This month, the “big idea” that the Business Coaching Advantage is working with is: attention matters. Where we choose to focus our attention can make all the difference between creating new success or maintaining the status quo (or failing to respond to a change that is needed).  This reminded me of the year I became President of my Toastmasters club and learned a valuable lesson about focusing my attention in order to turn a bad situation into a great outcome.  Below I share my brief story along with some tips for effective leadership in the face of adversity.

Attention Matters.

A couple of years ago, I had the great honour of being elected President of my Toastmasters club, West Mall Toastmasters in Toronto.  Well, “elected” may be a bit strong.  On election day, I was the only person who put up their hand when the call for nominations was made.  My self-nomination was enthusiastically seconded by other members though so that was positive.

Nonetheless, nominating myself was a big deal for me.  I knew that if I was elected President I would have a lot of responsibility on my hands and not just the ordinary duties that come along with the role.  Our club was in trouble then.  Our membership had fallen off sharply, with several long-standing members having left the club in the months prior.  We weren’t attracting enough guests to replace those members and build up the club’s activity again.  I didn’t even know it then but our club was also in debt – not by a lot but you never want to take over something that’s starting in a deficit position.

Our club was in trouble then.

The new term promised changes on a bigger level as well: member dues were set to increase for all Toastmasters clubs in the coming year and we also needed to prepare the club for a major change in how our speaking and leadership programs operated (traditionally, all members received paper copies of speech and leadership manuals and tracked them accordingly; moving forward, the entire program was being re-formatted and all resources and tracking would occur online – a lot of training would be required).

So where do you think my attention was as I stood before the club as their newly minted President?  While I was excited about the opportunity to grow and develop as a leader in the year ahead, I was also very nervous that the club might go under completely under my leadership.  My attention was divided for sure.

Somehow I knew what to do though and where my attention needed to be focused in order to set us up for the best possible chance of success.  Usually I can more readily recall examples of poor leadership and their impact on me however I must have witnessed or read enough about effective leadership to give me a basis from which to operate.  In the months ahead, I created and followed a pretty specific plan, including:

  1. Surround Yourself With Good People.  This is by far the most important factor yet it’s one over which I had the least control.  Elected to form the leadership team with me, I had the great fortune of being joined by six other Toastmasters members who were motivated, ambitious, creative and committed.  Normally I would be humble and credit good luck for this turn of events however I think it’s important to own the part I did play in this: I had already formed good relationships with each of the elected executive members and I sensed that lent to their inclination to join me on the executive when things were looking a little unstable (and remember: none of us knew about the club debt yet!).
  2. Assess the Reality of the Situation.  As much as I didn’t want to know about the state of affairs of the club, I knew I had to get a good handle on our current reality if we actually wanted to change things for the better.  Our new Treasurer broke the news to me about the small debt but he did it in a way that made it seem less catastrophic: simply stated and without any judgment.  If he had been freaked out about our budget, I may not have been able to be as calm as I was when communicating it to the rest of the club.  Inside, I was feeling very anxious yet I knew I had to set a positive and optimistic tone.
  3. Set a Positive and Optimistic Tone.  Here’s where the attention factor really counted.  I could have complained about the previous executive’s handling of the club’s affairs.  I could have bemoaned our current situation and gone on about how anxious I was about our capacity to turn the club around (and more significantly, my own capacity to effectively lead us through that).  When you have a really good group of people working with you though, you can’t let them down by focusing on your own insecurities and worries.  You have to step up, focus on the larger picture and what’s needed to be successful.  My voice may have been a little shaky in our first executive meeting however I held strong.  I acknowledged the financial and membership challenges we were facing, spoke to the real efforts we would need to make to turn things around, and shared what I felt was a compelling mission statement, which I reiterated in every meeting thereafter.
  4. Work Hard and Smart.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life about how to be successful it’s to work hard.  You can’t escape that true fact.  We all worked hard that year.  Every member of the Executive put in time and effort and celebrated our progress along the way.  We got the finances under control quickly.  We started generating more interest in our club from the public and attracting new members.  We worked steadily towards the highest standard set out by Toastmasters International, working on key goals and targets set out for each month.  Many people on our team had competitive natures and we tapped into that energy to inspire us to greater outcomes.

Toastmasters are often surprised to discover that their learning is not limited to developing better public speaking skills.  That’s only the beginning for them when they join a club.  The opportunities to grow and develop as a person, as a human in this world with as much potential to lead as anybody else, are understated in the marketing material yet over-delivered in reality.   I didn’t know I had the capacity to lead through adversity until I stepped up to try.  I didn’t know I could shift my attention away from my own concerns and focus my attention and that of others towards the bigger challenge and bigger promise of reward until I had to.  I didn’t know that this experience would set me up to take on even greater personal and professional challenges in the year following and give me the confidence to say “yes” to some amazing opportunities.

Yes, if you’ve been sitting on the fence about joining a Toastmasters club, then let this post influence your decision to take the leap and do it (check out Applewood Achievers, the newest club in the Toronto west-end: we’re welcoming new members!).  And, notice where your attention is focused and whether it is or isn’t serving you: are your thoughts mostly consumed with what could go wrong and what you might risk, or are you allowing yourself to also consider what could go more right than you can imagine and what you stand to gain if you try?  Your future depends on it!

… are you allowing yourself to also consider what could go more right than you can imagine and what you stand to gain if you try?

The power of our attention is a key theme we explore and develop as part of the Business Coaching Advantage Program and our coaching approach to leadership and conversation intelligence.  We help you notice where your attention is typically focused, identify the impact it’s having on your potential to create your best outcomes, and learn how to fine tune your attention for even better results in your work and career. 

Maggie DiStasi is a Professional Career Transition and Leadership Coach, specializing in a process-oriented approach to creating positive change in your career and/or leadership (think: creative, mindful, organic, goal-emergent). She is also a faculty member of the Business Coaching Advantage Program™ and a member of the management team for the program’s parent company, PeopleDynamics Learning Group. To learn about any of the coaching programs or business coach training programs she is involved in, please contact her here.