Interview: Iwona Winiarska

A few years ago, I wanted to be anonymous.

Project Manager in Digital Advertising and founding president of Professional Toastmasters Praha on matching people with opportunities, becoming a blogger and driving to have an impact.

Cafe Lounge, Prague. Freezing Saturday. We said hi and started the conversation in Czech. Even though Iwona was born, grew up and studied in Poland, after some years in Prague her Czech was close to perfect. It even made me forget about the fact that I wanted to do the interview in English.

Only after answering my first interview question, Iwona paused for a moment and commented: “Já jsem myslela, že to bude v Angličtině” (“I thought the interview would be in English”). Of course. I fixed it at the next question.

9th January 2016

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I was really curious about one thing – when you decided you want to start a new Toastmasters club – why in Czech?

There was a gap on the market. I felt the demand. At that time, there was only one Czech club in Prague, Amplion. They didn’t specialize in anything in particular. I thought: “What if we created a Czech club that would be different?” Most people who come to Toastmasters are young people, young professionals, so I thought why not create a professional club, where we could talk about work, hobbies, self-development and new ideas?

That’s interesting, because one of the reasons I saw there was that you wanted to create the club as a place for yourself where you could give presentations in Czech.

Of course, you always need to have some internal motivation beside the external. If it was just for myself, it would not work. But if it would be just for other people, it would not have worked either. You need to be self-motivated to do something that is non-profit – and keep doing it for two years. So yes, it was also my motivation. I don’t use Czech much at work, so having a Czech-speaking Toastmasters club helped me improve my Czech communication.

You said it’s been 2 years since the club started. I can imagine – it’s a lot of work.

Yes, it is.

Right. So if you had to pick one thing that made you the most happy about all this, something that gave you satisfaction, what would that be?

I think feedback from people. Not from those I knew from Toastmasters before, but from the people that came to our club for the first time and then came to tell me: “Wow, I loved this.” Then I told myself we must have done a good job.

Okay – so it was about the feedback – when someone said “This is great”, or were those people even more involved?

Oh yes, there were more involved. For example new members who started organizing the club and started attending our meetings regularly, that’s something I really appreciated. When people would keep saying “Thank you for this opportunity to speak here”, these are moments when we think that’s something that works for everyone. It’s a win-win.

And when it comes to something getting for yourself?

Yes, as I said before, it has clearly improved my communication.

Can you give a specific example?

Sure – I’m better at job interviews…

Really?

Yes. I’m a better communicator, I’m a better person. I’m a person that can start a conversation, I’m a person who knows what to say even when the other person does not. I learned how to improvise. Founding a new Toastmasters club, I have also learned about how to organize various events, and since our club is focused on inviting special guests (experts in their fields) to give various workshops…

You’re the only club in Prague that is doing this right on a regular basis, I think.

Right. We invite a special guest every month so I have made quite some contacts. But on the other hand, when you organize these events, you don’t have enough time to give your own speeches. It’s been always difficult for me to prepare for a speech alongside preparing the whole event. So my own speaking actually got sometimes a bit neglected.

You mean, sometimes you need to sacrifice an opportunity for you to speak, because you want to provide that opportunity to others?

That’s the case.


There’s another thing that made me curious – you said that Toastmasters helped you to become a better person. What do you mean by that?

I think… First of all I’m better organized. I’m not late with my daily activities at work. If I’m not late, I’m more reliable. If I’m more reliable then I’m a better person.

You are a better colleague, better worker, or it encompasses all these small things?

For example. I am a better colleague. I can put myself in someone else’s shoes and I can better sense what someone else needs. With the more advanced (Toastmasters) manuals, I practised more advanced speaking. With the manuals Interpersonal Speaking and Speeches by Management I learned how important is to communicate with a manager or a member of my team and know how to support them or how to motivate and evaluate my team.

I guess there’s a plenty of those rewarding moments. Now tell me – on the other hand – was there ever a moment where you told yourself “Ah, screw this, I don’t want to do this any more”?

Plenty of them, plenty. There were so many of them…

Where was the bottom?

There was one moment when I thought I would give up. Honestly, I thought I can’t do it.

When was that?

It was in the beginning. It was me alone…

In the beginning, there was the demo meeting, that was in May 2014?

In the demo meeting it was OK, we had a great team of people, and they were willing to help. But afterwards, they helped once, twice, and then there was nothing. And then there were people who were supposed to help me, but suddenly they were busy with school, work or with other things. And in such moment you are alone – and you still need to prepare the meetings. You need to prepare the whole agenda, you need to talk to each speaker individually, you need to explain the objectives of the club…

Because if you don’t do it, nobody else will.

Yes. And, especially it’s important in the beginning that everyone knows what is our goal – and to make it clear it’s unlike any other Toastmasters club in Prague. That was very difficult for me. But luckily, soon new people turned up who would rescue the situation.

