Click play to hear an exclusive podcast interview with International President Richard E. Peck, DTM, and the hosts of The Toastmasters Podcast.
In September 2020, newly installed International President Richard E. Peck, DTM, conceived of an ambitious project to make members feel connected in the midst of a pandemic: He would visit one club in every country that has a Toastmasters presence and take an active role in a club meeting.
With clubs around the world having switched to an online format, this meant international trips could be done from his home office. Over nine months, between October and June, Peck traveled to 141 countries, participating in roles in each visit. He did all of this in addition to the visits he makes for club anniversaries, club celebrations, and District conferences; and all of that in addition to the many responsibilities of an International President; and all of that in addition to the fluctuating concerns and priorities of a term marked by global uncertainty.
At the beginning of the tour, he wasn’t sure how or if it would evolve. He didn’t want clubs to feel that a visit from the International President was a mandate, something clubs would feel obligated to do in addition to everything else they were dealing with. But clubs and members embraced his visits, using them as motivation for getting creative and as a way to rally members to attend the meetings.
“When you’re leading an organization, you really need to understand the people you’re leading and what they’re going through. We could see what we were going through [as Board Members] and we could see that others were going through something similar, possibly worse. We wanted to make sure members didn’t feel abandoned.”
He started visiting one club a day, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to get it done. So he bumped up his visits to three, four, or even five staggered throughout the day. He set his alarm for 3 a.m., or stayed up past midnight.
He laughs that he can travel the world in a matter of hours and not get jet lag or lose his luggage. He has zipped the globe to Mauritius, France, St. Croix, Kenya, and Tortola all in one day.
From the beginning, Peck’s goal was not just to show up at a meeting. He wanted to take an active role. “If we are truly promoting our organization, if we truly believe in what we’re doing, then we should take on that role.” And so that’s what he did. He gave 76 Pathways speeches and received his evaluations; he evaluated 41 other speakers; he took on other meeting roles, including Table Topicsmaster, Ah-Counter, and Toastmaster of the Day, and he participated in numerous Q&A sessions.
Clubs have come together for his visits as well, inviting other clubs to join their meetings or holding themed meetings or doing something to celebrate their country. The Saturday Breakfast Speakers Club in Sweden held a Nobel Prize Gala; Desert Pioneers in Kuwait held a “Not So Late Show” themed meeting; the Addis Ababa club in Ethiopia had a theme of “Ethiopia: Land of Origins”; and the Vienna Toastmasters Club in Austria had fun with the theme “May the 4th Be With You.” Some clubs played local music, or presented slideshows highlighting an aspect of their culture. Some clubs challenged themselves to hold their meeting in English (Peck’s native language), even though the club itself wasn’t English speaking.
Peck finds a real benefit to attending a club meeting where he doesn’t speak the language. “As we know, communication is so much more than the spoken word. It’s facial expressions, it’s body language, it’s vocal variety, and when you go to a club where you’re not a native language speaker, you view speeches differently.”
A Leader and a Member
Peck’s club visits and meeting participation allowed members to see him as a person rather than a title, and allowed the International President to get back to his roots. “I always tell them at the beginning of the meeting that I’m a member at heart.”
The tour has allowed him to give back to Toastmasters, an organization that has meant so much to him. “Each level of leadership we reach, we get further away from the people who got us to the positions,” he says. “This has been my opportunity to show my appreciation to those who helped me become who I am.”
Unity in the Organization
No matter which country he visited and no matter what language was spoken, there was always a sense of hope. Wherever he went, Peck found members actively engaged, smiling, and learning. He has seen firsthand how times of challenges and difficulty are also the times when communities come together.
“The Toastmasters organization is built on communication and leadership, but Toastmasters themselves have another drive and that’s being supportive and encouraging to each other,” he says. “Members have risen to the times.”
“This has been my opportunity to show my appreciation to those who helped me become who I am.”—Richard E. Peck, DTM
His hope is that, despite all the hurdles of the past year, members find unity within the organization. He refers to a cultural evolution that is happening now, where everyone is getting a chance to know each other a little more, aided by online connection. “The world has gotten smaller, not in size, but in distance between people. The ability to connect now involves simply an index finger and an ‘enter’ key.”
Peck is now working on putting together an online journal of his experiences so that members can understand the true global nature of what it means to be a Toastmaster. After each visit, he asked the club to submit what they would like people to know about their club, country, and/or culture. He hopes the journal won’t be so much a compilation of his visits as a spotlight on the community of Toastmasters and how our world came together during a pandemic.
“From the beginning of this tour to the end of this tour, I have been super proud of our members and what I have witnessed,” he says. “Their sense of community, their sense of caring for their fellow Toastmasters has been unwavering.”
Laura Amann is magazine supervisor and editor for the Toastmaster magazine.
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