Mover and Shaker: Leonora Xhekaj, Vice President of Operational Risk Management, Voya Investment Management

Leonora XhekajLeonora Xhekaj remembers being asked by someone she admires: “What is more important to you, being liked or respected?” Although she said “both” at the time, over the years she has learned that everyone might not like you, but most will respect you when you establish credibility and act professionally with colleagues and others, regardless of their experience, association or job function.

This philosophy has helped lead to Xhekaj’s successful career ascension. She started at Paine Webber (which was subsequently acquired by UBS) as a client services associate in the institutional equity sales area, providing research to institutional clients. While there she developed a reputation as someone who was persistent and reliable – arriving at work at 5 a.m. if needed to get the job done.

In 2000 she joined Voya Investment Management, previously known as ING U.S. Investment Management, and, at the time, they were involved in a number of M&A consolidations. “I learned early in my career on the buy side that change is the one constant you can count on, and it is something I learned to adapt to and embrace.”

Xhekaj, who earned a B.B.A in management and finance from Baruch College, has held her current role in risk management since 2009. She supports the equity investment platform, structured assets and alternatives group and institutional distribution, as well as other business support areas, such as operations.

Over the years, she has held a variety of positions, including leading the business resilience program for Voya IM including managing crisis events such as Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. In the days leading up to each, Voya IM activated contingency plans that had been developed and tested, allowing the firm to continue business operations uninterrupted with remote capabilities for all staff with essential functions.

Xhekaj is most proud of her contributions over the years that have led to the development of the company’s effective risk management program that partners with the business to identify, analyze and mitigate risks. “I appreciate that I can contribute to teamwork that benefits the end client, and have opportunities to lead initiatives for the firm that involve collaboration with multiple business areas,” she says.

The operational risk function was relatively new when she assumed the position, offering her an opportunity to help create and establish a key function for the company. “It’s amazing to be in this position where I can offer foresight as we evaluate risks and that I can contribute to enhance programs or processes that add value.”

Working Girl

Even though family and friends warned her that Wall Street was a “man’s world,”Xhekaj learned much of her early career impressions from the movie Working Girl, where she remembers identifying with Melanie Griffith’s character and wanting to be one of those women who succeeded based on talent and skill.

She found breaking into the environment more challenging than expected, but she quickly recognized that becoming a subject matter expert would allow her to push through those barriers. “I was able to earn a seat at the table. I was accepted because I earned respect,” she says. “You can be your own worst enemy if you dwell on the fact that you’re often outnumbered. I decided I needed to think differently and the actions I took showed I belonged and could achieve success.”

Earlier in her career, Xhekaj hesitated to seek mentors and was less vocal about volunteering for stretch roles. But with senior sponsors advocating for her, she realized that they were seeing possibilities in her work that would lead to advancement. Her cadre of mentors ended up being an organic mix of men and women offering a diversity of age and specialty, from backgrounds in risk and investment functions to operations to technology. “I saw it as a major benefit that I could tap into all those resources, views and perspectives to gain as much information on different angles and functions as possible.”

Recipe for Success

From those diverse perspectives she has identified a number of colleagues who display qualities that she would consider important for a role model: humble, inspirational, insightful and credible. One manager in particular stands out for her ability to defuse and navigate through uncomfortable situations with grace and poise.

Over the years Xhekaj has amassed a list of values and principles that she believes provide a path to success: integrity; respect; valuing differences; a positive attitude; avoiding excuses; building relationships, engaging people; and appreciating differences in skill sets. She has also always admired those who don’t say ‘that’s not my problem,’ but contribute to meaningful discussions and provide recommendations instead; or those who are willing to roll up their sleeves to collaborate even if it’s not officially part of their role.

Advice for Balancing Work, Family and Outside Life

At a conference recently, one of the speakers mentioned how outsourcing helped her balance work and life, and Xhekaj realized she had not heard outsourcing used in this context before. She saw that outsourcing everything from housekeeping and other chores to child care can be achieved in a number of ways, such as asking family and friends for help and relying on your partner to contribute more if you both work.Xhekaj says her mom has been her biggest advocate and supporter of all aspects of her life.

Finding that balance has been essential, as Xhekaj is active with a number of groups that grow her professional skills outside of her job commitments. She has been involved with Voya’s New York Women’s Network, her town’s Professional Moms Network and also participates in informal networking and other leadership skill-building conferences and opportunities. Always eager to stay sharp in her field, Xhekaj is a member of a number of industry associations, such as the Security Industry Financial Marketing Association and the Global Association of Risk Professionals (GARP).

Married with two kids, her priority is to spend as much time as she can with daughters Leyla, age 10, and Hana, age 8. “Both inspire and motivate me to continue to contribute to our culture and community,” she says. She shares her passion for charity, helping with the March of Dimes and juvenile diabetes organizations, as well as other local charities in her town.

She also loves to travel, and together her family has explored different cultures from Germany and Switzerland to Kosovo, Antigua, Montreal and Quebec. Closer to home, the family regularly visits local monuments and historical sites, and as avid readers, they love nothing more than a Saturday in front of the fire at their local library.