to think hard about what they are. The process of having diffractive conversations as part of our professionalism requirements helps you hone what it is that you bring as a professional. So, once you’ve had the conversation and figured out what you’re good at, you can start communicating to others why you’re good at it. It unlocks different parts of your mind and different ways of communicating and thinking about yourself. I would advise spending enough time on the normative side and starting to understand yourself better.

 

What are some of your priorities as President-Elect of ASSA?

The society currently has a clear strategy around assurance, membership support, the acquisition pipeline of members, professionalism, keeping us healthy as a society, etc. I think this strategy is solid as it is. The focus of the next set of leaders should be to continue the work that is being done, to be aware of the environment we’re in and to tweak the strategy as the environment changes. We are grappling with weighty professionalism issues, governance issues, disciplinary issues, relevance questions, etc. That is part of how I think about the world and will inform my focus as President-Elect.  I see my biggest role being prioritisation: we are a profession with limited resources. How we maximise these resources is what my role is.  We have an extremely strong executive team that keeps the organisation on an even keel. We have enough strong-minded, extremely good people involved, including volunteer leaders, executive leaders, and council leaders. I will try to help us focus on the right things.

 

Where can people find you if they want to be in touch?

LinkedIn is probably the best place to connect with me

 

What are the thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

Be kind to people, build up the people around you, be as inclusive as possible, and just keep learning and growing…and reading!

 

 

 

Nalen’s top book picks and why he loves them

 

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

The premise behind this book is that we don’t realise how important sleep is. It’s the one thing that’s socially acceptable to skimp on and the long-term impacts of this are astoundingly bad. Sleep for me now is extremely important and I prioritise it over most things. This book is a really helpful guide on what good sleep quality is and what affects sleep quality. This book has even led me to change my nighttime routine.

 

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

This book is a reminder of how much of your world is influenced by perceptions of others around you and by what you read in social and traditional news media. But when you actually look at the data – that changes everything. We spend so much time in social media bubbles where there’s a lot of negativity and a fear of imminent danger. But this book helps you realise that most of us are wrong about the world and that before we jump to the most negative conclusions, we should look at the data.

 

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Vogananda

This book explores the core beliefs around how people are connected to one another and what being part of society actually means. It also talks about the existence of a greater being and how people engage with that concept and gives a different perspective on some of the more materialistic tendencies that most of us aspire to. If you are on some sort of journey, or if you are interested in spirituality, this is a book that can help unlock some powerful thinking.

 

The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku

This is the story of a man who survived the Holocaust and the horrendous treatment he underwent, but also, of the philosophies and life lessons he picked up that led him to describe himself as the happiest man on earth. The reason this book is so important to me is that it’s a gratitude book. When things are a little bit too much, busy or overwhelming, it helps put things into perspective. Without minimising anyone’s problems, it gives perspective on what happiness means and how you can get comfortable and find happiness in the situation you are in.

 

Cultural Intelligence by Julia Middleton

I was introduced to this book at a course about leading across cultural boundaries and being able to influence people from diverse backgrounds. It centres around concepts of core and flex. The core is the set of strongest beliefs you hold that you are not willing to change for anything. The flex is what you are willing to adapt for the situation you are in.

Cultural intelligence is being able to understand where your core and flex are. In a world where we need to hold something dear but also demonstrate flexibility around others, it’s important to know where that line is.

 

 

Quick fire questions on Nalen’s reading habits

Who do you take your reading recommendations from?
Non-fiction: recommendations from close friends and colleagues
Fiction: the second-hand book table from the market at my local park

Kindle or physical books?
Physical

Do you DNF (“do not finish”) books you aren’t enjoying?
Yes (despite my completer/finisher personality)


Do you think audio books are cheating?
No


Do you judge a book by its cover?
Yes- its back cover


If you wrote a book, what would the subject be?
Something around the brain and how powerful it can be (with a little bit of spirituality and leadership thrown in)


In fiction, do you value prose or plot?
Plot

 

Which book have you reread the most?
Children’s books, like The Hardy Boys

 

What are you currently reading?
I read a few books at a time, so at the moment it’s one about crime in medieval England, a Tom Clancy thriller, The Promise That Changes Everything by Nancy Kline and Adam-2 (influenced by my son).

 


This article was featured in the April 2024 edition of the South African Actuary Magazine. View article here

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