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How Great Leadership and Open Communication Create A Culture That Lasts

Keira Torkko
VP Employee Experience
Assent Compliance Inc
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"There's always something to learn from every employee at your company."

Keira Torkko

In this episode

According to Keira, a culture of growth and inquiry can only be cultivated by committed and accessible leadership that actively promotes these qualities. Approaching challenges as puzzles to be solved together and advocating for employees at all times are steps to take towards an enduring culture of open communication.

Tune in to this episode and learn:

  • How playing sports can impact leadership skills
  • Why people skills matter more than technical skills when leading
  • How to be a leader that inspires
  • Why accessible leadership is the future
  • What makes a company culture collaborative instead of individualistic

. . .

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In this episode


Introduction to Keira


How sports can provide the opportunity to learn leadership and interpersonal skills


Keira's time at the Coaching Association of Canada


Solving problems through the lens of people 


Maintaining workplace culture in a large and fast-growing company.


Holding your leadership to high standards


Understanding adult learning to optimize professional development


Accessible and emotionally intelligent leadership


Aligning HR and leadership through consistent conversations


Creating a collaborative culture


Quickfire round of questions

Resources from this episode

Transcript of episode

Cassy: Today, I've got Keira Torkko, who's the VP of employee experience at Assent Compliance. Keira, welcome to the show.

Keira: Thanks. It's great to be here, Cassy.

Cassy: Why don't you start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Keira: Maybe I'll with the present and then work backwards. I'm currently the VP of employee experience at Assent Compliance, which is a pretty fast-growing software company here in Ottawa. It's interesting, I lead the employee experience team, which is what we term HR. It's interesting because I didn't come from an HR background. I came from a history of leading people and leading operations in a number of different ways. The CEO and I really believe that the role of an HR leader is to look at business problems through the lens of people.

I'm able to bring many years of business experience, whether it be in national sport, in research or in software or in other areas, to the challenges and the puzzles that we have at hand. I am a fervent believer in the power of people and the important role that their development plays in a company's growth. I'm also a huge sports fan, so you may hear a bit today, Cassy. I may drive that through a number of our conversations today.

Cassy: How did you get into leading people before being at Assent?

Keira: That's an interesting question, because you had framed that to me a little bit beforehand. I was thinking first about personally and so maybe this is my first sport reference for today, Cassy, is that I do think sport provides really authentic opportunities for people and kids to lead. I was really lucky as a child and a teenager to have great coaches across a number of sports, who really had the foresight to see that the power that sport had to develop so many different life skills around resilience and managing emotions and self-awareness. I think that's where I first got a [unintelligible 00:02:39] taste for leading people.

I think from a professional context, I'm a big believer in the-- I think it's a Greek philosopher who said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunities. I do believe you need to put yourself out there to be in positions to have this luck. After I graduated from university and had a few different starts and stops, I ended up joining one of the big banks training programs. This was probably in the mid '90s, so dating myself a little bit here. I was doing this management training program where they put you in different roles and functions across the bank.

It just so happens that I had graduated with a business degree and had taken the Canadian securities course. At that time, there weren't a lot of people in banking who had this background. One day, a branch manager in the city I was living in, Victoria, at the time, had to leave the office for illness. They had put in place a new practice where you had to have the Canadian securities course, in order to be a branch manager. I was the only person in the city, not already a branch manager, that could take this role. I was probably 22 years old and was managing a bank branch. I quickly realized, I think, at that time, that leadership wasn't about knowing all the technical elements of opening a branch and managing-- Of course, you had to do those things, but it was really about the people and about making sure that they felt valued and well-led

Cassy: You talked about coaching a little bit, and I know that went full circle, because before Assent, you were the COO at The Coaching Association of Canada. How did that opportunity come about and what is it about coaching that you're really passionate about? Maybe it'd be interesting to see how you think the coaching elements in sport might translate to people and leading people in organizations.

