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Corporate Captain: ING’s Kevin Silva

Kevin Silva is the chief human resources officer for ING U.S. where he directs a human resources strategy aimed at building human capital by attracting, retaining and developing world-class employees and incenting them to deliver superior performance.

Silva joined ING U.S. in 2012.

These are exciting times at ING U.S.  In May, the U.S. operations of the Dutch financial services company made its Initial Public Offering raising $1.3 billion. ING U.S. is also transforming their brand as part of the process to become an independent, standalone, U.S.- based company. VOYA, an abstract name coined from the word ‘voyage’ (and perhaps a “Voy a” or “I will” call to action for Spanish speaking customers) is the symbol on the New York Stock Exchange, and in 2014, it will be replacing the ING logo on buildings, stationary and in the orange-colored advertisements that have identified the company’s proactive approach to guiding customers on their journey towards retirement and financial security. Selecting a new identity and the recent IPO are two key milestones on the path to the company’s transformation. But behind the marketing strategies and financial transactions, there is one key resource upon which a successful future is built: People. And Kevin Silva, ING’s Chief Human Resources Officer, is an expert when it comes to bringing out the best in each and every person he collaborates with.

Kevin Silva was born in Hicksville, Long Island in what he describes as a “simple” Levitt home. But his family was far from simple.  “My father was in the military, so he and my mother settled in Levittown where my brother, sister and I were raised. My father was a first generation Mexican American; his mother had crossed the border but died three years later, so he was brought up by his grandparents. And even though he had to overcome very challenging circumstances he was able to excel beyond what was given to him. My mother was Irish, so my parents were like Ricky and Lucy. My father definitely stood out in my mother’s Irish family who were lawyers from New York and came from a privileged background.  They were not supposed to meet since they came from very different worlds…but they found each other at a US Service Men’s dance in New York and were together ever since. So I was raised in a family that dealt with differences in socio economics as well as in culture. This uncommon circumstance gave me the privilege of living in two worlds at once, which provided me with a unique perspective and an appreciation for cultural differences and the importance of interpersonal relationships.”

“My father had a great passion for people and for unlocking their potential” he continues. “He was a high performer in everything he did, and always talked about being the best in anything you pursued. He was very successful because he was always engaging and inclusive, people were very attracted to him, and one of the reasons was his genuine interest in others. After his service in the military, he became a pharmaceutical sales representative, and he would study diligently to understand the side effects and benefits of his products, working with doctors and other healthcare providers so they could ensure the maximum benefits for their patients. This was a big part of his life. He was always very concerned about making a contribution and a positive impact.”

Absorbing his father’s passion for medicine, Kevin thought about a career in pharmaceuticals. A career in music was also pondered on, since his father had also taught him to play the classical guitar. “I knew that would not be a great way to make a living,” he conceded “so I pursued my third interest in sales. I enrolled in St. John’s University in the Communication Arts program, and I found that I had a passion for sales and marketing.” Kevin’s first job out of college was in consumer goods marketing at Keebler. He quickly built good relationships with grocery stores and associated supermarkets. “I was a very successful sales person; out of the 70 sales representatives they had in the region, I was usually in the top 3 at any given quarter. As a result, I was asked to manage a district, which meant I was able to hire other sales representatives. I realized at a very early age that my success could be multiplied by my ability to hire the right people, and that by investing in them and making them successful, I would in turn be successful as well. As a result I was named district manager of the year, but I was very aware that this was very much based on the efforts of my sales team as well as my own.  My next three years at Keebler were more focused on hiring and training talent. Following Keebler Pepsi, which was a very exciting company the time, asked me to join them. This was a wonderful opportunity because they had one of the strongest HR organizations in the country. They had just launched ‘The Pepsi Challenge’, with their legendary ‘which tastes better’ campaign, so their marketing machine was extraordinary. I ran a training and consulting organization for the independent bottlers, so I would meet with their chairmen and management teams and make recommendations for them to have a more profitable business in terms of marketing, fleet management, accounting and people practices. We would also implement training programs aimed at making these organizations stronger and unlocking their potential. Pepsi was also an extraordinary organization in terms of Diversity and Inclusion, so I had the opportunity to learn about different cultures and gender diversity, which was a wonderful experience.

