Keira Torkko: Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Be clear and specific with team members — there is no point in hiding reality. When you hide the reality or give a 30,000-foot view answer, team members will draw their own conclusions, and that’s how misinformation spreads.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Keira Torkko.
Keira’s commitment to promoting a dynamic team spirit and culture of high performance helps ensure Assent Inc. attracts and retains champions.
She has led teams in a variety of sectors for more than 25 years and has held a variety of leadership roles at the National Research Council, the Coaching Association of Canada, and TD Bank. Keira sits on the boards of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and the Ottawa Heart Institute Research Corporation, and is actively involved in a variety of community sports organizations.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My backstory is a bit of a non-traditional one, but is one that has always focused on people, and bringing out their strengths. I’ve had more than a dozen different roles throughout my career, and when I was given the opportunity to join the Coaching Association of Canada as COO, my journey in leadership really took me down my path. When I was approached to join Assent as a VP of HR, it gave me a chance for a different kind of personal growth with a new role — but not a totally new set of responsibilities. It was a natural transition.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for — who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I learned a number of things from a mentor and advocate, Judith Young, while working at the National Research Council. She gave me stretch assignments and held me accountable, but she also taught me the importance of joy and personal connection. She brought happiness to more typically dry work environments. For her, joy was in the little details. And I’ve tried to emulate how she thought to personalize things in really meaningful ways to individuals around me. When we got back to the office after lockdown, for example, we had missed every single member of my team’s birthdays. We gave a personalized birthday cake to every single person which was so well received because it was something to celebrate and show we cared. Some were a specific color, or had sparkle, or confetti — whatever would bring that person joy.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision? What was its purpose?
Assent truly is a purpose-driven business — our mission is to make the supply chains of complex manufacturers deeply and durably good. As our company has evolved, we have developed solutions and hired experts for ESG specific to the supply chain. Our work in supply chain sustainability for human trafficking and slavery, anti-bribery anti-corruption, child labor, and conflict minerals is really meaningful work in the world.
The pandemic has reinforced the value of our business too, as we are all now so acutely aware of the impact of unsustainable supply chains. My job is way more interesting to my family and friends around the holiday dinner table now than it was three years ago — though they seem to think I can impact the price of lettuce or the speed of television delivery!
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As a leader, I’ve always been acutely aware that a lot of people rely on me as a leader, and my words matter. My actions matter. And not necessarily grandiose words and actions, but small things can make a huge difference.
A life lesson I love to reflect on is the cumulative impact of one percent improvements each day. A well-known example is when the British Cycling team hired Dave Brailsford as its performance director in 2003, he put in a philosophy of attacking small, one percent changes in even the smallest details, such as the best type of pillow, or the specific angle of a bike seat. All of these little changes had a cumulative effect over time.
Not everything needs to be a massive and meaningful change. Everyone can always come up with a one percent improvement. For example, checking in with one additional person a day, or ending a meeting five minutes early to transition, can make a difference in my day. For me, it’s about the team, and setting a great example around you.
I’m an author, and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I have always been inspired by the work of Dr. Peter Jensen, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and a sports high-performance consultant/psychologist. I heard about him the first time when I was taking an executive leadership course at Queen’s, and again throughout my career in sports in Canada.
What his work, and sportsin general, shows is that coaching can have a really immediate impact as performance is constantly measured. You can A/B test, and then see if the person has been able to take a hundredth of a second off their time — it’s a tangible, immediate impact. These coaching theories can be practiced, but applied so well to business. It’s not just alignment on the angle of a slapshot, it’s finding what motivates a player. Sports is a great Petri dish to see how that works and then implement strategies with your team.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Especially as we have shifted into a post-pandemic life with more remote interactions, the most critical role is flexibility and adaptability. You must be able to connect with a wide range of people who are all experiencing the challenging times differently. You will never really know what is going on behind the scenes for that team member. The people who are looked upon to provide stability during challenging times at work are often the same people who are looked upon to provide stability in families and communities. It is a large burden to bear sometimes. So, you need help too. Establish really solid relationships at all times so you have a network both inside and outside your business to rely upon.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The best thing a leader can do is invest in their team’s development: give stretch projects, promote within, and support your own people. I always want to pull forward and give opportunities internally, or put together project teams from across the organization. Great performers will rise to the occasion. In tough times, doubling down on these types of projects and promotions can really boost morale.
At the same time, it’s important to manage poor performance as well, as it can be demotivating to high performers to see it not dealt with. Don’t let uncertainty (or fear of lack of resources to replace) hold you back from making a hard decision. The ripple effects of a poor and unmotivated team member are significant.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be direct. When delivering difficult news, people won’t absorb a lot of information past the first sentence that you say. That said, you need to put impact into context and make sure you have done your research so you understand your customer or team, and can personalize the message where possible. Show them that you appreciate their set of circumstances and what the news will mean to them, advise on what you don’t know, and be specific when you can.
Because people slow down their processing after the first piece of difficult news, put it in writing so they can refer back. They will hear the information through so many biases after.
And for leaders, personally, I would say that I cannot tell you with any level of certainty how an individual will react to difficult news as it doesn’t always correlate with how they receive other information. But nine times out of 10, if you deliver the message in the right way, it will go better than you anticipated.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The best way to manage an unpredictable future is to set leading indicators to guide decision points to avoid letting emotions or a specific instance overly impact a decision. It’s a leader’s job and responsibility to add structure and confidence to unpredictable situations. So it’s good to decide early in the year what the indicators are of where you’ll make decisions. For example, will you continue expanding into a specific market? Sometimes in the moment you get swept up in one amazing deal, but previously, we decided that we need a specific amount of revenue by a specific day in order to make that call.
During COVID, there was a great deal of unchartered territory for our leadership team. We met every second day to share what we knew, and identify who had the most insight on a specific topic, which enabled us to make better business decisions.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Many of the best practices for leading during uncertain and turbulent times are also excellent practices for leading during successful times. My most important things to do are:
- Be clear and specific with team members — there is no point in hiding reality. When you hide the reality or give a 30,000-foot view answer, team members will draw their own conclusions, and that’s how misinformation spreads.
- Connect with purpose. For us, this often means celebrating success, big and small. Rewarding inputs, such as pipeline build for a sales organization, can help celebrate certainty and predictability.
- Be patient and wait to evaluate impacts before making decisions too quickly. People-based decisions that hinder long-term growth or jump on trends can have a negative impact down the road. For example, some people gave up office space early on, whereas we held onto our space and took the time to plan a renovation into a community hub for our team. People need a sense of belonging, and I’m glad we didn’t rush a decision.
- Put in a consistent cadence of communication so that team members know they will get updates from you. Even if you don’t have significant updates to provide, a predictable touchpoint provides stability. This also gives a chance to seek input, which I always believe in doing lavishly, from as many sources as possible.
- During times like these, as a leader, I need to take care of myself and stay healthy. You’re only helpful to others when you’re at your best. I like to take time to participate in my kids’ sports, stay connected with friends and take time away, even if only for 24 hours to clear my mind. I also like to get out on my mountain bike. Despite the intensity, I find it meditative — you have to be laser-focused while out on the trail.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I keep my LinkedIn up to date with work I’m following, and work that inspires me. I can be found here.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!