Keira: That's a great question. Right before I worked in national sport at The Coaching Association, I was working at the National Research Council of Canada. I was what they term a director-general. I led a big group of researchers and I was very passionate about the role that research plays, but I knew I needed to take the next step in my career. We had done some work at the NRC with Olympic sport programs, which is super cool and being able to identify using the wind tunnels to see what sort of equipment or uniforms our Canadian athletes should wear, to have the best success at Olympic games.

When an opportunity came about at one of the big national sport organizations in a leadership capacity, I put my name forward unexpectedly. That role didn't pan out, but the people who had been interviewing for me, kept their eye out, because they had thought that the passion I brought to sport and the business expertise was something they wanted to see. When something became open at The Coaching Association, they phoned me and asked me to put my name forward. It was such a good blend of leadership opportunities combined with the ability to have the impact on so many kids and so many athletes across the country. They support hundreds of thousands of coaches annually, across 70, or maybe 67 national sports. For me, the power of sport is that, it's interesting, I teach courses in coaching and have for some time, Cassy. I always ask this question at the very beginning to people who are in the course, to tell me about the best coach you ever had. Maybe 2% of the time, people talk about, "Oh, they taught me how to have a better stroke," or "They taught me about better ball placement." They always talk about their ability to inspire, their ability to get them to become more confident, they talk about how they derived a sense of team and how they led a team.

I think everyone has a great coach story, and it's not about the technical aspects. It's really about how that helped them become a better leader and a better human being. I think that's what excited me, and that's why I spent three years really helping to drive that coach system in Canada, to be able to have that impact.

Cassy: Maybe you alluded to some of the points, but is that what continues to drive you now that you're working in an organization where-- The product is very different. Assent sells compliance software, and it's very different. What drives you to do what you do now?

Keira: I think I talked a little bit before about being able to solve business problems through the lens of people and really being able to optimize the people's performance at both an individual and team level. The CEO at Assent and myself are incredibly aligned in that thinking. It was really important to me, because I can bring all of these great ideas about how we use skills and tactics and activities from other sectors and others ways of doing things, to a fast-growing software company? If no one is going to be receptive to that, then that wasn't going to be exciting to me.

I do think the receptivity and the interest to be able to leverage that skillset to drive performance and to have people realize and see success, was very rewarding. That you can see in compliance, you can see in many other sectors. I think it transcends many different ways and areas.

Cassy: Just to give people an idea for scale, how many people work at Assent today?

Keira: We have 550 Assentees, which is what we call ourselves, in offices in Canada, the US, Europe, Asia, and in Africa.

Cassy: How about two years ago?

Keira: I joined two years ago and I was 1 employee out of 300. We've almost doubled in size in that time period. I think there was a point in time, Cassy, where I hired a person every seven hours for about a one year time period. [laughs]

Cassy: That is quite [crosstalk].

Keira: Not myself, personally, my team and my colleagues at Assent. That growth is something pretty special to be a part of.

Cassy: That's incredible. Can you describe the culture at Assent? I think it's fascinating to see, and I think it's especially hard to ensure that culture remains when a company is growing that fast.

Keira: Yes, you're really right. You were successful when you started, because you were entrepreneurial and you put yourself out there. At the same time, you need to come to terms that we now have more than 500 people globally that require practices, process and discipline, which can sometimes be at odds with the entrepreneurial way of thinking. If you can be creative, you can find a way for those things to be working together. I think that's really what we've tried to do. If I think about our culture, I can bring it to three key areas. One would be around care, respect for yourself, respect for others. Are you self-aware? Do you see opportunities? One of the big pieces of care that's important to us is that, without going into great detail on our product, our product supports supply customers in managing data, across their supply chain. One of the things that we do is we help support those customers in driving sustainability and corporate social responsibility across the supply chain, so making sure that their supply chain is-- We have information on the human trafficking and anti-bribery and anti-corruption. Making sure that they've got a good visibility to the health of that supply chain and that those elements aren't there.

A lot of people come to Assent because they're driven by how we work with companies to support that CSR, so that care piece.

