The secret to professional advancement? Volunteering. Denise Voss’s lessons learned

Former Association of the Luxembourg Fund Industry chair Denise Voss found that getting involved in professional working groups created networks that became invaluable to her career. Image credit: Maison Moderne

Former Association of the Luxembourg Fund Industry chair Denise Voss found that getting involved in professional working groups created networks that became invaluable to her career. Image credit: Maison Moderne

With just shy of thirty years working in the Luxembourg fund industry behind her, one might expect Denise Voss to have more than a few professional lessons to impart. But no. It is her unpaid roles in the fund industry that have offered her some of the biggest learning experiences and greatest career leaps. She explains to Delano’s Josephine Shillito how an introvert from Albany, upstate New York, became one of the biggest voices in Luxembourg finance.

“My mother used to call me a houseplant,” says Voss. “In that I didn’t go outside--not that I was inert!” She describes a childhood of reading and dreaming. An introverted character who hated public speaking (difficult in the American school system), Voss felt at home studying, and she very much took a back seat at social events. “I was never dancing on the table at parties,” she said.

This self-effacing part of her character endures. “I’m always one who likes to bring people together, not to be in the limelight,” she says. Even when she was appointed chairman of the Association of the Luxembourg Fund Industry in 2015, a prestigious post in an association that represents over 1,500 Luxembourg-domiciled investment funds, not to mention the numerous businesses that serve the sector, she refused to dwell too long on the congratulatory buzz.

“Don’t get me wrong, I sat in my garden for an hour and I enjoyed looking at social media posts about the announcement. But I very clearly remember thinking ‘that’s enough, now I have work to do.’”

Voss’s early beginnings were a far cry from her current European lifestyle. Born thousands of miles from Luxembourg, in Los Angeles in the United States, she pursued a bachelor of arts before finding her calling in finance. Her drive, as she describes it, is inherited from her mother who was herself a working mum, and a single one to boot.

Following graduation, Voss worked started as an auditor at Coopers & Lybrand (which went on to become PriceWaterhouseCoopers) in Boston, US, before moving with her employer to Luxembourg. The state of Luxembourg City and the fund industry in 1990 was very different to now and the same applies to Voss.

“I recall [the financial centre] Kirchberg as a stretch of fields, with the Ford dealership a standout landmark. But it was the beginning of Ucits and things were changing,” says Voss.

“I was an auditor--my background was in audit. Even by the time I was chief financial officer at [global fund manager] Franklin Templeton I still wouldn’t describe myself as actively public speaking, leading people or promoting things.”

The experience that led Voss to be one of the biggest promoters of the Luxembourg fund industry clearly wasn’t going to come from her job at the time. Where did it come from?

“It came when I took on roles in professional working groups,” says Voss. “In fact, it was a colleague of mine who suggested I join an Alfi working group to proactively market the Luxembourg fund industry. It all took off from there.”

Taking part in a professional working group opens up all kinds of doors, according to Voss. Participants across the industry take part, solutions are thrashed out behind closed doors and an incredible sense of teamwork pervades.

However, one of the most enduring benefits was the network effect. Suddenly, Voss had access to professionals from a variety of Luxembourg firms as well as her immediate colleagues. These people became valued contacts off whom to bounce ideas and to get inspiration. They were also, crucially, operating at different levels from senior leadership down to management.

“Being part of a working group put me in contact with mentors and sponsors. What’s the difference? I think a mentor helps you develop. A sponsor will actively advocate for you in your career.”

The benefit of a career ‘sponsor’ is gradually becoming accepted and even taught in MBAs throughout the world. Someone in a position of leadership who believes in you as an employee is a source of career capital that goes far beyond salary or any professional qualification. A good career sponsor can elevate your visibility within an organisation and defend you if needs be. They can put your forward for opportunities, explains Voss.

In her case, she met several career sponsors through Alfi working groups who suggested she put herself forward for the executive committee. “Marc Saluzzi, the chairman [of Alfi from 2011-2015], was very supportive,” Voss recalls.

It was from the board of Alfi that Voss was eventually elected chairman, a position she held from 2015 until 2019. The role took her all over the world. “One of the biggest benefits to my career at Franklin Templeton was all of the international travel I undertook while chairman of Alfi. I met regulators from all over the world and really honed a knowledge on global distribution topics that became invaluable for my professional work,” she says.

All this from an initial two-hour contribution of voluntary time a week. For Voss, it was crucial that her company, Franklin Templeton, supported her work at Alfi. In fact, Franklin Templeton not only supported Voss’s contribution to Alfi but allowed her time during her working hours to attend Alfi meetings.

Luxembourg itself is a great environment for working group opportunities, reflects Voss. In any larger jurisdiction, the competition to sit in working groups would be intense, but Luxembourg’s small size but big industry dynamic means these kinds of opportunities are more and more available much further down the career ladder.

For those active in the fund industry, Alfi is a great opportunity to become more involved in the fund community. In banking, the Luxembourg Bankers’ Association (ABBL) is the obvious choice, in insurance, the national insurance association. Outside of these there are still numerous non-professional opportunities, such as the American or British Chambers of Commerce, plus charitable opportunities and those in the arts.

However, the flipside of Luxembourg’s small size also means doing it properly, cautions Voss. “It’s noticed when you don’t show up,” she says delicately.

For Voss, professional volunteering transformed what would already have been a stellar career at Franklin Templeton far more rewarding and far reaching than she would have thought possible.

After retiring from Franklin Templeton in 2020, she continues to dedicate her time to the fund industry. She is currently chair of Luxflag, an independent agency awarding internationally recognised labels to eligible investment vehicles, chair of the Efama Investor Education Platform, and member of the Alfi Strategic Board.

She is also a visiting teacher on the sustainable and green finance course for the MSc in wealth management and the sustainable finance track of the MSc in Finance & Economics at the University of Luxembourg, advising a new generation of finance graduates on the direction available to them.

“I told myself when I retired I would do one-third volunteer work such as Luxflag, I’d do one-third professional work and one-third with family,” she says. Is it working out that way?

“Let’s say in the one-third volunteer work the boundaries are already pushed.” She laughs. “You can’t do volunteer work just for professional advancement. That’s what I’d day to anyone. You have to love it.”