Jim Kokocki, past President of Toastmasters, International
As the President for Toastmasters International, an organization that has 16,000 clubs in 142 countries, 345,000 active members and over 5 million people who have been through their program, Saint John’s own Jim Kokocki was living a dream as he embarked on a whirlwind tour travelling the world visiting Toastmasters conferences and companies interested in bringing Toastmasters in-house.
Prior to his leadership position within Toastmasters International, Jim retired from Bell Aliant in 2011 after a 30-year career and didn’t want to jump back into the workforce immediately. So he finished his MBA and then started to consult. For Jim, retirement was just the beginning. Jim is now growing a marketing and sales consulting firm and has also found time to get involved with L’Arche Saint John ( www.larchesaintjohn.org ), an organization that is in 40 countries around the world with a focus on celebrating the unique value of every person in communities of people with, and without, intellectual disabilities.
I wanted to learn more about Toastmasters as well as L’Arche Saint John and Jim’s involvement…
A: In terms of L’Arche Saint John, we just started a public location down on Prince William Street, called Creative Connections, where the people we support, and other members of the community, work with local artists to explore their capabilities in art. It’s a fun place. It’s a fun organization and we’re doing great work for people who have intellectual disabilities.
Q: What, initially, attracted you to Toastmasters?
A: That was way back in 1987. I was working as a shy computer programmer at NBTel and a few colleagues brought me – dragged me – to Toastmasters because they felt I didn’t say anything during meetings and they thought I should.
For the first three or four meetings after I joined I said nothing,but in the supportive environment created by Toastmasters I actually blossomed quite quickly.
Q: What made you nervous initially?
A: I was nervous that I would say something stupid, so I didn’t want to participate in meetings. The sooner you start participating, the sooner you realize that you still might say something stupid, but it’s not life-threatening. You can recover from it. That’s very healthy.
Q: What is it about Toastmasters that helps people develop the ability to communicate effectively in a group setting?
A: A couple of things. Some people have a great deal of fear and some people have more of a reticence, they’re more reluctant to speak. Some people aren’t quite afraid, but they’re not happy with how their message is landing.
If you want to become a skilled communicator, you need to communicate before a group. You need a place to practice, because it is a skill. Speaking and leadership are skills and you need feedback to improve.
Toastmasters bundles all those things together in a room with like-minded individuals who are working on their own self-development at the same time as they are supporting your self-development. It’s an environment where people develop quite quickly.
Q: You worked at NBTel for thirty years. Did the company have a strong culture of developing leaders?
A: Absolutely. One of the things that I treasure about those experiences – at NBTel and Aliant – they provided an opportunity for people to do cross training. There aren’t many organizations that I’m aware of where someone can move from IT to sales to marketing – I had that opportunity and it was really phenomenal for me.
Q: Have you always been part of a Toastmasters chapter?
A: I have been. I stayed a member continuously for a couple of reasons. One, I do recognize these are skills that need regular practice. And secondly, I just love seeing people come into the organization and, as they begin to participate, grow very quickly.
Q: How has Toastmasters changed your life?
A: It gave me great confidence for change. I see a lot of people in Toastmasters and generally, once they get past the barrier of being reluctant to speak in front of groups, they look for other opportunities.
Q: Would you attribute stepping out of your comfort zone to your participation in Toastmasters?
A: I would. It’s difficult to draw a straight line but absolutely the confidence came from Toastmasters and feeling comfortable with customers and speaking before groups. It made me feel stronger about my ability to move my career into sales and beyond.
Q: At what point did you move up in the organization?
A: Some mentors made me aware of the opportunities. I’m always looking for the next best developmental opportunity. Where can I make a contribution? How can I develop my skills?
I didn’t move quickly through these positions – I served in a senior role from ’97 to ’99 and had another senior role in 2002, 2004. It wasn’t until 2011 that I ran for the international president offices – and lost the first time.
Q: Tell me more about the experience of becoming the International President in 2015.
A: As International President I had three key roles. One was to chair the board of directors. We have 19 members on the board from around the world. Also, I served as both an international internal ambassador and external ambassador.
Internally, I attended conferences around the world and connected with members, ensuring the organization was doing a good job for members all around the world. Externally I also connected with companies who either have clubs or who are thinking about bringing clubs into their organization.
Q: Where did your travels take you?
A: As International President I was in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Prague, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Southern Australia and Toronto.
Q: You mentioned that some companies have their own Toastmasters club?
A: Bank of America has over 70 clubs around the world. An impressive list of companies, including Facebook, Google and the big banks in Canada, bring in Toastmasters as part of their communication skills and leadership development.
Q: You are starting a new Toastmasters club in Saint John?
A: Yes, it’s accessible to people from 7:15 am to 8:45 am. I expect we’ll have a high-performance environment where people can support one another as they move further with their communication and leadership skills. People can find out more from the Facebook page for the new Toastmasters Club.
Q: So who should get involved in a Toastmasters club?
A: Anybody who’s looking to become more effective as a communicator. Anyone who wants to develop their soft skills and leadership skills that will, in turn, make them more professional and promotable. There’s a couple of ways Toastmaster can help. First, any formal speaker at a meeting gets a written evaluation. You can gain perspective thanks to the varying perspectives. Some people may be more logical, some may be more emotionally, or artistically inclined. You can get feedback from a variety of audience members. Did they understand your message? Did it land for them? That feedback can only help you become a stronger communicator.
Q: How would you finish the following sentence,“A leader’s job is to…?”
A: To achieve results and develop their people.
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This article published in the Telegraph-Journal on Saturday, November 26, 2016.