Twelve years ago Heather Lavallee learned the value of her own work when her father-in-law suffered a work-related accident, paralyzing him from the waist-down, To make matters worse, the contractor he worked for at the time did not provide disability or medical insurance.
"The financial impact, let alone the personal impact on my in-laws, was devastating," says Lavallee, president of Employee Benefits Distribution in ING's U.S. Insurance division. "When you see that first-hand and you realize people are dealing with catastrophic events, it hits you on an emotional level."
Add to that the fact that, at the time of the accident, she and her husband had an eight-week-old infant, she was starting a new job and the family was moving. "There was a lot going on; when they say there are eight major catastrophic events in life, we hit five of them at once," Lavallee says.
She has spent most of her career in leadership roles. Before being hired as a regional VP with ING in 2008 and promoted to her current position in 2011, she worked at Mutual of Omaha, moving up to the role of regional VP of group insurance, and at Sun Life New York, where she held the title of group representative for the better part of eight years.
But, Lavallee cites a period of time spent in training and development units among the claims department as providing similar, albeit less-personal, epiphanies.
"Whether somebody had a disabling condition or had lost a loved one and you saw the specific events, that was the real eye-opener." Beyond that time in claims, Lavallee openly resonates with the results-driven culture of sales, and is humble about her technology acumen. Yet, she works closely with ING's head of operations and head of IT to secure funding for technology investments and seek out ways to improve the organization from a technological perspective.
She does take pride in her ability to recognize and tap into her employees' talents. Beyond having formed a Technology Strategist Team to use certain individuals' expertise to set future technology strategies for the insurance organization, Heather recounted one specific instance where she spotted a woman with talents that crossed the IT/business threshold and was able to plug her into a role to optimize those talents.
"I worked with this individual who was fantastic in front of customers, had the track record in negotiating and could speak the language. I saw not only a skill set in her, but also a weakness in me and other folks on my sales management team. She really became a translator in that overall process," says Lavallee. "I want to make sure I'm surrounding myself with folks I trust to know how to speak the IT language and tie it back to what the business is trying to accomplish so we leverage technology, rather than looking at it as a hindrance."
In addition to optimizing talent, Lavallee also spurred product reforms by spearheading end-to-end product line reviews and a new claimants study to affirm the values of voluntary benefits. This move was in response to the industry's increasing emphasis on simplicity when it comes to product offerings and administration, which has led her to shake up her departments' distribution operations, product line-up and administration initiatives.
The results, with which the WIL judges were impressed, have returned the department's focus to the customer and served as a rallying cry for the company's sales force. She credits these achievements, yet again, to simply paying attention to the opinions and talents of those surrounding her.
"One of the biggest facets [of being a woman in a leadership role] is the notion of a woman's intuition and reading people. I see this as one of my strongest skills," she says. "I tend to really include others in the decision-making process and hear them out. The ability to work with people, communicate with people, build teams, I think that's one of the most important aspects of any business-no matter what it is."
Number of years in the industry: 20 years
Number of direct reports: 10
ING U.S.'s total revenue: $2.3 billion
Nominated by: ING U.S. Insurance
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