This featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa, with critical support from BDC Capital’s Thrive Venture Fund, the Title Sponsor of International Women’s Month 2024.
Five inspirational leaders are selected each year to represent International Women’s Month. They are role models who significantly impact our economy, community and society and embody the spirit, goals and values of IWM. We teamed up to produce this special series to celebrate women leading in Ottawa for International Women’s Month and shine the spotlight on our IWW 2024 featured leaders to unpack their passion and purpose.
In support of its Women Founders and Owners strategy, Invest Ottawa offers programs and services that enable and accelerate the growth and success of women entrepreneurs from every walk of life. Visit www.investottawa.ca/women to learn more!
Relationships are key. Through experience, you’ve sharpened your problem-solving skills, infused love into your creative self, and deepened your leadership acumen. Yet, these strengths may not always be apparent on paper…
It’s about transforming your most vital skills to your next opportunity.
Keira Torkko has consistently demonstrated this throughout her 25-year career across various sectors. From leadership roles in government agencies focused on science and technology research, to national sports coaching organizations and the banking sector to small technology companies early in her career. When Keira least expected it, her relationships enabled her to navigate unconventional career paths and build a compelling narrative.
Today, Keira is Assent‘s Chief People Leader and Chief of Staff, cultivating a culture of growth, excellence, and high performance. Her dedication has been instrumental in positioning Assent as a magnet for top talent. Keira is also a board member at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and chairs the Ottawa Heart Institute Research Corporation. She is also actively engaged in her passion for community sports.
How can you create your own non-traditional and extraordinary opportunities? Keira shares insights on where to begin.
This episode is for you if:
- You want to improve how you give and receive feedback for maximum growth.
- You’re a leader looking to embed your values in everything you do.
- You want to position yourself as a problem-solver where you are today.
Looking for a specific gem?
[3:22] Keira grew up on a farm.
[5:22] Moved to Ottawa for the technology boom.
[8:04] A sports injury ended her competitive sports career, but it started her coaching career.
[9:32] A story about building your network.
[14:00] Transferring your most vital skills to your next opportunity.
[14:53] Keira’s job is to think about business puzzles through the lens of people.
[15:23] Non-traditional career path through non-traditional means of applying to jobs.
[16:00] Relationships are your key! Your approach to problem-solving and leadership acumen may not always be obvious on paper.
[17:06] How to position yourself as a problem-solver where you are today.
[19:08] In 2023, approximately 23% of Keira’s organization took on a new adventure (people mobility – changed role, promotion, move to another team).
[21:04] People pay attention to the small things.
[24:51] Peer recognition tool with over 95% usage (both in receiving and giving feedback) at Keira’s current organization.
[25:15] How to embed your values at all levels of your organization.
[28:00] I am relentless about asking for feedback.
[30:38] How can you prepare to provide feedback?
[37:20] PSA for women’s heart health.
[41:40] Taking courses in unrelated topics.
People and Resources Mentioned in This Episode
Connect with Keira
LinkedIn – Keira Torkko
Connect with BDC
LinkedIn – BDC Capital (Canada)
Twitter – @bdc_capital
Naomi Haile: Tell us about your origin story.
Keira Torkko: Thanks, Naomi. My teenage boys will be thrilled to hear that I have an origin story – I think that’s a comic reference. I grew up on Vancouver Island, on the west coast of Canada. I was raised on a farm, which is foundational to my belief that “hard work pays off”. On a farm, you just do what needs to be done, roll your sleeves up, and know that rewards will come eventually.
So, I grew up on the West Coast; I went to university in Victoria, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My family did not talk about university; I didn’t even know what options were available to me. Someone came to the school and presented about computer science and business. And I thought “great”. I started out in computer science, and in the early 90s, I didn’t want to program for my whole career. So, I moved into business and got a business degree. I’m also an accountant with an accounting designation. But I never really practiced either computer science or accounting. I just always used them as secrets in my back pocket.
My partner and I moved to Ottawa during the high-tech boom. We lived here briefly and knew we wanted to start a family. So we decided that one of us needed a little bit more stability. That’s when I decided to go to the National Research Council because there was still a really heavy tech involvement, but I had more stability.
Naomi Haile: I didn’t know you grew up on a farm. Were you encouraged to color outside of the lines or stay within them?
Keira Torkko: It seems like a long time ago now. But one of the things that remains with me is I get up every morning at 5am. We had 180 acres [of land], and all had to work on this farm. When we weren’t in school, we were working. I don’t know that I was encouraged to color inside or outside the lines. For me, that just developed me. I had a chance to observe others around me who were doing cool, different things.