When reflecting upon the lessons learned in this first leg of his professional journey, Kevin is steadfast to sum up the secrets of his early success. “One of the first lessons is you need be very purposeful about who you choose to be a part of your team, it’s a little bit like a marriage, so you need to bring people in who have values that align with the organization and that will be a good fit, and who have the same desire to achieve and contribute that you do, so the starting point is very important. Then there is a set of competencies that you must look for: Does someone have intellectual curiosity and the ability to learn, do they have interpersonal skills and the capacity to work with others, do they have a growth orientation and do they want to advance in their roles, and that includes the ability to accept feedback… with that basis you can invest in talent. My early successes were based on being able to see in people potential beyond what they could see in themselves. If you surround yourself with those who have a similar set of values and help unlock their talents, inspiring and challenging them to be everything they can be, you will get a top performance.  When invested in, cared for and incentivized, people will rise to the occasion and accomplish what they didn’t believe they could accomplish.”

After Pepsi, Kevin joined MasterCard where he was the head of HR, helping to turn the brand around. Then there were periods at Merrill Lynch as an HR Officer and the bond insurance corporation MBIA, where Kevin spent 13 years serving as chief administrative officer and was responsible for the human resources, corporate administration, information resources, facilities, telecommunications, and records-management functions. He also advised MBIA’s business leaders on individual and financial performance improvement and served as strategic partner to the CEO and to the Compensation Committee of the MBIA Board of Directors. After MBIA, Kevin worked in Bermuda with Argo Group International, a global publicly-traded specialty insurance company where he was responsible for building a high-performing team and implementing compensation, succession and executive-development practices. These experiences prepared him for what Kevin considers to be the most rewarding opportunity of his career: “What first attracted me to ING was Rodney Martin our CEO, because he is as equally skilled at handling all the financial aspects of running a business as he is on the people aspects, and that combination, someone with financial prowess and a deep understanding of the business content, but also natural people skills, makes for a great leader. He is a man of great principles and values. Who I work with and who surrounds me is very important at this point in my life, so being able to choose this path was very rewarding. I also spent time with the senior team, understanding their values, and they aligned with my own which was critical. One place where people get misaligned in their careers is when they partner with an organization where their values don’t align. You need to make a conscious decision about how a company is run and whether that is a place where you will prosper. The business proposition was also very interesting because we were preparing to become an independent, publicly-traded company. And the job itself, because it was the perfect platform to apply everything that I had learned up to that point, and to apply my experience in an environment where it will have some impact. So this is very special opportunity for me.”

As Kevin explains, ING U.S.’ vision is to be America’s Retirement Company. And there is a powerful mission beyond that: “We want to make a secure financial future possible one person, one family, one institution at a time. In order to make that happen we also have to make sure our values and what we call our ‘leadership behaviors’ are always present.  Our values are we do the right thing, we have customer passion, we are the ‘we’, which talks about our collective ability to work together, we have a winning spirit and we care. These are the foundational values that we have. In terms of our leadership behaviors, when we look at what kind of organization we want to be, we assess each individual and their achievements and contributions, but we also look at how they operate, because we want them to follow certain guidelines. They must always demonstrate integrity, they must have the ability to create and lead change, not be a part of the status quo but create something new and different. We also want for our associates to deliver results – many times people can accomplish everything on their objective list but they do not have any impact on the business, so it is very important that they deliver results, excelling at execution, leading with passion and clarity. We also emphasize a culture of the greater good – self and individual achievement is important, but bring others along with you, which talks about the ability to replicate performance. You can excel in an organization by consuming people and exhausting your resources, or you can excel in an organization by developing talent, and enhancing yourself along the way, and that is how we operate. And finally focusing on the customer – our ability to sustain ourselves as a strong financial organization is based on our ability to serve our customers and their needs.”

