We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Keegan Walden, co-founder of Torch. Keegan shared his thoughts on leadership, growth, company culture and how Torch came to be. This episode had many fascinating insights, so if you have the time to listen to that entire conversation, you can find it here. In the meantime, you can find the highlights from that episode in this blog!
Let’s get into the origins of Torch. Can you tell me how you met your co-founder Cameron Yarbrough?
I’d been working at a large financial organization for probably six years at that point, and I wanted to do something more connected to people and relationships, which was my original interest. While I was working at the financial organization, I started a master’s program that was maybe four blocks down the street. It was at the California Institute of Integral Studies. When I started the classes, I was fascinated by the underlying psychology of how people flourish and struggle and how therapy can be used as a real lever to help people grow and change in pretty substantial ways.
While I was there, I took part in a kind of intensive training in gestalt therapy which is associated with a guy named Fritz Perls. He was pretty antagonistic in how he would work with people, and he was utterly direct. I remember sitting in that seminar, watching videos of Fritz Perls going at people and thinking, I can’t believe therapy can be this way, and I kind of like it because there’s some directness in my personality too. Though I never went on to really study or practice gestalt therapy, my co-founder, Cameron, was in that same seminar.
I got to talk to him a little bit, and then we trained together. Then the last year of that program is called an internship, and you’re an intern for about a calendar year. You might still be taking classes, but mostly you’re working with clients, carrying a good caseload and doing a lot of rich clinical stuff. We were in that program together, and we continued to bond and just kept in touch from then on. He then went on to do quite a bit of couples therapy work. I think he won best couples therapist of the Bay a number of years in a row and founded a large boutique provider of behavioral health services of counseling services in the Bay Area called the Well Clinic.
I left right after that program to go get my PhD because I really wanted to learn how to research and get to the bottom of some thorny questions empirically. So we diverged, but we stayed in touch and collaborated on a few things. Eventually he texted me around July of 2017 and said, “We have a huge opportunity to take this work and make it a huge part of how people develop in their careers.”
Now that we understand a little bit about how you two met, tell us about what the start of Torch looked like?
Well, he sent me that text, and I thought we have to do that. Then we threw around a few different ideas for how that could look. If we’re going to help people grow and develop at scale, what kind of software is needed? So we had a bunch of half baked ideas at the beginning that never quite got started. Nonetheless, I had started doing some executive coaching with him, and he had a few other folks working with him. Then we basically had a group coaching practice, and that was the beginning of Torch. Before we had software, we had founders and executives, mostly in tech, who we were coaching, and that was our lab.
What we noticed was that when you’re coaching someone, there are a couple of challenges. The first is that you never find out anything about their experience, their company or their relationships through anyone’s eyes but their own. That was a big problem because leadership is interpersonal, and it’s subjective.
The leader you think you are in your mind is often not the leader other people are seeing, so the first piece of software we built was the 360 review tool where the person we were working with would self-assess their leadership across a bunch of different domains. Then their manager, their peers, and their direct reports would do the same. All of that would immediately open our eyes to the differences between the leader that our clients thought they were and the leader that other people subjectively experience them as.
That brings a whole new level of insight into the process via software. We would get the reports before the clients would, and we could debrief them while knowing what would be challenging and what they would embrace. From then, we built other kinds of assessments.
Then in January of 2020 we actually merged with a company called Everwise which was really focused on mentoring and digital learning. The buyer is usually ahead of learning and development or a CHRO at a smaller company, so they had built this beautiful suite of tools to help those buyers run their programs. In the L and D world, it would be very standard for a leader to have a high potential leader program, but many were running those programs manually with Google sheets and email lists. It’s a nightmare.
Everwise had built this beautiful software platform to manage all of that pretty seamlessly, and it was customizable and extensive. We had then already built assessment software, coach management software and software to embed coaches in the experience, so we saw a huge opportunity to scale the business by merging with Everwise.
Can you tell us about how Torch works and how regular coaching can benefit people?
