From its beginning in 1924, Toastmasters has sought to serve the business community. To find out if corporate clubs faced any unique challenges or had tips for success to share, I recently completed a survey of corporate-sponsored clubs around the world that chartered in 2005-2006. I asked them to describe how the Toastmasters program affects their work environment.
1. How did the club in your corporation get started? The most frequent response to my first survey question was that one or more current Toastmasters already worked at the company. They approached management for permission to organize a club on the premises.
Several respondents said their employers initiated a request for the clubs. Timely response from local Toastmasters district members enabled the company to charter the new club.
In January 2006, the first Toastmasters club was chartered in the country of Vietnam. Senior managers of TMA Solutions, a Vietnamese software outsourcing company, had attended a Toastmasters meeting during a working trip abroad. Quoc Lam, Charter President of TMA Toastmasters Club in Ho Chi Minh City, says, “This session made a deep impression to them that Toastmasters is a very useful tool for people to improve communication skills.”
In 2005, National Transmission Corporation in Quezon City, the Philippines, arranged for a local training company to give a lecture on effective presentation techniques. The presenters suggested the company sponsor a Toastmasters chapter for employees, and management asked Erlinda de Guzman to research the steps necessary to form a club. One of the company executives became Charter President of the Transco Toastmasters Club; Erlinda has earned her CTM and currently serves as Vice President, Public Relations.
Ronald Tay, the Learning and Development head for UBS Singapore Investment Bank, responded to management’s need for increased communication competency by researching and contacting Toastmasters. The UBS Singapore Toastmasters club was chartered in January 2006 and currently has over 50 members. Ronald is looking forward to chartering a Mandarin-speaking club at the same location.
These, and many other successful corporate clubs, originated with a direct query made to Toastmasters’ World Headquarters. These queries were forwarded to local Toastmasters districts. Key to their success in chartering was the timely, effective response by the district marketing team and resulted in long-term support from the corporate sponsor. When responding to such a query, it is important to be attuned to the individual circumstances within each work location.
One building in San Antonio, Texas, provides workspace for both Kraft Foods and Pitney Bowes, a mail management company. Kraft employee Sheri Voss said that when Kraft piloted a new leadership program, the company decided to charter a Toastmasters club and invite Pitney Bowes to participate. This made all 320 workers in the building eligible for membership in the Kraft/Pitney Bowes club, which chartered in June 2006.
2. Did an employee initiate efforts to start a club? Bibhu Mishra had been a member of Toastmasters in Bahrain (District 79) before relocating to work for Mozal Aluminum in Maputo, Mozambique. Meanwhile, another Toastmaster moved from Swaziland to the same location. When they discovered that there were no Toastmasters clubs in their new country, they contacted WHQ. Bibhu said “the support from District 74 was superb.” Local Toastmaster Beth Thomas met with the company’s general manager, and Bibhu became charter president of the Maputo Toastmasters Club.
With a pool of 160 employees at his job with Velan Inc. in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Christian Schweiger, DTM, contacted the corporate president and provided a summary of the program and a list of corporate Toastmasters club sponsors (available on the TI website). “The president agreed and referred me to our Human Resources department for promoting this initiative,” Christian said. With corporate approval, he promoted and chartered the Velan Toastmasters club in less than two months.
Many of these Toastmasters club founders had started as members of community clubs. With assistance from the local Toastmasters district, they were able to gain corporate support and establish a new club at their workplace. All these respondents emphasized their deep sense of satisfaction in knowing they had accomplished something that would bring long-term benefit to themselves, to their co-workers and to their employers.
Dr. Marc L. Breen, CL, ATMB, was serving as an area governor when he founded Spectrolab Toastmasters club at his worksite in Sylmar, California. He knew that sponsoring or mentoring a new club would not only help qualify him for the ALS (Advanced Leader Silver) award; but would also contribute to the annual club-building goals for his area, division and district. Marc says, “It was a great opportunity to help the professional growth of my fellow employees at Spectrolab while advancing my own personal leadership goals. That’s the great thing about the Distinguished and educational programs – everyone wins.”
