Toastmaster — May 2012
Change Language:
Dave Zielinski

Corporate leaders share how to empower, encourage and communicate.

Milo Victoria, CC, always considered himself a good communicator, so as the CEO of Omnitrans, a public transit agency serving California’s San Bernardino Valley, he was surprised to find himself struggling at times when delivering presentations as he took the helm of the organization. When an Omnitrans board member suggested in an early job evaluation that he join Toastmasters, Victoria took him up on the advice.

Victoria knew the ability to communicate in clear, confident and compelling ways –– both in formal group presentations and when interacting informally with co-workers –– would be essential to his success as a CEO. His work in Toastmasters eventually helped him eliminate “crutch” words when speaking. It also helped him craft a smoother delivery and become a more confident and polished presenter.

But what Victoria did not anticipate was how Toastmasters would help him hone other skills crucial to his job in leading an organization that employs 650 people and carries 15 million passengers each year.

“One of the most important things you learn in Toastmasters is listening skills, which tend to be underrated as a leadership trait,” Victoria says. “Good leaders have to be skilled listeners.” Not only does active listening help top leaders understand key issues facing their employees, it also builds morale, Victoria says. “When people know they’ve really been listened to, they walk away feeling that they’re important to the company.”

Toastmasters also validated Victoria’s belief that different personalities respond to communication in distinct ways. “That’s something I learned in part from targeting speeches to specific audiences,” he says. “You have to know what appeals to different people and the issues that keep them up at night.”

A New World of Leadership
Succeeding as a CEO or senior leader requires a set of skills that were rarely required –– and often undervalued –– in past generations of top executives. Keeping one’s own counsel and single-handedly making tough decisions were once championed as indispensable leadership traits; however, the complex, rapidly changing nature of today’s global business climate often requires leaders to be more collaborative.

In addition, it is likely that today’s leaders are being tested in ways predecessors never were. With the lingering global recession, there is a need to motivate employees who are asked to “do more with less.” Being a leader can also mean managing four different generations in the workplace.

One needs to look no further than the example of Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft Corporation, who told Businessweek in a recent interview that he has rethought his leadership style in response to market challenges. When he took the reins from Bill Gates in 2000, Ballmer believed he could unilaterally lead the company to success by virtue of his own smarts and energy. But Microsoft’s failure with its Vista operating system illustrated how various company divisions failed to work together. As a result, Ballmer started focusing more on recruiting the right leaders, empowering them and encouraging teamwork.

“I think the skill set needed for top leaders has changed,” says Josh Linkner, CEO of Detroit Venture Partners, which works with the likes of basketball superstar turned thriving businessman Earvin “Magic” Johnson to rebuild urban areas through technology and entrepreneurship. “You don’t need to be so great at long division any more, but you better be a darn good communicator.”

In the past, many top executives could simply follow a time-honored “operating manual” and get by, Linkner says. But today “the business world is too complex and moving too quickly. Leaders at all levels need to be able to innovate in real time, as well as communicate their visions effectively,” adds the CEO, author of The New York Times bestselling book Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity.

A Leadership Incubator
Many business leaders believe Toastmasters provides a helpful training ground for these challenges, albeit on a smaller scale. Mary Flaherty, CC, owner of Preferred Concierge Service, a small business in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, says her experience in Toastmasters helped improve her management skills as much as it honed her public speaking skills.

“Every role you play in a club meeting works together to help you be a more effective leader,” says Flaherty, a member of Speech Meisters club in Basking Ridge. “From serving as the Toastmaster to being a timer, it helps you learn to plan for contingencies, solve problems and work with different personalities.”

Flaherty says Toastmasters also boosted her confidence in networking and marketing situations when she had to promote her business. “Speaking week after week in Toastmasters helped me talk about my business without stumbling over my words and become more confident that I have services people really need,” she says.

John Morley is CEO of The JMOR Connection, Inc., a New Jersey-based computer technology and network support company. Morley, ACB, CL, has been active in Toastmasters for 15 years and currently serves as an area governor. He says Toastmasters has aided him in goal setting, task prioritization and planning for the inevitability of Murphy’s law, skills he uses regularly in his own business.

