After 15 years of holding multiple roles at Voya Financial Inc. (Voya), including executive sponsor of Voya Cares, Heather Lavallee became CEO on January 1, 2023. ABILITY’s Jennifer Goga spoke with Lavallee to discuss her leadership and Voya’s culture of inclusion. Lavallee shared her personal career journey, discussed the value of mentorship,curiosity and listening to the people you serve. She illustrated the transformative effect disability inclusion initiatives had on Voya’s employees as well as business results. Lavallee also described the Voya Cares initiative and its expansive commitment to community education, advocacy and collaboration with not-for-profit organizations, like Easterseals, The Harkin Institute, and the National Down Syndrome Society.
Jennifer Goga: It’s great that we’re able to meet today. I know you have a busy schedule.
Heather Lavallee: We all do. But this is a pleasure, and it’s a super important topic. I was actually just down in Washington, DC yesterday with one of our not-for-profit partners, National Down Syndrome Society and Easterseals, and we were lobbying for disability advocacy, so the timing of this discussion is perfect.
Goga: That’s great. To start off, I just wanted to hear about your background and your career trajectory. Did you always want to be in the financial world?
Lavallee: It’s a little bit of a funny story. When I was little, starting at six years old, I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a doctor for probably 15 years. And when I was in college, somebody had a medical event in our dining hall, and I did not react particularly well. And after 15 years of ambition, I switched my major to psychology. And that sort of opened the door for me to ask myself what do I want to do? And so graduated with a degree in psychology, and I got into sales in financial services. So, I stumbled into the industry. But it was really perfect for me because I realized that I loved how financial services help people when they need it most. And so, I quickly got 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 it’s insurance or planning, helps them in a really meaningful way. So that’s a little bit of how I got into financial services. But if I fast forward through my 15 years with Voya, I went through a sort of logical progression of sales, sales management, etcetera.
But in the last 15 years, I’ve had the ability to run two different business units inside the firm, served as the executive sponsor of our Voya Cares program. And for me, a lot of it’s just been about kind of raising my hand and taking on new assignments. And so, I didn’t necessarily aspire to be in the chair that I’m in today. It’s been kind of a logical trajectory, but passion for the customers and a passion for what we do every day and a curiosity to learn, I think, kind of got me to the seat I’m in today.
Goga: That’s good advice on how to keep moving forward. Along those same lines, what advice would you give other people, women in particular, about their career progression? Did you face hurdles or was it pretty much smooth sailing?
Lavallee: No, I faced a lot of hurdles. I think that’s quite normal. So, there are a couple of things that I would say and advice that I tend to give people at different levels or tenure within their careers. I tell them that the path that I chose was not linear, it was not necessarily logical. I tried different things, I switched businesses, I raised my hand for different enterprise opportunities. One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is to just be curious, exercise learning agility and raise your hand for different things. And so that has always been something that’s driven me, is just this desire to continuously learn.
I often talk about a neat quote I heard about 17 years ago, and it was just this idea of doing something that makes you uncomfortable every day. Do something that kind of gets that ‘butterflies in your stomach’ feeling. And so, I do try to show up and do that. And that’s something that I recommend to people, if you’re nervous to spend time in front of the client, or to spend time presenting or to spend time learning on the financial side, whatever it is, that to me is where growth really comes from.
Goga: And any other obstacles you faced?
Lavallee: One major obstacle is I always wanted to be the Head of Sales in my career, and it took me four different times to get it. I was rejected for different opportunities, and it sort of became just this challenge that I thought at some point in time I’m going to have an opportunity. So, I think that just being really persistent and believing in yourself is super important.
The final two things that I’ll mention in regard to people in their career is the importance of mentorship and company culture. I have been so fortunate at different times in my career to have some amazing mentors and they really give you a chance to see a true vision of yourself, true reflection. Oftentimes, it was a mentor who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They saw what I could take on and do, and they pushed me. So that’s important. I’ve often talked about Rod Martin, who is my predecessor as CEO of Voya and our current executive chairman. He has been an amazing mentor for me.
And the final bit is company culture. It’s important that you make sure that the culture of the organization you work for aligns with your internal compass. It is so important because when those are aligned, and a person is fully accepted for who they are and it aligns with the company culture, then I think the sky’s the limit for what anybody can do.
Goga: Very well said. Does Voya have ABLE 529 accounts?