Naomi Haile: Could you share your career journey and what drew you to health research, sports organizations, and banking? Did it have anything to do with those sectors, or was it more about the leadership you would be called to do in those roles?
Keira Torkko: Wow, that’s a great question, Naomi. I was always an athlete growing up. I was always outdoors playing basketball, field hockey, and softball. I was a pretty good athlete, but then I had an injury. So, my competitive sports career had to take a back seat then. And I started coaching after that. I still played sports, but when you have a competitive mindset, it’s hard not to play sports as competitively as you did in the past.
Throughout my career, I always looked for great leadership because I had that in team sports growing up. I loved being a coach. And so I coached various different sports. I joined the NRC because I was interested in the tech they were doing, like working with world-class researchers. Over the 12 years I was there, I had two kids, eight different jobs, and constantly moving and evolving. But I got to a point where I knew that I’d reached my cap there. I don’t have a PhD in molecular sciences.
When I started to think about what was next, I applied for a job in a sports organization. It was the first time I’d put together a CV in years. I also had a career coach who was helping me think about things differently at that time. And so I went to this interview, and I thought, you know, I nailed that interview, I got this. And they phoned me to say, you didn’t get the job, there was somebody who just had a lot of really specific knowledge of that organization in that space. But this woman told me, “We were really impressed, and we’re going to find you a job in sport.” And I thought that was the nicest “no” I have ever received. Not long after, I received a call that they found me another place to interview, and that was at the Coaching Association of Canada. So I got to live that every day, and it was a very purpose-driven, valuable part of my career.
Naomi Haile: Wow, what a story. And it’s not something that you could ever plan for. How have you brought in that coaching mindset and that people-centric mindset to your role?
Keira Torkko: Another really great question. What’s interesting about my role at Assent is that it also came because of somebody I knew. I’m the Chief People Officer and the Chief of Staff role to the leadership team. And so, my coaching sometimes covers a broader perspective. When I was offered the VP of Employee Experience (originally), I said I’d never been solely in HR. I’ve led it as a chief operating officer (COO) or general manager, but I have yet to focus solely on it.
Then I started to research some big companies in the U.S. and the paths that their Chief People Officers have taken; they weren’t necessarily coming from traditional pathways. They were bringing a lot of different experiences. And so I can get knowledge of technology, licensing, and commercialization, from driving high performance through coaching leading a business development team. It gives me a different insight into people’s issues. All the roles that I’ve had, and I’m you’ve probably heard this on your show a lot, Naomi, I’ve gotten them because of, you know, somebody who I knew.
I have a non-traditional path, and going through traditional means of applying for jobs, I would have never been screened for an HR role. If somebody didn’t know me and know how I thought organizationally, how I lead people, and how I felt about moving that team forward.
And so a lot of my coaching is how do you take what you’ve got and demonstrate yourself differently? Naomi, what’s your unique brand? And how does that show up in all the things you do so that people remember what Naomi brought to the situation? And so, I think of always using that as the lens and asking how I apply something from my experience here to a different place. That is really meaningful.
Naomi Haile: How do you look at development for the people on your team? Also, when it comes to designing experiences for development, what are some of the things you’re thinking about?
Keira Torkko: A phrase I use often:
“I believe culture is the accumulation of meaningful moments.”
It’s not always about the big values written on your kitchen wall (which we do have because it’s important to be reminded of them), but it’s also the decisions you make daily. How you treat people at all levels of the organization is powerful. Everyone must know the phrase what gets measured gets done. And, you know, people are driven by targets. We’re quite purposeful about a target around new adventures in the organization. And that means somebody taking on a changing role in their team, receiving a promotion, or moving to another team.
“Approximately 23% of our organization took on a new adventure last year.”
We publish the new adventures and talk about them. We share that data with our teams and with our board. It is essential to ensure that people’s abilities are public. It is the small things that matter.
I have run a January health challenge in the company for the last four years. We have teams from all over the world. This challenge is about how much we can walk from Ottawa to Eldoret, Kenya because we have hundreds of employees in Kenya. Teams track their steps. If you do an hour run, it’s equivalent to X number of steps. I would see somebody in this challenge and acknowledge an increase in someone’s step count every day for the last week. And I would send random/weird gifts — an exercise ball or a funny neck exerciser.
I got so swamped this year in early January that I didn’t tackle this challenge. About 10 people have reached out to me to ask about the health challenge, and I thought, oh my goodness, people pay attention. Those make the culture of the organization.
Naomi Haile: What a great way to tie many of your worlds into your current role. Leadership is not connected to a person’s position or rank. When it comes to inspiring or empowering specific teams in the organization, how do you align organizational values with talent strategy?
