The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has struck gold. From coast to coast, Canada’s tax department has tapped into Toastmasters and its many dividends. When you look closely, it’s easy to understand why.
The CRA’s history with our international organization started in 1991, when it chartered a Toastmasters club in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was called the Achievers Club. That group caught the attention of CRA offices across the country. Interest spread, and the Agency’s Toastmasters network grew. One demonstration meeting held in Ottawa in February 2001 attracted 78 attendees. The effort (which featured future International President Chris Ford as General Evaluator) led to the chartering of three Toastmasters clubs in less than two months. Today, the CRA is home to 22 thriving clubs across Canada.
Avid Support Given – and Acknowledged
Strong corporate clubs only happen when management support is strong, and it’s clear that CRA Toastmasters have solid buy-in across the organization, starting at the very top. William V. Baker, commissioner and chief executive officer of the CRA, counts workforce excellence among his top priorities. And that leads to real results: In its latest employee survey, the Agency found that the overall percentage of employees who felt the CRA was providing support for career development had increased since 2002 – about the time the Agency’s Toastmasters clubs began to make their presence felt.
“Every manager and executive in the Agency makes a commitment to support learning,” Commissioner Baker says. “Toastmasters is a great example of an innovative way of supporting the development of our employees through a mutually beneficial partnership that allows our employees to use their new expertise to advance their careers.”
Deborah Danis, a CRA director in Toronto, says, “The [Toastmasters] program offers tangible ways for people to learn self-confidence, effective interactive communication, team leadership, impact and influence… the list goes on. And club members have a great time while they’re learning.”
For those reasons, the Agency covers membership dues and provides meeting rooms for its clubs. Some of the Toastmasters groups even offer support for members attending conferences or participating in contests beyond the club.
For their part, the corporate clubs regularly try to show management why they’re so valuable. Senior managers are welcome to join, in order to see and experience the power of Toastmasters firsthand. And they are always invited to attend special events such as contests, open houses and “bring your boss” days. In Ottawa, the CRA’s Information Technology Branch (with four Toastmasters clubs and another in formation) even has a member assigned as a branch liaison to provide regular club and member progress reports back to management.
A Forum for Learning Work-Related Skills
Toastmasters is a perfect fit for the CRA’s competency-based approach to training and learning. Deb Johnstone, a CRA training and learning coordinator in Saskatoon, says, “We recognize Toastmasters as a valuable element of the individual learning plans of our workforce.” Since the CRA’s standard 30-minute lunch break is too short for an effective Toastmasters meeting, members are granted extra time for meetings, which can then be claimed as a personal learning credit.
“Toastmasters provides the opportunity for us to develop skills we can use every day,” says Cathy Hayward, president of The Prose Club in Ottawa. “Our members learn to become better speakers, listeners, evaluators and leaders.” And those skills play directly into the competencies the CRA evaluates in its employees, including effective interactive communication, self-confidence and team leadership.
The results are evident. Frances Sauvé, an assistant director at the Toronto East Tax Services Office, says, “It’s amazing to see such transformation happen. It starts with improved self-confidence and grows from there. Before long, people are joining in discussions, volunteering for committees and contributing more at meetings.” Hayward credits Toastmasters for getting her into a new job she loves. “Toastmasters made me realize I was capable of more, and gave me the confidence to apply for a position I wouldn’t have otherwise considered,” she says. “The job includes quality review of presentations, briefings and other communications products for my director general. I apply what I’ve learned at Toastmasters to help ensure clear, concise key messages specific to the target audience. It’s a great skills match.”
As an agency of the Government of Canada, the CRA provides bilingual services across the country. So it’s not surprising to learn that the CRA Toastmasters network includes both English and French clubs. In fact, many employees intentionally join a club that operates in their second language so they can hone their linguistic skills. One club, Le Réseau de Scarborough, even coordinates its meetings with onsite French language training, enabling a French teacher to serve as grammarian at every meeting and offer one-on-one help beforehand. Martina Durova, a member of the So-So Club at the Southern Interior B.C. Tax Services office, says, “English is my second language. Before I joined, I would lose my vocabulary and couldn’t put thoughts together. Now, I am practicing weekly. I can think on my feet, control those butterflies and present my thoughts in front of an audience.”
