by Sam Warner DTM, Shropshire Speakers Toastmasters International club
With great power comes great responsibility. If you’ve ever experienced an over-zealous new team leader or manager, you might have this phrase ringing in your ears. It’s common practise for companies to promote members of staff into leadership roles and then develop them once there, instead of giving them the tools to do the job and then promoting them into the role once equipped.
The thing about a Toastmasters International public speaking club is that it provides an excellent opportunity for anyone seeking this toolset and mindset to try it out in a safe place, supported and encouraged instead of looking over their shoulder in fear of making a “career limiting” mistake or worse ruining someone else’s career through poor line management. It’s not just about making toasts or speeches, it’s so much more.
I’m going to share my story with you as I hope to inspire you to consider that there is another way….
Having worked in the corporate world for over 20 years I have experienced and witnessed many shocking and unprofessional incidents borne out of a lack of experience and understanding. The crucial factor to becoming a new leader of any kind is self-awareness; to understand your impact on others and to learn to listen first. Most people are never taught how to be a follower never mind a leader! At school we were told to sit down, shut up and do as we were told! It just felt like all the doors were firmly shut.
My own capability before I discovered Toastmasters was limited – I see that now – but I was unconsciously incompetent then. I would copy other team leaders hoping they were good role models to emulate but that only served to perpetuate bad practise, inconsistency and stressful conversations with disgruntled staff. Nothing seemed to change for the better, and there seemed to be limited formal training, you were supposed to just figure it out. The coping mechanisms and expected behaviours were never explained and I was struggling to be effective and influential.
After joining Toastmasters, I was given the opportunity to start learning the skills of leadership by undertaking the role of Mentor. It’s such a simple role, between two people meeting up monthly and one helping the other to achieve specific goals using the benefit of their knowledge and experience. But it taught me how to be a good listener. It taught me to remove myself from the equation – it’s not about me – it’s all about them. It also honed my problem-solving skills as I helped them navigate the challenges they faced.
Soon after that I wanted more. I became a deputy for one of the Club Committee roles, so I could learn the ropes before taking on the role officially. A few months later I was invited to apply for the full role and was voted in. I was now accountable for 23 people’s happiness! Then I was hooked; receiving excellent and useable feedback and evaluation with examples of what worked well, and what could be improved upon; so, I could assess how I was getting on in the role. This meant I could make small adjustments to become the best I could be. I thrived, and the club thrived.
When was the last time you gave or received great usable feedback with specific examples?
In the Toastmasters training programme, I noticed there were many opportunities there for me to lead on projects outside our club meetings. At the time I was planning on applying for the position of Project Manager at work (a promotion) so it seemed ideal. I was excited to get stuck in and thought that doing something that gave back to my Community would be the most rewarding non-work-related project.
I started my first Youth Leadership Program with a set of 15 students in an Academy near where I lived. I led a small team of Toastmasters to deliver the material and that meant delegating whole sections to them and watching without correcting them or interfering! Over ten weeks we guided the students towards the delivery of a showcase event where they all delivered speeches of more than four minutes each on a variety of subjects chosen by the students themselves. It was very well received by their parents and the school principal and I was asked back to duplicate our results with a new cohort. 5 years later I am about to deliver my seventh program….
Whilst all this was going on I was also delivering full training days using the Better Speaker Series and Leadership Excellence Series manuals to members and non-members alike, and I used my High-Performance Leadership Project to help me build and coordinate the team I used to deliver the training days. It walked me through from Vision, Mission etc right through to lessons learned after delivery, using delegation so that I didn’t do all the work myself.
Simultaneously I did get the promotion at work and I found the skills I picked up in Toastmasters were essential to my new role of communicating clearly at all levels with many different teams, colleagues, suppliers, stakeholders and customers. It taught me how to give effective feedback and how to delegate. I learned how to listen and lead.
Do you know any leaders who are good at listening?
The next opportunities gave me the remaining tools I needed to enable and empower.
I had really thrown myself into this personal development side of life and was enjoying it immensely. It was not long before I was asked to apply for the role of Area Director which gave me oversight of 5 clubs (and approximately 120 members). This brought in the new dynamic of trusting people I barely knew to undertake tasks towards a joint goal. Whilst this was tricky at first I soon found my stride and saw the similarities between this and working with remote teams in my job. I found I was able to help new people grow into leadership roles by using those mentoring skills I had learned all those years ago. I didn’t have to tell them how to do something I could just tell them the outcome I desired. My job was to guide them, check in with them and ensure they felt supported and encouraged. I made myself available and approachable – some needed more help than others, but I soon learned to tap into their working styles quickly.
I also learned the power of persuasion. It’s amazing how influential you can become when you say quietly to someone “I can see you doing X. I think you’d be really great at that, why don’t you give it a try?”
The pinnacle of my leadership training to date with Toastmasters was being asked to serve on the District Leadership Team as Administration Manager. Our small team of seven people led the 5000+ members in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and England (North of London) through their own leadership and public speaking training journeys to help more and more people walk through open doors. The role came with travel, networking, operating at a senior level and ensuring all milestones were reached on time and within budget.
Hmmm doesn’t that sound familiar – that was what I was doing as a Project Manager!
The skills I learned have also enabled me to spread my wings further. I have started my own business as a communications specialist helping Autistic adults at work/ in to work and I deliver keynotes on the Transition from Follower to Leader and on Autism in the workplace.
I put on the very first TEDxTelford in 2018 with 15 live speakers and 100 people in the audience and am organising a second one. I was able to lead the organising team, coach the speakers, MC the event and get everything done in good time and inside budget and we sold out a week prior to the event.
Last year I achieved the highest award for all my work in Toastmasters International and can now call myself a Distinguished Toastmaster. Without doubt Toastmasters has been instrumental in my personal development and has opened many doors for me in terms of work and relationships. I believe that in becoming self-aware I have become a nicer person to be around and I have a very full and happy life.
Oh, and did I forget to mention – I am Autistic…. J