Lavallee: As a matter of fact, we do not have an ABLE plan. But, more broadly, it’s really the trajectory of how we got into disability inclusion advocacy and started our “Voya Cares” program about seven years ago. At the end of 2015, we decided to form a task force. We believed that disability inclusion was the perfect intersection of our culture, which was all about full inclusion and our business expertise.
We initially started to focus on the special needs community, on addressing the unmet financial need within the special needs community and education. So, really helping our clients and distribution partners and other folks understand the $2,000 asset limitation that could push somebody off means tested benefits (public assistance). It started with making sure we understood the need and how we could address that. And then it broadened into looking at our solutions, at our accessibility, and even beyond how we are ensuring that we are addressing the unmet financial planning needs in everything that we do. Then it was moving into advocacy and then really a focus on competitive workplace inclusion and using our corporate voice to advocate for other employers to also lean in on that.
So, it really became a bit of a movement. So, we don’t necessarily have ABLE 529 accounts, but we do a lot of education around them. We work with many of the different state ABLE programs, and we educate employers on how offering ABLE plans into their benefits program will help them make sure they’re providing full equity into their workforce. Because, as you certainly know, people with disabilities oftentimes don’t contribute to their 401K or don’t accept a match because it could hurt their benefits. So that’s really the way we approach it. Hopefully, that gives you kind of a snapshot into our viewpoint around ABLE accounts.
Goga: Absolutely. I was reading about your involvement with the Harkin Institute Disability Summit earlier this year and I wasn’t clear on whether Voya administered ABLE accounts. So, Voya was focused on educating people about the benefits of an ABLE account, is that right?
Lavallee: Yes, and we do sometimes get the question, “What’s in it for Voya? Why do you do this? Aren’t you selling your own products?” We started this advocacy work and this inclusion work because we thought it was the right thing to do. Now, what we found is, as we talk about that when we’re marketing to different populations, being fully inclusive of the disability community in everything we do, whether it’s in our television advertisements and our marketing and our solutions and our client experience. When we talk about all of our inclusion efforts in client meetings and final presentations, it made such a difference, and it’s actually driven business results. It’s driven a higher level of engagement from our own employees. And so, it was not why we started it, but it’s had this amazing impact and it’s something that we didn’t necessarily anticipate. But we think if we can serve all Americans, including those with disabilities and their caregivers, that’s one of the reasons we exist as a company.
Goga: A win-win. Would you mind telling me a little bit about the Voya Cares program?
Lavallee: We formed a Disability Inclusion Task Force at the end of 2015 into 2016. We started that first by learning. We wanted to make sure we got into it in the most authentic way possible. And that started by talking to our own employees. We had a People with Disabilities and Caregiver employee Resource group. We use them as very much of a sounding board on how we’re approaching the community, how we’re embedding people first language. We have mandatory people first language training across our organization, in addition to Allyship, which 99% of our employees partake in Allyship training. So that was really how we started.
Then we also formed partnerships with different not-for-profit organizations. We thought it was so important to learn from those who are already in the disability space. We sought their help to teach us how we should do this right. We worked with organizations like the National Down Syndrome Society. We’ve got a new partnership with Easterseals, and we work with The Harkin Institute. So, everybody has a different level of expertise, whether it’s on legislative fronts, whether it’s on workplace inclusion, helping employers understand how you’re doing more integrated work, and teaching our recruiters and managers to hire, and then, frankly, creating a forum where we can also learn from other employers who are leaders in this disability inclusion space. So that was really how we started, and then I think we formally branded it as Voya Cares in 2017.
Goga: What advice would you give other CEOs on the benefits of the disability inclusion initiatives that you’ve developed? Why is it important to do all the things you are describing and how does it help the company, in a broader sense?
Lavallee: Well, for me it’s important for CEOs because they’re going to drive incredible employee engagement. If I can share with you a bit of a story, when we decided to do this, we had a smaller group of leaders. We all agreed this was something very important. And we decided that if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right. So, we knew we were going to look at our marketing, at our advertisement, our products or solutions, our technology, our not-for-profit partnerships. We wanted to fully embed it in the culture, so we knew it had to get full top-down support.