Keira Torkko: It’s even more relevant now that I wear two hats in the organization: the Chief People Officer and the Chief of Staff. The Chief of Staff role gives me more space to be involved in more operational and organizational initiatives, so I can think about it with more intent now. My most important role in the organization is recruiting the leadership team and ensuring our leadership team reflects the organization’s values. I take that really seriously.
When I first started the organization, two women were on the leadership team. Then, for a period of time, I was the only female on the leadership team. Now, there are four. Diverse perspectives bring different values. Now, 47% of all people leaders at Assent are female, which is quite powerful, and we’ve got amazing representation.
But as I said, small moments make the difference. We use a tool at Asset called Bonusly, a peer recognition tool. We have over 95% usage in receiving and giving feedback across the organization. And every time you reward somebody with something, you must use a hashtag. And our hashtags are primarily driven by our values. So, we embed our values in tools into our performance reviews and different community initiatives. We try to show what our values mean on an everyday decision-making basis.
Naomi Haile: I’m so glad you brought up recognition tools. They inform and help build a culture of trust.
Keira Torkko: You asked the question about being an effective coach, and being an effective coach really is about delivering great feedback. Everyone will use the phrase “feedback is a gift” until they get it. It takes a lot of work to create a culture of great feedback and requires meticulous preparation to be a good coach.
I remember a situation where I was given feedback by a leader of mine a few organizations ago. I am relentless in asking for feedback, so I asked for input. And I always try to make it easy for the giver. So, I asked for feedback about a specific thing. For example, “Naomi, can you please give me feedback on the speed of my speaking during our podcast?” And I remember asking a leader of mine previously what specific skills I needed to get to the next level of the organization. I was in a role at that time that required no financial knowledge, certainly to be able to manage a budget. The leader at the time said to me, “Well, Keira, I think you can probably learn to up your game in finance.” Do you realize I’m a CPA? I am actually an accountant. And it was clear they hadn’t done their homework. They could have been more thoughtful about providing that feedback. From that moment on, my trust in the feedback I got from this person was lost.
When you talk about trust, it’s a loop with feedback. You can give feedback; you’re in a trusted relationship. But the trust goes down if you need to be more honest about your feedback. I can remember where I was sitting, what I was wearing, and how I was feeling when I got that feedback.
Naomi Haile: What are some helpful things to know as someone prepares to give feedback?
Keira Torkko: If you’re not a genuine, authentic person, people can see through it right away. This is why meticulous preparation makes sense.
“You want to show that you’ve done your research and deliver it in a way that they’re going to receive it in the spirit in which it’s intended.”
I received an email once. Ruth Raman sent me an email with some feedback 15 years ago. That email started with, “Please accept this feedback in the spirit with which it’s intended to help us both work on this project better.” It was one of the most meaningful phrases I’ve heard.
People know what your intentions are when you’re delivering feedback. So you’ve got to be really, really genuine. When thinking about coaching somebody and delivering feedback, I often think about how it makes somebody feel. Even if it will be feedback that they may not want to hear, I want them to leave feeling that I’m invested in them being better. I’m not giving them this feedback because I want them to feel bad about it. I’m giving them this feedback because I want them to think, “What am I going to do to ensure that the next piece of feedback is how I’ve progressed.”
Naomi Haile: I appreciate all these stories and moments you’ve recalled from 15-20 years ago!
Keira Torkko: You know, it’s so funny; any great strength can also be your weakness. As my husband and two boys remind me, I have an elephantine memory. And so yes, I remember these things that my family and colleagues probably wish I didn’t.
Naomi Haile: What drives you every day? In the different positions that you hold, what is your purpose?
Keira Torkko: Underlying my purpose is authenticity. My purpose is to be honest and help people develop and grow. I joined the Heart Institute as a board member because I’ve had a lot of family members impacted by heart health. I also knew I could contribute because I’ve worked in a research organization for many years. I tried to think about how I could have an impact using my unique set of skills. When I think about the purpose, it’s about embedding some of those innate values and skills in people and helping to bring out what they already have.
Naomi Haile: You mentioned your role as a board member. Big themes in our conversation have been coaching and supporting others, which is also a valuable leadership perspective. Please share the importance and significance of your board position, specifically on the board of the Ottawa Heart Institute and the Chair of the Heart Institute Research Corporation. What insights have you gained regarding health, especially women’s heart health, and the importance of self-care specifically?
Keira Torkko: Great question. I will do a public service announcement right now about women’s heart health because I’m passionate about it. Women are underdiagnosed, treated, researched, you know, and are unaware of their own heart health. Heart disease is the number one killer of women, and it’s not just by 2%. It’s actually the number one killer of women by a big gap. I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to tell you the specifics, but I’m going to use this moment to encourage every woman listening to this to look up what those symptoms are.
