Leadership: From Toastmaster to Hit TV Show

Leadership: From Toastmaster to Hit TV Show

A contest speech led this former homemaker to
a new career as a professional organizer and TV host.

By Monique Cuvelier

Hellen Buttigieg is the embodiment of competence, strutting around messy houses with a sassy bob and an open face. She locks her huge brown eyes with a client’s and asks directly, but respectfully, “Do you really need this? Why? How does it make you feel when I take it away?” And very occasionally, when a person seems unreasonably attached to a shopping bag of old birthday cards or an ugly ashtray pilfered from a restaurant in Greece, she pulls out the tough love: “Are you going to give me trouble with this?”

As the host of the Discovery Home Channel’s hit show Neat, Buttigieg provides clutter control and guidance to a new household every week. She’s something between an organizer and a headshrinker, with certifications as a professional organizer and as a life coach. She simultaneously cleans out closets while slowly uncovering subconscious “blocks” that make a person want to hoard junk or prevent them from putting their dirty clothes in the hamper.

Her gentle leadership made a lifelong fan out of client Denise Fujiwara, who says Buttigieg “is a living example of what you can do with an affirmative attitude.” The Toronto-based choreographer was lost trying to sort out her home office to make room for a house renovation when she called in Buttigieg to help. As someone who runs her own choreography business and dance troupe, Fujiwara’s office is prone to clutter. “My office was a horrendous mess,” she says. She describes stacks of boxes, piles of unfiled papers, photographs, video tapes, press releases – essentially 15 years’ worth of disorder and confusion.

“I’d tried to sort it out in the past, but I hadn’t had the skills to do it properly until I worked with Hellen. In about 6 hours, she did what I couldn’t do in 15 years,” she says.

The two went around the room in an orderly way, starting at the door and working clockwise. “Occasionally, I’d get stuck on something, and she’d push me to make a decision,” says Fujiwara. “She pushed through, and in the end I felt euphoric to be relieved of all that stuff.”

Buttigieg unloads stuff with a dancer’s grace and a politician’s diplomacy. Anyone would think she was born taking charge of people’s unruly environs, teaching them how to be better organized. In a way, that’s true. She says she was always organized, even as a teenager, when most kids live among piles of laundry, music collections and notebooks. She was also always a confident speaker. In grammar school, she was the girl who narrated the school plays.

In fact, Buttigieg moves and speaks so naturally in front of the camera and with such calm assertiveness, no one would guess that not long ago she was at a loss for what to do with her life.

“I had been out of the workforce for almost 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, but I lacked confidence, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says from her home in Oakville, a suburb of Toronto, Canada.

She graduated from Seneca College in Toronto with a degree in radio and television broadcasting, and worked briefly as an administrator and fitness instructor. But then she had two children and took off nearly 10 years from work to raise them. Those 10 years at home had slowly whittled away her confidence as a businessperson, but she still wanted to launch a new career – and have some adult conversation. Her solution? In 1999, she joined City Centre Toastmasters.

“Toastmasters changed my life,” she says.

She means that in the most literal sense. It started with one of the first lessons any new Toastmaster learns: talk about what you know. Buttigieg started writing speeches about what she knew, and as someone who was naturally neat, she talked about organizing. And then at one contest she gave a speech called “Simple Simon” about simplifying your life by letting go of clutter, and it launched a new career.

“Giving speeches is a journey of self-discovery,” she says. “How often in life do people really listen to us? At Toastmasters, people are truly listening; they’re not thinking about what they’ll say back. It’s a safe place to speak, so I could use my speeches to work out what resonated with the audience.”

And also what resonated with her. That speech was the nugget that now sits at the center of her professional life. In fact, she still uses parts of the same speech today when she gives presentations: “If you would like to get a taste of the simple life, don’t let stuff complicate it. Commit to following these three simple steps: If you don’t use it, lose it; if you don’t need it, don’t buy it; and when you bring one item in, take one item out.”

This would become her mantra in several ways. It sparked her desire to become a life coach and also tapped into her abilities as an organizer. Starting her own organizing business, called WeOrganizeU, helped pay for the life-coaching certification. Soon, a group of producers approached her about a new show that would blend her gifts for tidying up with her ability to lead people, and by 2004 Neat hit the North American airwaves.

Buttigieg credits Toastmasters with more than just sparking a good idea; she also says she honed her skills as a leader and built confidence. Shalini Alleluia, president of City Centre Toastmasters, says Buttigieg faced a short learning curve thanks to her take-charge attitude.

“Hellen had lots of energy and was articulate and vibrant,” Alleluia says. “She always smiled and was willing to try anything.”

Alleluia says even though Buttigieg was a new member, she asked her to chair a speech contest and encouraged her to assume meeting roles. Soon Buttigieg was helping others to be better speakers.

“I think Hellen was more of a mentor to other people than other people being a mentor to her,” Alleluia says. “She has a charisma that makes people want to follow her and to be like her in personality and capability. She’s a good listener, and she always pays attention to the evaluation notes. I once told her she was very loud and didn’t have expression in her delivery, and she really listened.”

Like any good Toastmaster, Buttigieg is still seeking advice on how to improve. She still asks Alleluia for feedback on her presentations and episodes of the TV show. “I’m honest, and I’ll tell her what I thought the show lacked or what I learned,” says Alleluia.

While Alleluia coaches Buttigieg to improve some public speaking skills, her student is working toward a broader purpose. “I’m a teacher,” she says. “I feel that whether I’m organizing or coaching or speaking, there’s still that element of wanting to pass on the information I know to improve other people’s lives.”

Monique Cuvelier is a professional writer in Boston, Massachusetts, who credits Sky Rappers Toastmasters for her own confidence in front of a crowd.