But I think that always, even when you set-up your own business, when you are 100% sure that the thing you are doing you really want to do, you just need to get through the difficult period and you need to keep doing this. You keep doing it – and in the end it will pay off. Luckily I found those people who at those difficult times took more of the responsibilities I had, so I could focus on giving a direction to this club. From the beginning I had a vision of where this club should go, where the potential is, what we can do with it.

There are so many Czech people – in the Czech Republic – who are eager to learn, who want to be better in communicating and presenting; and in business in general. I thought it was a good idea and it had a lot of potential. And if those people would use it, it could be the best club in Prague. I think there is a huge potential for it. I tried to combine my vision with reality and to implement it in practice.


How did the breaking point come – you said at one point there was nobody – and then people appeared and they helped you. Do you think it was just a coincidence, or were you at that time focusing more on getting the right people on your team? Or was it just luck?

I was trying to get the people. It was difficult, because people from the outside who don’t know Toastmasters need some time to understand the idea before they can commit to it. We needed help from Toastmasters people from other clubs. They saw there is another club being created, that has potential to become great and that is fun. It was the people from the other clubs that really helped.

If I remember, it was Jakub, Vasek, Daniel… If I imagine you talking to those people, trying to get them on board, what did such conversation look like? Was it like “Come help me and I will give you whatever you want”?

I was trying to keep my professional image and not to look desperate when we needed a speaker for a particular time slot, but I was always trying to identify the areas in which those people were interested. I would not like someone to do something just because I asked them to. But when someone liked to speak on the topic of mentoring, I would ask them to give a mentoring speech. If someone was delivering workshops professionally, I would invite them to try it out in our club first. If someone liked talking to people, I would offer that person helping out in the club and taking the VP Public Relations role. I’m always trying to find what those people like doing. And when I notice the key information – how we can cooperate – how to use their experience – then we can make it work for both sides.

So you’re actively thinking about what is it you need in your club and  what the other person seeks or might be interested in doing. You’re basically thinking of them as customers to whom you’re selling opportunities.

Yes, that’s right.

That’s actually quite smart. I don’t think many other people are thinking this way.

If you don’t do it this way, these people will not stay long. If I ask them to do something for me, they may say “Ok Iwona, I’ll do it”, but they would not do it again and again.

Where did you learn to think this way? Does it come to you naturally or was there some situation in your life, where you realized it that this is a good way to do things?

(laughs) I have no idea. Maybe it’s part of the leadership experience, that you should discover good things about people. Obviously, nobody is perfect, so you just need to put it in order in terms of who is the person and what must be done. Then you connect it in a way that you are happy and they are happy.

Thinking win-win all the time.

Right. It’s also important to get to know this person better and when they offer help, you need to keep asking them “Good, but why do you want to help us?” Nowadays everyone is busy, people do sports, hobbies, have families… If you want some of their time, you must make sure they’re getting something out of it.

(coffee arrives)


Speaking about leadership, or motivating others… Is there something where you could say: This is one thing I learned in Toastmasters? For example – finding about what people want. Was there something that would surprise you, made you say: Wow, this is a new thing.

(takes some time to think) Obviously it would be leadership and communicating with people.

When you say leadership, what do you mean?

It’s being a partner of someone in a sense of what we just said – discovering the little things that someone wants to do or develop and that we can incorporate in practice and that also the club needs. What I incorporated – we have a new client in our company and we produce a lot of ads for them. And they mostly need videos, different types of promotional videos for better positioning of their brand. We have a huge team, but not really that many people who can make videos. And I knew there is a person in another team, who really likes to make videos. It’s not his role, but he enjoys doing this. So what we do, me and another colleague – we’re trying to get this person on our team to help us make the videos. Because – he wants to do it!

I see that you’ve become the connection point between people and opportunities, that you somehow juggle the supply and demand for opportunities.

This reminds me of another situation, when I was doing my first project from the “Interpersonal Communication” manual. I was trying to make a conversation with a stranger. There was one person in the audience, who was a Professional with capital “P” in training and coaching people exactly for cases of initial conversations.

After talking to her, I knew that I would prepare for my project differently. We have exchanged our contacts and I knew that this person is doing a lot of good things in this area of self-development. In a couple of days there was an event of Business Animals (Czech server with articles for Salesmen and Business Professionals) where they needed a speaker. I thought immediately about this person and I also thought that – even though I did not know whether she’s good at presenting or not – she would be a good fit. I’m trying to connect people. That is one thing I learned in Toastmasters. I made contacts, I know who needs what and I can help them get what they need.


You’ve mentioned Business Animals. You were writing articles for them, and also included people around you to contribute to those articles. I think that’s great, because certainly those people are happy to share their experience and then they are happy to see their paragraph published in an article… How did you come up with the cooperation with Business Animals?

It was a friend of mine who started Business Animals, but it took at least one year before we started doing something together. Then I was contacted by their editor and then we started writing these articles. We started meeting regularly and started discussing our potential cooperation and what we (Toastmasters) could do for them.

We invited them to the meetings of our club and discussed about how we could be useful. After the first article was published, both sides were happy about the results. Win-win. Then we realized – why not repeat that? We looked at different areas of speaking, communicating and even 1-1 communication with a business partner.


