Entry into the insurance industry was a blessingin disguise for me

For Nirajan Kandel, his professional career has been full of changes and learning opportunities. Kandel, who is the Deputy CEO of Sanima Reliance Life Insurance, started as an Assistant at Siddhartha Bank in 2006. He joined Citizens Bank International in 2007 and worked there for three years before joining Standard Chartered Bank (Nepal) where he worked for seven years in different roles and responsibilities. A big shift in his career took place in 2017 when he joined Reliance Life Insurance (now Sanima Reliance Life Insurance) as the Deputy CEO at the age of 34. 

In a conversation with the HRM, Kandel talked about his entry into the banking sector, transition to the insurance industry, and why venturing to another area can actually be good for career growth. Excerpts:

Q: Tell us about your first job.
A: I started my banking career in 2006 at Siddhartha Bank as an Assistant at the age of 23. The bank announced a vacancy for the post in a newspaper with some stringent criteria. I applied and got a call from an outsourcing company for a written test. After a couple of weeks, I got a call from the bank and came to know that I passed the written test and was asked for an interview and finally got selected. I still vividly remember the day of our orientation with the bank’s then CEO DC Khanna. The experience was quite enriching and enlightening. Despite being an elderly person, his approach was quite youthful and inspiring.

Q: How did you get into the job? 
A: Back then, every management student would aspire to get into a bank job. Banking was the most interesting and glamorous career for most job seekers. The situation is not the same now. As I mentioned earlier, the selection criteria used to be very stringent and competition was really stiff. For the same Assistant position to which I applied in 2006, more than 1,000 candidates showed up for the written exam. The examination was conducted in Nepal Administrative Staff College situated in Jawalakhel in shifts. Further, there were intense group discussions followed by interviews. So, it was tough. But looking back now, it feels good that I went through the entire process and got selected.

Q: What were the challenges after joining the job? 
A: There were a lot of challenges. I want to talk about our education system to connect to this question. I think anyone who completes a bachelor’s degree should have a certain level of practical exposure and I believe such exposure can only be passed on with scientific teaching and learning methods. Our education system is such that many students learn almost nothing more than answers to some WH questions. This is really unfortunate. When I joined the bank, I realized whatever I have studied or whatever my college has given to me was enough just to pass the exam and to get an academic degree. It was not adding much value to the professional world. So, I faced similar challenges. I was pretty much a novice and it was completely learning by doing for me.

Q: What lessons did you learn from the first job? How did the experiences help in shaping your career?
A: I have learned lot many things from my first job. First, I learned that it is very important to keep an eye on very small things and give attention to details. In school and college days, making mistakes is about learning but in the professional world, you have to pay for your mistakes.

Initially, I was placed in the internal audit and finance department and my major task was to check the entire transactions of the bank that were recorded on documents of more than 30/40 pages. And I had to check every transaction and see if it matched with the dockets. It was quite an irritating task, to be honest. I even complained to my manager for giving me such a ridiculous task. But now I realize that it was a very good learning that helped me to pay attention to details.

Q: What major achievements were there for you professionally and personally?
A: I did not stay much in my first job. I left the bank after working for just nine months. But it was very good learning for me and built a very good foundation to switch to another bank.

I also want to mention my intention to find another job in just nine months. I think we all have certain traits, and it is important to know about our strengths and weaknesses. I realized from the very beginning that it was not my kind of job. I was basically placed in a back-office role (internal audit and finance) and I literally felt I would do better if I get an opportunity to work in the front line, driving business, making strategies, and building relationships. So I joined Citizens Bank International Limited in 2007 as the Relationship Officer.

Q: After spending 12 years in the banking sector, you joined the insurance sector in 2017 with the inception of Reliance Life Insurance. What led your career to shift from banking to insurance?
A: It was not planned. I never thought to get into the insurance sector. But there are surprises in life. On one fine morning, I got a call from KFA Business School which was given the task of headhunting of CEO, Deputy CEO, and other roles for the upcoming Reliance Life Insurance. KFA initially offered me the post of CEO and also asked me to make a presentation to present to the board. At that time, I was not ready to become CEO as I was just 34 and I worked in a highly system-driven organization. Then I was offered the position of Deputy CEO. I did a presentation to the board of directors of the company. They even hired an expert from LIC India for the selection process. I went through all processes and entered the insurance industry and I think it was a blessing in disguise for me.

Q: How have you found working in two different industries in the financial services sector? How has this shift been for you? 
A: Both banking and insurance deal with money and they are very much part of the financial services industry. Insurance companies also collect money from people at large slightly in different business models than banks and invest in infrastructure and other areas. So I do not find much difference. While in banking, I was in business and strategy roles throughout my career and it has been the same for me in insurance. However, there are differences in work culture, ways of doing things, and processes between the two sectors.

There is a notion in Nepal that bankers should only stick with banking and somebody working in telecommunications should remain in the sector only and somebody working in manufacturing should stay in the sector only. But this is not true. Globally we have seen people shifting their careers from banking to telecommunications, or manufacturing to services, and they have done well. The principles of driving business are always the same in any industry. For me, the transition was smooth and enriching in terms of learning.

Q: How do you see the prospects of growth for young graduates looking start careers in insurance?
A: I think there is a huge opportunity for young graduates in the insurance sector. There are highly technical areas like product pricing where the use of mathematics and actuarial science is massive. I have also seen a lot of young students pursuing actuarial science courses as there is a huge opportunity in this particular area. Besides, areas like reinsurance, product development, digital branding, coding and programming are the next big job opportunities in the insurance industry. The industry has a lot of headroom for growth and from that perspective also opportunities will come in days ahead.

Q: What advice do you have for them to become successful insurers?
A: I would suggest sticking to the basics. Always maintain a high standard of integrity. Work on your skillset and invest in yourself to find your better version. And I think in any industry there is no alternative to hard work and there is no shortcut. Younger generations especially Gen Z are very impatient and I think this is not a very good sign. Long term view is also important. While they are extremely innovative and smart, it is equally important to work hard and maintain patience. And if they can blend these things they can do wonders.

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