As with most corporations, the Hispanic market is becoming a huge stake in that customer base, and ING takes understanding its nuances very seriously. Their ING Retirement Research Institute revealed the results of a study which surveyed 4,050 adults, 500 of them Hispanic. “Today, Hispanics make up the second-largest ethnic segment of the U.S. population – and are expected to be the fastest-growing demographic in the near future, nearly doubling by 2050. But when we look at retirement plans, we find that Hispanics have the lowest overall savings in employee-sponsored plans – so there is a lot to be done,” Kevin assesses. “Our research found that 70 percent of Hispanics do not have a formal investment plan to reach their retirement goals but 63 percent have dependents, compared to 54 percent of the overall population. Even though 50 percent agree that saving for retirement is their most important long term goal, only 19 percent currently work with a financial professional and 18 percent admit to spending no time at all even thinking about retirement.” These numbers paint a bleak picture when it comes to the financial future of Latino families. But for companies like ING, they represent the opportunity to turn the trends around. ”We want to serve this market because we know who they are, we have done real research, and we understand how to provide them with the advice and the tools to they need to address these issues. Another key factor is our business model, we market our products through individual advisors in local markets, so they develop personal relationships and build the trust required to be able to manage a family’s future.  We know education is a key factor, so we offer our services in Spanish and have Hispanic advisors who are doing a wonderful job developing workshops on financial literacy. A core focus of the ING Foundation is all about financial literacy – so we know we can make a difference and support the diverse communities in which we operate”

Integrating Latinos into ING’s workforce and supplier base is also a mission Kevin addresses day to day. “Diversity is a critical component of our transition, as we go through our rebranding we want to emphasize that we are a culture that puts a very high value on diversity and recognize how important it is to our business. We believe that strength comes from different points of view, which result in better ideas. And having diverse talent in the markets that we want to play is going to be critical to have a competitive advantage– so we continually focus on how to attract, retain, engage and develop a diverse and inclusive workforce. We also believe that diversity should permeate within the organization, not as a higher management exercise, but as an integral part of our fabric and our culture. In terms of supplier diversity we make efforts to reach out to minority and women-owned businesses because our customers and stakeholders also want us to empower diverse business communities.” ING U.S.’ transformation also requires creating a Board of Directors for the newly public company. “Forming our board certainly signifies to the world that we are a publicly traded company, that we have sound governance, that we will have disciplined advice and that this is a good business proposition where shareholders should invest.  Our board members will represent the interests of these shareholders and advise management as we go through this separation process and beyond. ”

As we wrap up our interview, Kevin reflects of the qualities that make a great leader. “Caring for others and being able to help them tap into and realize their full potential is a key leadership quality. The ability to be able to bring different groups together and have them work towards a common goal is also important. But a great leader also needs to understand the financial purpose of an organization, and how it will reach its financial goals. You need to be healthy financially in order to sustain your employees and invest in them and provide services to your customers, so it’s a balance. But it is only through great leadership that people can achieve beyond what they thought possible.”

For Kevin, there is one example that gets down to the core of things – “I was 12 years old and tried for the little league team at Cantiague Park, but I got sent home with a bunch of kids after they had picked all of the good players. They said we could play only if one of our father’s volunteered to coach. I told my father the story… ‘Nobody can tell my son he can’t play baseball!’ he said. – He didn’t know anything about the sport but decided to coach us, so basically we were the team of the leftover kids. We were terrible at first, but my father would take us out for ice cream after the games and say ‘It’s ok boys, we may not have won today but we will continue to do our best.’ Then we started winning, made the playoffs… and one day I was in the outfield, the bases were loaded and they hit the ball to me. I couldn’t see (it turned out that I needed glasses) but I lifted up my arm and the ball fell into my mitt. That year, we won the Hicksville Little League Championship. My father coached that team out of sheer will, defying all odds. ‘There is no such thing as can’t,’ he would say. And he displayed that trophy in our Hicksville home until the day he passed away. And that is the greatest lesson of my life.”

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