3. How do you convince management to sponsor a Toastmasters club? Marc says of the club at Spectrolab: “First I pitched the idea to our company HR department and got their support. Next, I prepared a business plan and pitched it to executive management, who agreed to cover all charter fees, educational materials and 50 percent of employee dues for perpetuity. Prior to the demo meeting, I went around to the bi-monthly supervisor meetings and pitched the same business plan to all the supervisors. This assured their support and encouragement in recruiting employees from their departments.” Marc’s strategy worked: Toastmasters is the only official extracurricular organization supported by Spectrolab.
Unitag House, in Manama, Bahrain, contains several businesses with a combined total of approximately 200 employees. Kothandath Mohandas, ATMG, created a 20-page proposal for his CEO at Unitag, as well as management from three other businesses in the building (World Travel Service, Sunshine Tours and Cathan Pacific Airways). Employees of all four companies were briefed about the program and the Unitag Toastmasters club was born. An atmosphere of “we are all one” was actively promoted and supported, so that “it was easier to visualize a scene where all of them could get together, share and learn in a friendly environment,” says Kothandath.
Even though you are familiar with the benefits of the Toastmasters program, your company decision makers may not be. Take time to gather information about the Toastmasters organization so that you can respond confidently to questions. Access the many helpful pointers available at www.toastmasters.org and request some of the literature that has been developed to address the needs of corporate clubs. Review the list of current Toastmasters corporate sponsors to note whether your company (or one of its competitors) is currently supporting other clubs at other locations.
It is important for decision makers to know that Toastmasters is more than a public speaking program. Selling points for obtaining corporate buy-in for an in-house club include:
- Promotes better teamwork and leadership skills
- Teaches effective meeting facilitation
- Increases employee morale and loyalty
- Reduces turnover
- Improves productivity
Familiarity with the industry, the corporate culture and its recent initiatives can also help you identify specific benefits this company would gain by having a Toastmasters group onsite.
4. What does a corporate sponsor do? Anyone who has participated in chartering a Toastmasters club sees one big advantage in having corporate support: When a central decision maker says “yes,” there is an immediate opportunity to generate a check to cover the $125 charter fee and the initial dues for all charter club members. This significantly reduces the time and effort for getting a Toastmasters club started, but money is not the only key to sponsorship.
According to Beverly Wallace, corporate relations coordinator for Toastmasters International, “Any way that demonstrates support for a Toastmasters group, not just financially, is considered corporate support or sponsorship.”
Here are some of the ways that corporations around the world support their Toastmasters clubs:
Queensland Rail has a Toastmasters club in Brisbane, Australia. As part of a leadership initiatives program, Queensland Rail employee Stephanie Taylor received a donation of $1,000 to cover the charter fee and dues for the first 22 members of the QR Toastmasters club. Says Stephanie, a QR senior records analyst: “Members can reclaim their semi-annual dues, providing leadership and/or communication skills were mentioned in their performance reviews as an area they needed to improve.”
Saudi Aramco sponsors several Toastmasters chapters. At the Ras Tanura Refinery in Saudi Arabia, meetings are scheduled mid-day, during working hours, and employees’ membership dues are reimbursed. Since its primary goal was to support improved communications, the company elected to institute an open membership policy, says Husam Dashash, President of the Ras Tanura Refinery club. “We encourage [non-employees] to join our meeting and provide special access for them to enter the facility.”
Robert Lapointe, Vice-President of Information Technology at Future Electronics in Pointe Clair, Canada, earned management buy-in by positioning the club as an autonomous, self-supporting entity. When chartering the Future First Toastmasters club, “all start-up expenses were covered by the membership. I believe that without skin in the game, people would not be as motivated.” Rather than financial support, Robert negotiated a weekly 90-minute lunchtime meeting slot, with employees given flexibility to make-up the extra 30 minutes over other days of the week.
Cisco Systems provides several educational and developmental resources for its employees, including the Cisco Black Employees Network (CBEN), an organization that promotes workplace diversity. In June 2006, this resource group decided to sponsor a Toastmasters club at the Herndon, Virginia, worksite. “Several managers and an executive joined as charter members. In turn, they encouraged their direct reports to join and include the membership on their yearly review,” said Torrance Fennell, charter president of the Cisco Communicators club. A director at the company posts the Cisco Communicator newsletter on his office door, which helps promote the club and generate interest.