When we launched this disability inclusion initiative for our top 100 leaders in 2016, we got up and started sharing that people with disabilities represent the largest minority that anybody can join at any point in their lives. We talked about how 1 in 2 households are impacted by disability. We did this to just kind of raise awareness. And we broke up into different groups–It became a watershed moment for our company because we had leaders who we had worked alongside for years, who began sharing their own personal stories surrounding disability. And they said, I never knew I could share this at work.
Those leaders started sharing, “I have an adult sister with intellectual disabilities, and this is the struggle we’re going through.” And another, “I have a son…” You name it, and we heard it. I started to get emails from people sharing their situation. The launch of Voya Cares (as it was later branded) opened up this unbelievable era of authenticity within our organization. Our employees showed up differently, our leaders showed up differently. It just created this sense of inclusion and acceptance. The best way I would describe it is our people felt they didn’t need to hide anymore.
And I can talk about this from a leadership perspective. I think our efforts with disability inclusion have driven employee engagement in a massive way. When you start talking about inclusion with your customers and figure out new ways to lean in, it drives business opportunities.
For all of those reasons, disability inclusion is the right thing to do. If you think from the perspective of a CEO, of course you exist to drive financial performance, but we also have bigger responsibilities. And that’s something that I think any CEO understands.
At Voya we talk about serving three constituents: our clients, our colleagues, and our communities. And this work to me is something that allows a CEO to lean in and really do right by the communities in which they live and work, their colleagues and the clients that they serve, as well as all other stakeholders.
Personally, I think it’s just something that is a “no-regret” move for any company to lean in on full inclusion of people with disabilities and being a vocal supporter of the disability community.
Goga: Awesome. I don’t know how much you know about ABILITY Magazine, but we’ve been around for over 30 years. We’ve been chronicling disability issues for decades, sharing the amazing spectrum of people’s abilities. Our in-depth interviews with stakeholders include a long list of celebrities, elected officials, CEOs like you, and so many others who have shared fascinating stories with us.
Over the years, we’ve had a front row seat to the evolving disability landscape. With our distinct vantage point, we identified additional ways we could help the community. So, we’ve expanded our services to include abilityJOBS, a disability job board with thousands of job postings from employers committed to hiring people with disabilities.
We have developed an online virtual career fair platform that offers job seekers with disabilities the chance to meet one on one with recruiters. The platform has accessibility features, including an option for live video meetings, real-time captions, ASL interpreters when requested, screen-reader compatibility, etc. It’s a really user-friendly platform. It does way more than other video meeting platforms can do. I’m so encouraged to hear about your workforce inclusion efforts, and just want to let you know that we’re out here.
Lavallee: That is fabulous, thank you for sharing that. Early on, we realized that if we wanted to be leaders in inclusion, particularly on the hiring front, we had to have our recruiters train differently. Even pre-pandemic, when we were together in a room, we asked the question, “How do we make sure we have full accessibility? How do we really think through all of the potential barriers? How do we conduct accessible interviews? And if we were talking to an interviewee with a neurodiverse background, do our recruiters know how to ask the right questions?
So frankly, it’s organizations like yours that help companies like Voya and all of the others really figure out how do we move forward? As you well know, just because you get somebody into the workforce doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily created an environment where they can succeed and be fully included. It is a work effort on both sides. I just feel so fortunate to have organizations like yours, like The Harkin Institute and Easteseals that bring all of this know-how to the table. It makes me think about the saying, “A rising tide raises all boats,” and that’s what we can do collectively to drive greater disability inclusion.
Goga: That’s so true.
Lavallee: And knowing the statistics today, that 20 million Americans with disabilities who could be employed but are not employed today. We know there is still a lot of work to do, and Voya wants to absolutely play our part in that effort.
Goga: That’s so great to hear. If I may just briefly share my own background. I am legally blind and was out of the workforce for a good while. I could no longer drive, and I started to put a lot of limits on myself that weren’t really there. But, I participated in one of the ABILITY virtual job fairs, and they hired me. It’s been great. I haven’t looked back since. And I feel like I have value again. Knowing that there are organizations like ABILITY and like Voya that are willing to give people like me a chance is wonderful.
Lavallee: Thank you for sharing your story. For me, this is a personal passion. My father-in-law, who has since passed away, was hit by a car overseas and spent the next 23 years in a wheelchair. The accident happened when he was probably in his late 50s, early 60s. Everybody has different journeys. I just think that it’s a little bit of the more you know and seek to understand, the more you can help with appropriate modifications, to create an amazing work environment for somebody. And I often feel like every individual with disability I meet often has the desire to work and the fulfillment and the commitment. I’m always thinking, jeez, I wish we had so many more individuals like that who just couldn’t be happier to be in the workforce.