Two, I guess I would say the growth mindset. We're constantly changing, so we need to make sure we're looking at things from different angles. I think you always need to have a growth mindset, whether you're growing at 50% a year, or whether you're growing at five or 10%, because even if your company isn't changing and growing everything around you is. You've constantly got to be doing that. A word that we use a lot at Assent is curiosity. Are we asking great questions? Are we seeking to understand? Do we really think that everybody has the ability to be a teacher? I talk a lot about that, is that there's always something you can learn from everybody else in the company. I do think those three fundamental pieces stay with the culture as you grow and change, but maybe how you think about them or how they get enacted may be a little bit different.

Cassy: It's interesting, because I think growth and curiosity are two of the core values that I see companies talk about a lot and that they look for and they're trying to create. Any advice you can give to other leaders that want to recreate and foster, based on how you're developing people to have those skills?

Keira: It's a good question, and one I ask myself and we’re constantly reevaluating. I always use the phrase "You can't be what you can't see." You have to hold your leadership and your management teams to the highest regards, with respect to, what does culture actually mean in behaviors? It's one thing to have posters on the wall that say one thing, but I think people really need to see it in decision-making, in practices, in leadership behaviors. It needs to be rewarded in whether it be performance reviews or ongoing recognition. You really have to embed it into business practices. It can't be something that's led solely by the HR team. It needs to be something that permeates leadership conversations. If we're talking about a new business direction, I need to think about, "How do I make sure the leadership team is being curious, thinking about this new opportunity? How do we give the team members an opportunity to be curious about it?" It's making sure that those elements infiltrate other aspects of business in the organization. We are policy-light in our organization, so I tend not to drive things through policy. Of course, we have policy where we need it, but making sure that people understand boundaries within which they can operate, and still have that growth mindset and still be curious.

Cassy: How do you think about professional development? Do you have a professional development program at Assent?

Keira: Yes. I'm fortunate. I talked a little bit before about my role at The Coaching Association. One thing people may not know is, The Coaching Association of Canada is actually Canada's largest adult education training program. It trains more adults every year than any other organization in Canada, universities included. I'm very passionate about learning and development. I, at Assent, own the learning and development team. They're part of my team, as well as we own the customer learning and development, so our product training. Understanding how adults learn and understanding adult learning pedagogy is so crucial to being successful. We believe it's not one-size-fits-all around professional development. It's really a blend of, yes, there are tactical things and tasks you need to know for your job, but there's also a lot of things that you're going to learn differently than other people.

A couple of things we do specifically, so we have devoted professional development days for everybody in the organization, with the freedom and flexibility to use this time as it makes sense, for people's own development.

We've recently launched a more comprehensive development planning practices for the organization. You can see a bit of my influence here, that we've created a coaching toolkit for managers, to help people develop their own personal development plans. Which helps identify where they want to be and what skills they need to get there. We do the onboarding in a consistent way, across the organization. One of the pieces in our onboarding that I really do like, is that three months in, all new Assentees get to spend probably half a day with the full leadership team, so that they can take what they've learned over the last three months, and be able to really understand what each of the teams and departments does. If you do that really early on, people don't have the right context to be able to understand why what teams are doing is meaningful. We've got all the tools, we've got our learning management system and I've got trainers on staff. We do engage people in a much more self-directed way, after their initial onboarding is done.

Cassy: I saw in another interview that you did, that you have a Coffee with the CEO program. Is that right?

Keira: Yes. We do. We also have a Walk with the CFO program. Every individual at Assent, gets an opportunity to spend 15 or 20 minutes with the CEO, usually within their first three or four months. Again, doing it really early on when people are trying to absorb information. As I mentioned, everyone learns in such different ways. We need to give them those opportunities to learn and it might happen a bit slower for someone than somebody else. Three months in, you'll spend time with the CEO, and then you can also do a walk with the CFO, to understand his perspective. We have a gentleman who works with us, a gentleman by the name of Russell Frederick, who is our CFO. He's the most emotionally intelligent CFO I've ever worked with, or engaged with. The conversations usually aren't much about the company at all. They are about his experiences, your experiences, and how we might be able to better work together.

