Stepping out of her comfort zone is the key to success for Isabelle Durand, CLO at iA Financial

Durand had much to learn when she moved to the highly regulated financial services sector

Stepping out of her comfort zone is the key to success for Isabelle Durand, CLO at iA Financial

When Industrial Alliance Insurance and Financial Services Inc. asked Isabelle Durand to step out of her comfort zone and become the company’s vice president and chief legal officer, she jumped at the opportunity: After all, getting comfortable with discomfort was nothing new to her.

“I came from the investment world to a regulated industry, so I had many things to learn, but all the changes I made throughout my career required me to step out of my comfort zone,” she says.

Called in 2002, after graduating from Laval University’s Faculty of Law in Quebec City, Durand joined Fasken Martineau Dumoulin LLP’s Montreal office, where her practice focused on transactional commercial real estate.

In 2007, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec offered Durand a position as senior advisor, legal affairs with its SITQ affiliate, then a $17.8 billion real estate investment, management and development firm specializing in office properties, hotels, apartments, retirement housing and real estate investment funds.

“SITQ was an international company that allowed me to cover growth markets such as India as well as the European market,” Durand says.

When Caisse subsumed its three real estate affiliates under the Ivanhoé Cambridge umbrella in 2009, Durand became the merged entities’ director, legal affairs, a post she held until 2014, when she took on a role as the president’s chief of staff. Following a year in that position, Durand spent about two years focusing on compliance and corporate ethics as VP, legal affairs, compliance, and corporate secretary.

In late 2016, Durand became VP, legal affairs, operations, where her responsibilities included managing Ivanhoé’s commercial real estate portfolio, which included 26 shopping centres.

“At the beginning of my career, my roles as a lawyer had a transactional core that only gave me a piece of the picture, but the 18 months I spent as chief of staff exposed me to governance, compliance and ethics issues, and managing the commercial real estate portfolio gave me boots-on-the-ground experience that included crisis management.”

In 2021, Ivanhoé outsourced the management of its shopping centres, abolishing Durand’s position in the process.

“I thought of relocating within the Caisse, but then – through an ex-Ivanhoé contact – I got an offer from iA,” Durand says.

Founded in 1892, iA is one of Canada's largest insurance and wealth management groups, with operations in the US and a public company that boasts $207.8 billion in assets and 9,000 employees (Ivanhoé had $77 billion in assets and 1,000 employees). The organization’s lines of business include individual insurance and wealth management, group insurance and savings and retirement plans, auto and home insurance, automotive guarantee products for US dealers, and investment management.

At press time, the iA legal services team had 84 employees, including 61 lawyers, forming an integrated multi-national team across North America with members in Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Waco and Dallas.

“It’s a diverse team that speaks more than 15 languages and has work experience in the Philippines, England, Israel, Dubai, Hong Kong and Seattle,” Durand says. “We have expertise in many areas, including corporate governance and secretariat, mergers and acquisitions, securities, litigation, distribution, financing, real estate, employment, anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing, intellectual property, legislative tracking and licensing, as well as a dedicated government relations function.”

So iA’s offer could have been daunting to anyone less inured to challenges and change.

But I had many reflexes from my previous positions that served me well and made me realize that I knew more than I thought I did,” Durand says. “Still, I had a lot to learn about the company, the business structures and the underlying businesses, all of which translated to a huge legal spectrum.”

When Durand joined iA in January 2022, the head of finance, to whom legal reported, was on a mission to get the in-house corporate functions closer to the business units. Durand immediately took on the same goal.

Following the new finance structure, Durand untangled the existing legal teams that serviced everyone but gave none of the businesspeople clear points of contact and accountability and provided each business line with an individual lawyer as their go-to person. Durand then resourced that lawyer with a team that focused on the legal aspects of that business line.

“This created not only a structure but a mindset because it gave the lawyers a … strategy that incorporated what mattered to the particular business team,” Durand says. “It also allows us to train younger lawyers more easily and move capacity around within the team.”

Durand carefully points out that she couldn’t have effected the transformation alone.

“Collective input was the only way to achieve the changes we wanted, as was a corporate culture that believed in getting people out of their comfort zone like I had to and stretch that zone as far as possible without making people so uncomfortable that they weren’t productive anymore.”

Durand says achieving that balance requires an understanding of what drives individuals.

“It’s important to give the people hungry for growth what they need to grow, but you can’t do that without dedicating more time to listening carefully to them than just five minutes at the end of a meeting.”

Flexibility also plays a significant part.

“If you want people to give you their best and stay with you, you can achieve that by giving them flexibility,” Durand says. “For example, iA’s approach to remote work is to let people work where they are most productive with no obligation to be anywhere except at key moments.”

Durand also took it upon herself to formalize the government relations function, hiring a non-lawyer to fill that role.

“It’s one thing to see the laws come down and another to have meaningful input and get your views to the right people,” she says.

Durand’s overarching career theme is growth and trying new things while never being afraid to reach out.

“In terms of the transitions I’ve experienced, my network of internal colleagues, law firms, general counsel at other companies, and accounting firms were all precious to me.”

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