I’d start by saying we’re a B2B business, so we are selling to the people at organizations who have to essentially help everyone grow and develop. We will sell a head of L and D at a company, and they’ll already have a bunch of programs that they run. So they’ll engage torch to help with that process, because it’s totally manual for most folks. A lot of their time is lost to delivering the programs manually instead of being strategic which is what they would like to do.
In coaching, the buyer will figure out that they want their programs supplemented by a coach, so part of that’ll be reading things, doing the reflection prompts, conducting assessments, and meeting with a coach. If you’re going to go through that process, the software will force you to create a profile, and then it’ll take you through a coach matching process. That process is based on a few different factors which were actually inspired by my doctoral training.
We want to know about the personality of the person who’s going through coaching. We want to know if they’re extroverted, introverted, highly agreeable, a little rougher and a number of other factors. Then we try to gauge how open to coaching these people will be. Finally, we take all of this data, and we use it algorithmically to pull out of our coaching pool. This will determine the three best coaches that we think could work best with them.
Then they can get started with their coach. They can start learning the material that is part of the coaching experience, and as they’re working with a coach, they’re starting to have a relationship with someone who’s opinion they value and trust, and who’s starting to get to know them uniquely. Everyone has certain traits and abilities that they can leverage to overcome some of their challenges, and not everyone is aware of what those strengths are or what happens to them under stress.
Having that mirror who’s a strategic thought partner really helps you understand yourself in a richer way. It helps you see your patterns and helps you work skillfully with the challenges that make it hard for you to be a great leader. I’ll give you an example from my own life. I was raised by a single mom, and she was working hard to keep a roof over our heads and support the family. That meant that I started doing a lot of things earlier than most kids like doing laundry and making lunches. That has an upside and a downside. The upside is that I’m a pretty self-sufficient person.
The downside is that I have a hard time getting help from people or trusting people enough to let them help me. Because I had so much to do early as a child, I just learned to not rely on the people around me very much. That’s a pattern that lives with me today, and I’m 45 and running a leadership development company that helps people grow and change as leaders.
You’d think I’d be past it, but I’m not. You never really get past those things; you only learn to work with those patterns more skillfully. When I start to hear my mind say I’ll just do this myself, I understand that I’m running an old script about the way the world works. Then I can work with that pattern by choosing to do the opposite. That’s really the magic of coaching and mentoring.
What do you think creates the best culture in a company?
Let me focus on one or two really specific areas. I would say that leadership flows from the top down, and it starts with the founders. If it’s a later stage company, it starts with the executive team and CEO, and it really does trickle down in fairly profound ways. Now, much of the working world is gen X, gen Y, which is millennials, and gen Z, and those generations increasingly want to have a sense of meaning, purpose and autonomy in their work.
That means you need to create a culture where people can feel like those needs are met in a fundamental way. It’s not realistic to expect people to be able to get all those needs met outside of the workplace. You have to demonstrate to the people that work at your company that they matter and that each one of them matters uniquely in his or her or their own way.
But what does that mean? Basically, if you are working at a company, you need to have this subjective experience that you can contribute something that other people can’t contribute. You are not just a cog where if you quit, they’ll just get somebody else. The successful cultures help all the people at the company feel like they are making a unique contribution for which they are uniquely valuable.
One way we do this at Torch is in every all-hands we give values shoutouts. We have a number of values. One that I like quite a bit is be courageous and lean into the madness. When someone does that in an exemplary way, one of the executives or their manager will say that during the all hands. You can see what an effect that has on people because people want to be seen for who they are and valued for what they contribute.
It’s easy to lose sight of that as an executive team. I think having worked with executives and teams at a broad range of companies, you’re under so much pressure and stress all the time to perform, drive numbers and close deals. That can cause you to lose sight of the fact that there’s a reason why people are working at your company versus another company. Forgetting that can be the death of an organization. You cannot forget what makes your company worth working for, especially as the younger generations get into the workforce.