Leadership: Be a Champion of Change
Leadership: Be a Champion of Change

How to handle – and even embrace – club transition.

By Narges Nirumvala, ACB, CL

Is your club going through changes? And are your members struggling to cope? Change can be difficult and scary, but it’s something we all need to learn to navigate if we want to be successful in our personal and professional lives. In my home club – the Fyrebyrde Toastmasters in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada – we dealt with a major transition period, and these are some key strategies we developed and implemented in the area of change management.

I can still remember how impressed I was with the caliber of speakers when I joined Toastmasters back in 2006. I made it through my speeches one at a time with the support and encouragement of our club’s core members. I came to rely upon them. As time passed, I noticed changes were taking place within our club. Some of our core group had moved away; we were growing quickly, with more new members with different cultural backgrounds. Our Toastmasters group was evolving into a large, multicultural melting pot!

This cultural makeup reflected the growth patterns of our city. Vancouver has become an extremely diverse place; it’s a cosmopolitan city known for its multicultural population. Many Vancouver residents are non-native English speakers. Such changing cultural dynamics can bring difficulty – people have trouble understanding each other, and there are conflicts in cultural beliefs – but such diversity also enables people to grow and broaden their minds, which is a good thing.

As older members left our club, younger ones came in, and we had members from Brazil, Africa and Asia. This brought up all kinds of issues. For example, one member gave a talk defending human rights in China, while another gave a speech criticizing China’s human-rights record. That kind of debate was very healthy.

My husband and I are a prime example of cultural contrasts. I grew up in the United Kingdom but my husband is Greek-American. When we first got married, we would watch CNN and our perspectives were so different! But we grew to embrace our differences.

Change is scary. You can get safe in your little comfort zone. But differences benefit everyone.

For our club, coping with our sudden growth spurt as well as the departure of some of our longer-term members and the influx of so many new members was, at times, pretty challenging. But we pulled together, worked through it and went from strength to strength, becoming a role model for other clubs.

When your club is going through changes, you need to remember that everyone responds in a different way. So it’s important to help your members cope in the healthiest way for them. Here are some steps you can take to help your members embrace change:

1. Collaborate to create a club identity. Your club needs a vision and mission that goes well beyond any individual members. Have a strategic planning session open to all members at least once a year to re-evaluate this vision, and have a club identity that reflects everyone’s values. For the same reason I don’t wear the same clothes I did as a teenager (My style – not to mention my dress size! – has evolved with age), your club identity also shouldn’t be static. It should evolve as the club moves forward into new phases. Once you have worked together to create your mission, don’t keep it a secret: Publish it on your Web site’s home page, on your club flier if you have one and on your district’s page for your club.

2. Be open to new friendships. People move on – that’s the nature of life. They move from one city to another, change jobs or join a Toastmasters club for a specific objective. Always welcome new members with open arms and an open heart. I have to admit that I found this particularly difficult since I relied so much on our core group and was sad to see some of them go. But soon I learned that there were wonderful new people just around the corner, waiting for me to reach out my hand in friendship.

3. Get everyone involved. New members are often apprehensive about taking on club and meeting roles they haven’t performed before. It’s the job of experienced members to coach them through those early days and familiarize them with club responsibilities. When our club held its last International Speech and Evaluation Contest, I was delighted to see how many of our contestants were new members. I was so proud of the open and welcoming environment we were able to provide.

4. Encourage new members to step up to leadership roles. Your club needs an executive committee that is representative of your members. Learn to recognize potential and nurture enthusiasm. Positive energy is the single most important ingredient in leadership; everything else people can learn. Have your club elections early so the new executive committee members can shadow the existing ones.

5. Encourage an open dialogue. When there is change, your members will have questions and concerns. When someone says, “Hi, how are you?”, how often do you answer, “Fine, thanks” – even when you’re not? The best way to address the members’ concerns is to encourage everyone to open up about how they feel – how they really feel. A good way to do this is to create a blog or online forum on your club’s Web site. (If your club doesn’t have a Web site, visit freetoasthost.org and set one up for free.) Appoint a mediator, an experienced member of the club, who will answer questions and address concerns. Another option is to hold an open forum meeting and invite all the club members to attend and talk it out. Again, a chairman or mediator is essential.

We’ve looked at five simple, yet powerful strategies that you and your club can put into practice to handle change more effectively. In Toastmasters what ultimately brings us together is a common goal: to change our world for the better, one member at a time, through the development of world-class communication and leadership skills. Change and evolution is a necessary part of that. Learn to embrace change both in your life and at your club and see how you can thrive beyond your wildest dreams.

Narges Nirumvala, ACB, CL, is a member of Fyrebyrde Toastmasters in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Reach her at http://www.nargesnirumvala.com/