Leading with Curiosity

Alumni5 MIN READ

Checking in with Heather Lavallee ’92 as she steps into her biggest role yet—CEO of Voya Financial

By Kayla Voigt '14
October 27, 2022

It’s rare to find an executive who embodies the old adage, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason, use them proportionally.” But that’s exactly the mantra that Heather Hamilton Lavallee ’92 uses as the foundation of her leadership style.

In an era of unprecedented challenges for business leaders—a volatile economic forecast marked by historic levels of inflation, a labor shortage, and recovery after several years of the pandemic, among geopolitical unrest—Lavallee is the kind of quiet, compassionate leader that companies need.

This January, she’s stepping into a new role as president and CEO of Voya Financial, a financial services firm with more than 6,000 employees that serves 14.3 million individual, workplace, and institutional clients and had $644 billion in total assets under management and administration as of June 30, 2022. The culmination of a 30-year career in the financial services industry, Lavallee still credits her time at Colby with providing the foundation for her success. “We’re in a time when it’s all about growth, innovation, and a continuous learning mindset, and those are the things I fostered at Colby that really took off throughout my career.”

Leading by listening

Leading with curiosity, she said, starts with listening to yourself. “Authenticity is so key. You have to get to know who you are and what makes you tick early on in your career. I had to figure out, you know, who am I after the Colby student or the hockey player or the parent? And I think now, I’ve really come into my own,” said Lavallee.

Lavallee takes the philosophy that leadership is less about you and more about how you can help others reach their potential.

“The higher up I’ve traveled in an organization, the more it’s about listening. Listen to your employees, listen to your customers, listen to your people, and ask a lot of questions.”

Heather Lavallee ’92

Lavallee cultivated this leadership style through years as a multi-sport student athlete, competing in varsity soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse at Colby. “Being able to go to a school where I could have this exciting athletic career without having to sacrifice academics was really special. It taught me so much 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 it done,” she said.

So many people focus just on success, but with athletics, it’s just as important to learn how to lose with grace. “Humility is so underrated,” she said. “At Colby, it was all about balance. There’s so much from my Colby experience I try to carry forward with me, and I never lose sight of what I learned.”

A nonlinear path to CEO

Lavallee is proof that opening up your horizons and studying your passions can lead to big things. A psychology major, she spent her Colby career taking courses across the curriculum, from classes on Hemingway to fundamentals of biology and chemistry. “The whole liberal arts experience allowed me to be really curious,” she said. “Colby allowed me to take courses in whatever sparked my interest, which helped me formulate my worldview and who I wanted to be.”

After graduation, Lavallee took an entry-level sales position at Sun Life Financial—something her psychology major prepared her for surprisingly well. “It gave me a foundation in emotional intelligence,” she said. “To succeed in business, you need to understand how to motivate people, how to communicate with them, and how to work together as a team. From there, I went through the natural progression of sales rep to sales manager, to head of sales, and to head of the division.”

Lavallee joined Voya (then ING) in 2008, on the cusp of the Great Recession. Over the last 14 years in the business, she’s worked across various organizations, managing everything from their employee benefits division to their wealth solutions business. Under her leadership, Voya’s tax-exempt markets business became the largest retirement plan provider in the government market in 2020. “It wasn’t a linear path,” she said. “I just tried to raise my hand for as many different things as possible, and always be ready for that next opportunity. For me, it’s always about learning something new.”

“To succeed in business, you need to understand how to motivate people, how to communicate with them, and how to work together as a team.”

Heather Lavallee ’92

Rising to CEO means Lavallee joins a very select group of female leaders. Only 74 women—15 percent, a record high—currently hold executive leadership positions in the Fortune 500. “I was on a Delta flight the other day, and of course, the CEO was introducing the safety video,” she said. “And I got this nervousness in the pit of my stomach, realizing, that’s going to be me. I am the face of the company. It’s the same feeling I used to get before a big game, those big butterflies. It’s not lost on me that there aren’t a lot of people who look like me in roles like this.”

While the economic forecast ahead looks murky at best, Lavallee is no stranger to leading through challenging times. Emerging from the pandemic won’t be easy, but through it all, she’s there to listen. “Now is the time for a very different generation of leaders to step up, and I’m honored and humbled to have been chosen by our board for this position,” she said. “I take the philosophy of controlling your controllables, and managing and preparing as much as possible. It’s about how we can do right by our employees, customers, and partners we serve.”