You can look at the Women’s Heart Health Alliance program; just increase your knowledge and know your numbers around cholesterol and lipids because I want everyone to have a long, happy, healthy life.
Early on in this particular board experience, I learned that having a unique non-traditional path to the board is just as valuable as any other leadership capacity. At my first board meeting at the Heart Institute, I didn’t know much about provincial health care, so I was nervous about coming to the board. I stayed up all night reading how hospitals are funded, which made me a bit late for the meeting.
Finally, I get in, and I sit down with all the papers I printed off and the notes I made. I was over-prepared and suffering from major impostor syndrome. And I sit down, and the person next to me goes to shake my hand and says, “You must be the new board member, Keira; I’m Dalton McGuinty.”
And for those who don’t live, because you’ve got global listeners, Naomi, good for you. He used to be the Premier of Ontario, which means he used to run the provincial health care system. So here’s somebody with 15 years of experience and me with 15 hours… And I tell the board chair, “I’m never going to have this level of experience.” And he says to me, “Of course, you’re not; we didn’t bring you on the board because of that. We want people with completely different backgrounds to add to that experience; you’re running sports organizations, you lead people, you know, research, and that’s what we want you to bring to the table”.
“The premise here is that a different background is a benefit in so many ways. You always have to be thinking creatively about how you apply it and not feel like an impostor just because you don’t have the same experience as somebody next to you. I think that’s really important to keep in the front of your mind.”
Naomi Haile: Are you someone who writes a lot? How do you intentionally think about your past experiences? And what’s the best investment you’ve made in yourself?
Keira Torkko: Yeah, I don’t write much, but my brain is really, really active. My brain is constantly trying to gather information from different sources to develop a trend or insight. And there are probably two areas of investment that I’ve made that I’ll mention. Taking courses in things that are unrelated to what you’re doing. As an accountant, I’m required to do professional development (PD) every year to keep my accounting designation active. When I do PD, I ask myself what I do not know much about.
The other investment I’ve always encouraged people to buy is something physical that you can have as a reminder that hard work pays off when you receive a bonus or an unexpected sum of money. I have an amazing team member; when I asked her what she would do with a bonus she received a few years ago, she said, “Oh, we’re going to buy a new toilet.” *laugh*. Even if it’s $50 of this bonus, I want you to buy something that you wouldn’t buy (a luxury, even) so that every time you look at it, you can say, “Hard work pays off.” And it’s a memory of what you did and how you felt when rewarded.
“It’s not just you what you did, but how you felt when you were rewarded.”
I have two pairs of ridiculous shoes, but every time I wear them, I’m reminded that I did this and was recognized for it.
Naomi Haile: You talked about investing in things you’re curious about, whether it’s psychology, brain health, women’s health, or taxes. What are two things you are curious about?
Keira Torkko: This may be an unusual answer. Yesterday, I asked a friend to teach me how to do cryptic crosswords. I am a crossword junkie. I love them. And I always see the cryptic crossword in The Globe and Mail on Saturdays. And I’ve learned that these crosswords are deliberately misleading, and they force you to think differently. So, you have to be creative and think about things beneath the surface. And for me, it’s forced curiosity. And I’m having a hard time learning it because it’s forcing me to think completely differently. And I’m also really curious about development because I am living the craziness of teenage boys in my home.
Naomi Haile: I love it. Thank you so much, Keira. It was a pleasure to meet you and have this conversation so that others could benefit from learning about your non-traditional career path.
Keira Torkko: Thanks, Naomi. You had great questions.
Naomi Haile, Talent Strategy Consultant & Podcast Host
A human capital professional and inclusion strategy expert, Naomi Haile understands people. With 7+ years of experience spanning international tax compliance at the Canadian federal government and consulting at specialized boutique firms, Naomi leverages data about how people interact with systems and filters them through her unique lens to build responsible organizations. Using innovative design thinking strategies, she works with executives and their high-performing teams to co-create sustainable solutions for even the most complex of human capital challenges.
Currently, she is a Senior Talent Strategist, Office of the CEO, at WritersBlok, a white-glove ghostwriting agency that helps business leaders, celebrities, executives, politicians, and athletes turn their personal stories into brand assets. In addition to her consulting work, Naomi is the producer and host of the rising Power of Why Podcast (which boasts over 30K downloads and 200 active monthly listeners), where she interviews top global and local industry leaders. Most notably, her recent interview with Netflix’s Chief of Human Resources Officer was featured on Business Insider.
An avid traveler, Naomi has explored over 25 cities and 11 countries, and loves to connect with new cultures through her passion for food. When she’s not monitoring her investment watchlists, she is boxing or enjoying a Broadway show.