CEO and President / Voya Financial, Inc.
Mahatma Gandhi scripted India’s freedom struggle and indelibly changed the global history with his quiet and reserved personality, some say proving the true power of soft-spoken leadership. The iconic Indian leader once said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Voya CEO Heather Lavallee is proving that that restrained philosophy still works in a modern-day corporate arena.
At Voya Financial, Inc., a leading international health, wealth and investment company, there is a common aspirational vision: clearing a path to financial confidence and a more fulfilling life for all its clients.
Through products, solutions and technologies, Voya helps 14.7 million individual, workplace and institutional customers become well-planned, well-invested and well-protected.
At the helm of Voya is its 45-year-old CEO and President, Heather Lavallee, who took on the position in January of 2023.
And Lavallee, who began her career in financial services as a sales representative at Sun Life Financial in 1992 and who previously served as CEO of Voya’s Wealth Solutions unit, is one of those rare Chief Executive Officers who is more about listening than talking.
“We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, so we should use them proportionally,” the soft-spoken and low-keyed CEO said in a recent interview.
“Authenticity is so key, staring with yourself. You must get to know who you are and what makes you tick early on in your career. I had to figure out who I was. And then I could lead others. I think now, I’ve really come into my own.”
Adapting as her core philosophy the premise that leadership is less about a particular leader and more about how that leader can help others reach their full potential, Lavallee said she first cultivated her unique leadership style during her university years at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where she competed as a multi-sport student athlete in varsity soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse.
“Being able to go to a school where I could have this exciting athletic career without having to sacrifice academics was really special,” she said.
“It taught me so much about time management and balance. When you’ve been on a van ride across New England and you still have a full slate of homework to finish, you learn how to get a job done.”
Back then, entering the financial services industry was not at the top of Lavallee’s career ambitions.
In fact, she originally planned to become a doctor, and studied psychology in college.
“Frankly, I stumbled into the financial services industry. But it was really perfect for me because I realized that I loved how financial services help people when they need it most,” she said.
“I quickly developed a passion for the industry and what we do. It was something where I could see the immediacy of a family going through something very difficult and how, whether through insurance or planning, financial services help them in a really meaningful way.”
Even within Voya, where Lavallee has spent the last 15 years of her professional life, she said that her career path has been anything but linear.
“I constantly raised my hand for different enterprise opportunities within the company,” she said.
“One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer someone in terms of professional advancement is to just be curious, exercise learning agility and raise your hand for different things. That has always been something that’s driven me, the desire to continuously learn.”
That innate sense of curiosity and openness have served Lavallee – and Voya – well over the years.
At the end of the third quarter of 2023, the company registered annual net revenues of $3.904 billion, a 30.8 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.
And Voya’s fourth quarter revenues in 2023 are projected to register a 15.97 percent increase over the comparable period in 2022. But while success seems to run in Lavallee’s veins, she said that it is also important to not become overconfidence.
“Humility is so underrated,” she said. “One thing I have learned over the years is that it is all about balance.”
While the post-covid, high-interest-rates global economic forecast and the future of financial services remains somewhat murky, Lavallee said that she is no stranger to leading through challenging times.
“The year ahead won’t be easy,” she admitted.
“We all have to be ready to shift gears and change course to accommodate sudden changes. That is true leadership.”
But no matter what the future may bring, Lavallee said that she will always remain open to new thoughts and ideas.
“Now is the time for a very different generation of leaders to step up, and I’m honored and humbled to be in the position I am in at Voya,” she said. “I take the philosophy of controlling your controllables, and managing and preparing as much as possible. It’s always about how we can do right by our employees, customers and the partners we serve.”