Goga: Yes, I never thought of it specifically about myself, but now being sort of immersed in the disability support and representation space, I’ve heard people describe people with disabilities as usually being great problem solvers. After all, we face challenges every day that people who are fully able do not have to. And it hit me that I’m often not even really aware of my own problem-solving skills. I make adjustments and create new solutions every day to compensate for my low vision. Those problem-solving skills can be applied to a lot of different areas. I can’t help but think that companies and organizations would benefit from the kind of creative thinking and resilience that many people with disabilities could bring to their new job.
Lavallee: I couldn’t agree more.
Goga: You mentioned your recent trip to DC for disability advocacy, and I know that Voya was a sponsor of The Harkin Institute Disability Summit event earlier this year. Do you do those regularly throughout the year with different nonprofits or I’m just curious how you got involved with that particular event?
Lavallee: Yeah, that’s a great question. I was actually with the president and CEO of Easterseals yesterday. At Voya, we try to focus on building deeper partnerships with a smaller number of organizations in the space. We feel like we can go more deeply with them, but it doesn’t mean as we come across other organizations that we won’t have more partnerships.
With the Harkin Institute, of course how can you not be mesmerized by Senator Harkin and his long history of advocacy, being at the forefront of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act? And so that was an opportunity that came to us a few years ago, starting with a white paper on disability inclusion and really focusing on the investor community and why it should matter to investors. So, after we engaged with them, my predecessor, Rod Martin spoke at a conference in Ireland a year or two ago with Senator Harkin. And so, like many of these, they develop a personal relationship, and then we look for other opportunities to come together and partner.
We’re also working with Easterseals now. We did a white paper on employment extenders, we were really looking at older workers and different challenges they face. We may also lean in with a focus on the veteran community.
Our not-for-profit partnerships involve a very strategic perspective. We’re asking, “What are the goals we’re trying to accomplish? What’s the reach? How are we going to do it? What’s the goal of that not-for-profit organization? How do we partner together and advance an initiative?”
Easterseals is really the largest not-for-profit with on-the-ground assistance for individuals with disabilities and veterans. As a 100-year-old organization, we know we can spend a little bit of time and we brainstorm on where we could go with this partnership. It really depends on what the priorities are, is it workforce inclusion? What legislative priorities they may have? Are there things that we are trying to advance, like a specific group like veterans, people with intellectual disabilities, etc.
That’s really how we tend to think about partnerships. And the last thing I’ll say is we actually have a team, a center of excellence, our “Voya Cares” team, a small but very mighty team. They really manage those not-for-profit partnerships and put together strategic plans with them that are usually six to 18 months out. And we’re just very thoughtful around what are they trying to accomplish, how does it align with what we’re trying to do? And we put together very thoughtful plans.
As a matter of fact, we were a founding partner of something called the CEO Commission. And it was a partnership started with NDSS, SHRM ( the Society for Human Resource Management) and Voya to bring in other like-minded partner organizations, whether they’re not-for-profits, whether they’re employers, to focus on workplace inclusion and competitive wages. We started that a few years ago, and sometimes it’s an amalgamation of different partners.
So, when I was on the Hill, we were focused on a few legislative priorities, but some of the partner organizations were The Harkin Institute and Easterseals. So that’s a little bit and I apologize, I’m kind of going on a little bit, but we think there’s a great opportunity for collaboration between different organizations and different not-for-profits.
Goga: I agree. And I neglected to mention that Senator Harkin had been a contributor to ABILITY Magazine for over 14 years. He’s been a great resource and friend to our organization.
Lavallee: That’s very cool. Organizations like yours help us to all understand.
Goga: So true.
Lavallee: We make sure we’re looking at the world through the most comprehensive lens as possible. And as you said with your online job fair, there’s a lot of things that, again, when we first started, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And we needed help from organizations like yours and others to really challenge our thinking and advance it to make sure we were as inclusive as possible. And we’re not done. It’s a journey. There’s still a lot more that we as an organization continue to learn and lean into as the world evolves.
Voya Financial Inc. is one of the leading providers of retirement products and services in the United States, with nearly 15 million individual, workplace and institutional clients and over 7,000 employees.