Cassy: It sounds like you and your leadership team have an incredible relationship of mutual understanding and alignment. What kind of advice can you give to other people leaders in HR, that are looking for a way to make sure that they have this kind of alignment? I think to even get a CEO to buy into Coffee with the CEO, where you have 500 employees and you're hiring one new employee every seven hours, that-

Keira: Not today, but that certainly was the case, Cassy.

Cassy: That's a lot of coffees, right?

Keira: [laughs] It’s a lot of coffee.

Cassy: What can other HR leaders do to make sure that they're aligned with their entire leadership team?

Keira: I may be repeating myself a bit here, Cassy, but it's making sure that culture and people are part of many conversations. At the end of a meeting, I don't raise my hand and say, "Let's talk about people." I make sure that it's really part of the conversations. I'm very fortunate, in that I don't need to do a lot of influencing and selling inside the organization, to have the leadership team believe that the culture and people and how we engage with them is important. That's not to say it's not always smooth. You're hearing the highlights of it today, Cassy. We do have some puzzles, but I also think even just-- We use the word puzzles in the organization, rather than challenges, because puzzles are meant to be solved. We've tried to find ways to work together to solve that puzzle. One of the things I do also talk about regularly is that, if we don't pay attention to this, we're going to have a default culture, which is going to really show up as us versus them. It's going to show up as superficial conversations. I do sometimes talk about the impacts of us not having this focus in the company and I do find that can be impactful as well.

Cassy: I love that concept of the default culture. What do you mean by default culture?

Keira: I don't know if this is out in the public. This is just something that I think about, Cassy. I think that, if we aren't purposeful and intentional about driving the behaviors that we want, people are going to be driving their own individual agendas because they're not going to see the collective impact or the collective vision that we're trying to achieve. I think that means people think more about, "What do I need to do?" which makes us versus them. I think it means that if we're not willing to demonstrate great conversations and open collaboration, then people aren't going to think that that's the norm. They're going to default to being more independent. I guess that's what I think more about, is that people will default to be more individual, than to be more collective and growing towards a shared vision.

Cassy: We'll move on to the quick-fire round. I'm going to ask you five quick questions, just say the first thing that comes off the top of your head, and then I'll move on to the next question. What is your favorite culture-related resource, Keira?

Keira: Right now, I'm reading a lot of Cy Wakeman. Her theme is about reality-based leadership. One of the things she talks about is ditching the drama in the workplace. I'm really compelled with reading that right now.

Cassy: Great. Cy Wakeman is awesome. Which people's leader would you most like to take for lunch?

Keira: I'm going to pick two, which is a bit cheating, but I'm going to pick John Wooden, for those of you who don't know, a famous basketball coach. I'm going to pick another basketball coach, which would be Nick Nurse, the head coach of the Toronto Raptors

Cassy: Single piece of advice you would give to new people leaders.

Keira: You likely got to where you were because you were very technically good at your job. Make sure you leave time to actually be a people leader, not trying to be a people leader and a technical leader all at the same time.

Cassy: Favorite team building activity.

Keira: I love learning opportunities. At the end of every team meeting that I have with my team, someone teaches us something new. The last couple have been, we've learned about how to do yoyo tricks. What equestrian can teach you about being a great leader. We learned about ergonomics. Every team member has to do it, so it teaches you to be a good teacher. You learn something new about your colleagues and you also learn just something new and fun.

Cassy: Keira, what do you do when you're not leading people?

Keira: I have a wonderful family. I have two boys, an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, who I'm trying to help raise to be great people. Our family does a lot of sport together. My husband is in high tech as well, also with an Ottawa based software company. When we come home, we do tend to not talk a lot about work, but we take our kids out to play basketball and mountain biking and enjoy sport and what Ottawa has to offer.

Cassy: Keira, thank you so much for joining us on The Culture Builders Podcast. Is there a way for our listeners to follow you and learn more from you?

Keira: I'm not always as great with social media, I think, as my team members would like me to be. Certainly, connect with me on LinkedIn. It's probably where I post the most stuff. If I get a few more followers who are interested in that, I'll do my best to up my content game.

Cassy: Thanks so much for being on the show.

Keira: Great. Thanks, Cassy.

In this season

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