“In the role of Toastmaster you need to be prepared if someone doesn’t have a speech ready or doesn’t show up,” says Morley, a member of Parsippany Toastmasters club in Parsipanny, New Jersey. “There were times I had to cover two or three different roles in meetings. As a business leader, you learn quickly you need these kinds of backup plans, because if you don’t, it could result in lost business or damage to your credibility.”

Mark Metz, CEO of Canvas Systems, a leading provider of refurbished enterprise computer equipment based in Norcross, Georgia, says the skills he acquired in Toastmasters played an instrumental role in helping him ascend to a senior management position at a former company.

“I think I had some leadership qualities then, but I was not a very good presenter,” says Metz. “That was a problem, because you’re presenting all the time in top leadership jobs, not only prepared presentations but also off-the-cuff speaking akin to what you do in Table Topics.” Within a few years in Toastmasters, Metz says, he became skilled in both formats, and he later became one of the youngest executives in the company.

“I believe a good deal of that growth had to do with how we’d all learned to present ourselves to others through Toastmasters,” Metz says.

Power of Participative Leadership
Given the sheer volume of complex decisions faced each day by senior executives, collaborative leadership has become something of a survival mechanism for many organizations. Now, more than ever, leaders surround themselves with talented colleagues and regularly tap into their expertise.

AmyK Hutchens, CEO of an Encinitas, California-based leadership training company and an accomplished international speaker, believes the most successful leaders encourage thoughtful engagement in their decision-making processes.

“3D isn’t just a concept for movies,” Hutchens says. “A process where executives Discuss and Debate before making a big Decision fosters healthy dialogue, and that debate builds commitment and greater long-term support for final decisions made at the top.”

Hutchens believes this approach is particularly important when dealing with people born between the late 1970s and the mid-’90s. With four generations often working together in a company, she says it’s important for leaders to know what each generation is seeking to gain from the organization they work for. Then, she says, a leader must know how to engage each age group in a way that is consistent with their wants. This helps create employee engagement and loyalty.

“Often leaders will make decisions without getting input or explaining why they’re making them, but people like to hear reasoning behind decisions,” Hutchens says. For example, “if you have a constructive debate with stakeholders prior to making a big decision, you will usually get more loyalty to that decision, even if things go a little sideways with it down the road.”

The Buck Stops Here Leaders still need to make many tough decisions on their own, which comes with the territory of a top management job.

Alexandra Wilson, founder and chief merchandising officer of the Gilt Groupe, a New York City-based company that introduced the invitationonly, sample sale concept of designer clothing to the Internet, says she faced such decisions as her company grew out of its embryonic stage.

Some Gilt Groupe employees well suited for a start-up company weren’t as well equipped for expanded management roles as the company evolved. “Sometimes certain roles become more complicated than what individuals can handle, and you need to hire someone above them,” Wilson says. “That’s not an easy decision when someone has given 200 percent to his or her job, but it’s important for a company in growth mode.”

Never Stop Improving
One distinguishing characteristic of many top executives who are accomplished speakers is that they never stop improving. Hutchens, for example, who has given presentations to more than 30,000 senior leaders around the globe, still regularly solicits feedback on her speaking skills.

“Some of the best tips I’ve received were when someone saw me speak on the keynote circuit and said ‘you were great … but,’” Hutchens says. “It’s that but that has made me so much better along the way. We all need to stay open to feedback, no matter how experienced we are.”

Linkner, another in-demand speaker, opted to work with a presentations skills coach for a year to take his speaking skills to another level. Among his takeaways from that instruction was a need to let important points “sit” after delivering them.

As for Victoria, he has come so far in his speaking ability that he was recently asked to give a presentation to a group of fellow CEOs. The speech was so well received that he was asked to moderate a panel of other top-executive presentations.

“That wouldn’t have happened had I not applied the things I’ve learned in Toastmasters about how to prepare a speech, how to eliminate fillers and crutch words and how to recover from mistakes,” Victoria says.