Secrets to Success
CRA clubs combine formality with fun: formality, to achieve the business of learning; and fun to keep members motivated and coming back. “We call our Wednesday meetings ‘our oasis in the middle of the week,’” says Hayward. “We get to network with people from across the organization.”
Theme meetings are a common practice, and often provide a chance for a bit of fun and stress-relief while learning. Member achievements are acknowledged with ribbons, plaques or letters from management. Some clubs have year-end events to celebrate success and recognize their “Toastmaster of the Year” and “Rookie of the Year.”
The Heron Club in Ottawa has a theme for every meeting, and presents a monthly “Sparkplug Award” for member enthusiasm and achievement. “It must be a sought-after trophy,” chuckles Heron Club President Hallam Carter. “We had one disappear from someone’s desk once!”
Members are also encouraged to take part in contests and other special events beyond the club. “Contests compress the learning cycle of Toastmasters,” enthuses Hayward. “Seven years ago, I couldn’t have imagined myself in a contest – but now I’ve competed in front of 350 people not just once but several times!”
Clubs use the Distinguished Club Program to gauge success, with excellent results. “We’ve been Select or President’s Distinguished every year since we chartered,” Beata Bozek of InfoMasters in Ottawa says proudly.
Meeting the Membership Challenge
CRA clubs have the advantage of recruiting to a specific target audience, but they also face the reality that everyone’s top priority is doing his or her job at the Agency. So a combination of marketing strategies is used. Club information is included in orientation kits given to new employees. Clubs submit articles to internal newsletters, and host pages on the CRA’s intranet with information about Toastmasters, membership and meetings. The Confederation Club in Summerside, P.E.I., staffs a Wellness Day booth, where visitors can learn about the club. “We’ve also presented at managers meetings, and we offer Speechcraft to give people a taste of what they can learn through Toastmasters,” says Club Treasurer Beth Simon.
Local Toastmasters clubs periodically hold open houses so interested staff can learn more about the programs offered. “People may have the impression that our meetings are stuffy, but this is a way to get them past that barrier,” says Ellen Engensperger of the Said-So Club. Carter, of the Heron Club, adds, “Some people say, ‘I don’t need that,’ but I tell them this is an opportunity not to be missed. Toastmasters will get you where you want to go!”
The magic of Toastmasters is evident in member testimonials. Carter says he’s become a different person. “I was beyond shy – I’d avoid meetings, and sometimes I wouldn’t even answer the phone,” he recalls. “But I realized that I couldn’t go on this way – I needed to face my fear. So I joined Toastmasters three years ago, and it has been amazing. Now, I can stand before any group. But more importantly, I’ve realized a level of self-confidence and self-esteem I’ve never had before.” A colleague, Pat Ross, joined the same club, and within three months she chaired an open-house meeting for her own division’s staff and management.
Johnstone, the CRA training and learning coordinator, says her Toastmasters experience gave her the confidence she needed to become National President of the Canadian Institute of Management. “The Robert’s Rules of Order I learned at Toastmasters have helped me run meetings much more effectively,” she notes. She’s also gone on to emcee National Public Service Week awards at her workplace.
Yvonne Taylor of the Verbal Attax club in Toronto says, “I was really shy when I joined five years ago, but now I have no problem speaking in front of an audience. I sometimes surprise myself (and my family). I’ve come to enjoy presenting the CRA’s outreach programs to community groups.” Such progress and dedication led her to be recognized with the Assistant Commissioner’s Employee of the Year Award for Ontario in 2007.
Across the country, CRA Toastmasters clubs are thriving – bringing value to management and transformation to members. For the Revenue Agency, Toastmasters is a treasure worth tapping.
Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM, is a speaker, writer, consultant and Past District 45 Governor. He lives in Upper Kingsclear, New Brunswick, Canada, and can be reached at www.changeyourcorner.com.