5. How did local Toastmasters help the club get started? Torrance had some additional comments about Cisco Communicators’ exceptional relationship with local Toastmasters: “We visited several local clubs in our area to expose everyone to Toastmasters. After we chartered, members from Tower Talkers and Tech Tower attended our first couple of meetings to help us along the way. Our area governor attended several meetings; a couple of months ago he became a member of our club. This has helped tremendously because all of our charter members were new to Toastmasters.”
Interaction with nearby clubs can be very helpful. Often, other corporate clubs have similar meeting times (during the lunch hour), so that an exchange of speakers, evaluators or other meeting participants can be arranged. Community club members who are available and able to gain entrance to the meeting site can bring new perspectives into the club and serve as liaisons for corporate club members who are curious about the experience of attending a club outside of their worksite.
Local Toastmasters can also be of service by nurturing a positive relationship with the corporate sponsor. Roehl M. Macarubbo, President of the NXP Semiconductors (Calamba) club in the Philippines, suggests that even if an employee is able to gain permission to start a club on the premises, the local Toastmasters district should communicate with senior management. This not only creates a positive impression of the Toastmasters organization, but increases understanding and appreciation of the value offered to the corporation as well as to employees.
The most important assistance that can be offered by local Toastmasters members is a sensitivity to the unique character of each corporate club. Often, the corporate culture has a powerful effect on the club and its members, so the more you understand about the concerns and expectations of the corporate sponsor, the better you’ll be able to support the members of that particular group.
The Toastmasters club at General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario, Canada, is called Dynamically Speaking. Charter President, Shannon Millman and current President, Karen Tellier, collaborated in responding to the survey. Both women expressed gratitude for the continued support of their club mentors, but felt that, initially, they were expected to operate like a community club. “We are the only corporate club in the area that is closed to the public. After pointing out our differences, there is more understanding of how our club operates within the corporate environment.”
6. What differentiates a corporate club from a community club? Shannon and Karen noted one of the most common challenges within the corporate club: “Members enjoy the convenience of meeting at work during lunchtime. Many have stated that if not for the accommodating location on-site and meeting time, they would not have been able to join.” Consequently, these same club members are often unwilling or unable to participate in Toastmasters activities outside of their regular club meeting time and location.
KJWW Engineering Consultants club is located in Rock Island, Illinois. “Meeting presentations can include confidential information and technical learning opportunities for our newer staff,” says Educational Vice President Patrice Accola. “They can also be used to promote staff assimilation and reinforce our culture.” The confidential nature of some speech content, and the emphasis on nurturing corporate culture, requires discretion that can often limit interaction between this type of club and other Toastmasters members in the vicinity.
Another big challenge for corporate-sponsored clubs is that they have a finite market. While some of survey responses came from corporate “campuses” with than 3,000 employees, some also came from corporations with fewer than 150 employees. While it is possible to have a strong, successful club in one of these smaller company locations, retention of membership strength can be a formidable challenge. Membership is usually restricted to employees who have immediate access to the site during club meeting time.
Three Toastmasters clubs are sponsored by Raley’s supermarket chain in Sacramento, California. Debra Cullifer, DTM, is Secretary of Palate Movers at the Raley distribution center. She says there is strong management support, as well as strong interest from co-workers who see the value of the program. However, most of the 400 employees at this site are shift workers. The biggest challenge is to provide optimal meeting schedules for those who want to participate.
Michele Tyz from the Anthem Connecticut Toastmasters club at Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in New Haven, Connecticut, has a different challenge: “Because we meet during lunch, we are competing with our associate fitness center, ‘Lunch and Learn’ sessions, the Internet café and shopping.” (Vendors set up shop and offer a variety of items for sale in the cafeteria during lunch hours.) Consistent promotion efforts and high meeting standards are necessary to sustain the attention of current and potential members.
The unique conditions within various working environments provide a combination of challenge and opportunity for those who hope to charter a corporate Toastmasters club. It takes perception, timing and determination to forge a successful relationship between the Toastmasters communication and leadership program and today’s working world. However, as these survey respondents demonstrate, the benefits to companies, as well as to members, make it all worthwhile.
Shelia Spencer, DTM, is a member of Midtown Toastmasters in New York and a freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.