Laura Heeger joined Prudential International Insurance as their Chief Compliance Officer in February 2019. Prior to that, she worked at MetLife for 12 years, most recently as Senior Vice President and Head of Regional Ethics and Compliance. She previously served as a prosecutor in the Bronx DA’s office and as a stay-at-home mom for nine years.
Q: Your career path has included interesting and diverse roles. Were there any defining experiences that led you to your current position?
I was raised with the idea that you should make choices that keep as many doors open as possible—that if you have a choice and the options seem about equal, pick the one that will provide more possibilities. I’ve tried to follow that throughout my career. Right after law school I worked for four years as a prosecutor in the sex crimes unit of the Bronx DA’s office. That role became challenging when I had kids, both because of the content and for financial reasons. My salary was barely covering childcare, so we made the choice for me to stay home—which I did for nine years. At that point, I wanted to return to work, but I was then a single mom with three kids: ages seven, five and three. I needed a role with better flexibility, so I started to look for an in-house litigation opportunity. I interviewed with MetLife for something in that vein, but because of my background as a prosecutor, they encouraged me to apply for an AML—Anti-Money Laundering—position. I hadn’t even heard of AML or Compliance at the time, but I consulted with a mentor who explained that Compliance was a “hot new field;” she encouraged me to take the opportunity, which I did. At a certain point, I wanted to expand beyond AML and sought a role at MetLife where I could be more of a generalist. That’s when I became the Head of Compliance for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I’m not sure that I had an “ultimate goal,” but I have always been focused on ways to broaden my knowledge and skills.
Q: What’s been your most important leadership lesson and what techniques do you use to get the best work out of people?
Early in my career, a boss told me “don’t expect people to work like you do.” There are different ways to interpret that. It speaks to capacity for work, but it also speaks to style. People are different, and I remind myself of that with every new team and new team member. Finding out what motivates people is key. The best teams I’ve worked with have been purpose-driven. By that I mean that the members understand the “why” of what we’re doing, they are aligned on the team’s goals and they believe in the value of the work.
I gave this a lot of thought before I started at Prudential. The more senior you get, the more you realize that your success is built on relationships, and that collaboration is necessary to get work done. My primary focus in my teams has been on building relationships and trust. In practice, that means a lot of lunches. I find that in a more informal environment people are better able to share their stories and what they’re passionate about, which is how you build trust.
Q: People are often hesitant to put themselves out there and network. Have you struggled with that, and if so, how did you overcome it?
By nature I’m an introvert and even a little shy, but I’ve chosen jobs that don’t allow for that. You build confidence by just diving in and doing it. And quite frankly, I’ve never had anyone respond negatively to being invited to lunch! The point is to get to know people as individuals, especially in the beginning. It goes back to the importance of relationships and the trust needed for them to develop.
Q: With each new matter that comes in, a law firm forms a new team that then needs to get up and running immediately. What are your tips for building trust quickly?
When you’re more junior, a strong work ethic and high-quality work goes a long way towards success. But when you’re leading a team, you need to do even more. First, you must remind yourself that the team is made up of people. To build trust, you need to invest some time up-front. That may not mean days, but it does require an investment. Take two hours in a room to meet and listen. Introduce the “why” of what you’re going to be doing. Let the team know why you thought they’d be a good fit for the project. And then be quiet and listen. I’m a firm believer in the “working group” approach at the beginning of a project because it leads to diversity of thought. Your approach can change when you switch to execution mode, but in the beginning it helps people recognize that their voices matter and helps amplify their individual perspectives. A good leader invests the time to figure out what people are good at and finding out the elements of the project that they want to own.
Q: Your job requires a lot of travel, frequently to countries where it’s even less common for women to be in leadership roles than it is in the U.S. What techniques do you use in those situations?
There are fewer women leaders everywhere—that’s just the reality—so people watch very closely what we do, how we treat people, how we lead and how we react. But you’re right that in some countries it’s even more unusual for there to be a woman leader. When I travel, I always try to be culturally sensitive to how I’ll be perceived. That means being respectful of the culture, but it doesn’t mean I’ll accept being treated as less than the men at the table.
Years ago I was in the Middle East at a leadership dinner. The dinner ended and we were all getting on the bus to go back to the hotel. As I was standing in line, I noticed the head of the business and the senior leadership going into a private room. I asked one of the coordinators what was going on and he explained that the senior guys stay and talk shop over scotch and cigars. So I left the bus line and joined that group instead. I didn’t burst in and say “I should have been invited.” I knew that I belonged in that room because I was a member of the senior team, so I could be confident in taking my place in the room without needing to say more. The head of the business poured me a glass of white wine and it was clear to the group that I had been welcomed. The reality is there hadn’t been senior women leaders there before. So I didn’t find the exclusion purposeful and I felt that I could make the point subtly. Sometimes it’s about meeting people where they are, and showing a different way of doing things without making a big deal about it.
Q: If you could share one tip with women just starting out in their careers, what would it be?
To focus on public speaking skills so that you are confident and effective presenting in front of people. And relatedly, to invest time in preparing for each meeting and call. In my experience, preparation is critical so that one can add thoughtful value to each meeting and have a measured response as issues arise.
Q: Can a woman stay authentic to herself while still demonstrating leadership?
Leadership traits, oftentimes associated with men, include being strong and direct, among other things. These same traits are often described with different, negative words when applied to women. One of the struggles a woman faces is to find her authentic voice, and to lead with that. It’s a journey to figure out what your authentic style is and once you do, the key is to find a company that values and supports you as you.
Q: Do you think it’s easier to be authentic as you get more senior?
Yes. But it’s also the job of more senior management to help amplify different perspectives, because everyone benefits from diversity. There was recently an article in the New York Times called “Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy’” that focused on the need for long hours to succeed at work, and the fact that people are more often marrying their “educational match,” so the long-hours expectation is the same for both partners. One thing working parents could do to be more authentic at work is to speak more openly about parenting struggles and to use that to find common ground with other working parents. This struggle with work-life balance is true for all of us, regardless of seniority.
Q: People—perhaps women especially—love to talk about “balance.” What does balance look like for you, and have you developed any tools that have worked well?
Women are way too hard on themselves—myself included, and about balance in particular. So the first thing I say—and try to remind myself—is let’s cut ourselves a break! Balance is ephemeral. There’s this idea that work and family should each feel like they have 100% of you. But that’s 200%, and I’m only one person. What works for me is to approach balance from a broader perspective. I don’t expect each day or even each week to be balanced, but I do try to achieve some balance over a month. I also try to focus on the quality of time spent at work or with family. The other day I started with calls at 5:30 am and had one-on-one meetings all day until 9 pm; it was also a day that I was supposed to have dinner with my daughter. I texted her at 8:45 pm and we decided to have a “junk food party” and catch up on what had been going on. Technology also helps, especially when traveling. I’ve helped select outfits and even schools over FaceTime.
It can be harder to explain when kids are younger—I used to tell my three-year old how many “sleeps” I’d be away because that was easier to understand than days away. We also kept a map on the wall, so they could see where in the world I was. But don’t kid yourself, there’s really no such thing as “balance” in the mind of a child. As my kids have gotten older, it’s easier to talk with them about sacrifices and sharing the “why” behind certain choices I’ve made. Some of the most gratifying moments have been when they tell me they’re proud of me and ask what they need to do to have a career like mine.
Jil Simon is an associate in Debevoise’s Washington, D.C. office.
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