And a couple of more articles came out. There is another area that I find quite interesting about you, and that is that you decided to go to the Czech Republic… when was it?

After I graduated.

So after your University you came here. It was to study Czech, or for a different reason?

I was studying Czech at the Silesian University in Poland, then went to Olomouc for Erasmus, and then after I graduated I came to Prague. Then I was very surprised about how people speak, because I was obviously learning “spisovná Čeština” and not informal language or slang so I did not understand some words, even after learning Czech for many years before that. Over time I got used to it. That was an interesting experience. Also, in our club, we are trying to speak without using slang or forms we should not use, which I perceive as being very important for our professional image and performance.

The thing that fascinates me the most is that a foreigner decides to learn Czech, even before coming to the Czech Republic. What made you decide to learn Czech and not for example Russian or Swedish?

First reason – I like learning foreign languages. Second – there was a gap. Everyone was learning English, French, German. I said to myself – why not learn Czech? It must be fun!

You said to yourself: “Let’s do something crazy!”

Yes, let’s do something crazy. I started studying Slavic philology and Linguistics. Czech was my first language, but then I was learning also Serbian, Russian and Greek which was something different.

Hmm… So you came to Prague right after the University, that is quite many years. This makes me think – you now have quite a good insight to compare the differences between the Czechs and Polish. Where do you see the biggest differences?

(silence)

If any…

(speaking about the differences) It’s really hard to say, because there were many differences in the beginning, now I don’t pay much attention as people are the same everywhere. I think one of the most interesting differences is that people here are more relaxed and easygoing. But now I don’t really bother looking at the differences.

Because you don’t see them anymore, because you’re part of it.

Maybe. For example – I am Polish, but I never worked in Poland. And I speak Polish only with my family, and friends who were living in Prague and moved back to Poland. Now I’m something like an outsider. I’m trying to keep up with the news, but I’m pretty much not in contact with the country, so it must have also changed a lot since the time I left it.

You can’t compare current Poland with current Czech Republic.

Yes. And I also don’t have that many Polish friends now, so my contact with Poland is limited. Nowadays, if you ask me which language I want to have an interview in, obviously it would not be Polish, because I would not be able to formulate my thoughts.


You can’t speak business Polish?

I can’t speak business Polish, because, I never worked in Poland. Recently, I was writing the first business email in Polish – in my thirties – and I was wondering, okay, I need something urgently, but how should I say it in Polish, what is the proper word? I know it in English, I know it in Czech, but I had no idea how it’s going to be in Polish. That was really sad (laughs).

Did you use Google Translate?

No, I formulated it with different words – that I would like to have something now, as soon as possible.

It’s like, you know, people are changing and the world is changing. The other word I was looking for was the contactless debit card. When I don’t have a bank account in Poland, I don’t know how to say “contactless” as I never heard anyone speak about a contactless card in Polish.


(…)

By the way, I thought you would ask me about my blog.

Oh yes, I should have asked you about that! How did it start?

It was during the Residential Weekend in 2014, there was a workshop by Michal Blazek on Personal Branding. He prepared it very well. Before the workshop, he checked personal profiles of all the participants – Facebook, LinkedIn… He tried to give some recommendations to everyone. To me, he told that I should start a blog. I thought that it was a totally crazy idea and that it was not my style.

To write a blog?

Right. Writing blog was not me. It was for other people who liked writing, I didn’t like it at that time. I didn’t have a topic to write about and I didn’t have time for it. It just was not my style. It was one of the things you don’t even start thinking about, because it’s just: No. No. (laughs)

I like this approach, you already know it’s a “No”, before you even start thinking.

And then there was the second step, when I learned about you, that you’re starting a blog and I was reading your articles. I thought: Okay, this is nice, but could I do something similar? And the answer was again: No. It was exactly the same. I didn’t feel like doing this, I couldn’t think of a single reason why I should do that.

But it changed, I think, when I created my portfolio on the internet and saw a couple of other portfolio websites of project managers. Some of them had a blog. And then I saw – okay, these people are writing about things I know. I know these things very well, actually. I found my topic. Then I found my way – and actually, it was not so difficult. I had a feeling that I could maybe try, I could use it to boost my career and.. then I realized that Michal Blazek was right.

Sometimes new things don’t come very naturally, you have to think about them, give them a chance. Start one thing. Even if you say “No” in the beginning, when you try, you may change your opinion.

Like using an “agile” approach to life. You build a prototype, then you see how it works and whether it makes sense to continue with it.

Yes. You just release your blog part by part and improve it. Now I’m asking myself why I didn’t start it earlier, why only in the end of 2015. I could certainly have started during my membership in Prague Business Toastmasters. Or even earlier.

And now you’re writing not just articles for your blog, but also for Business Animals.

Yeah. So it’s a lot of writing.

Is it helping you in any way that you’re writing now?

I love it. I still feel like I’m not a great writer but I’d like to improve it. I like thinking about a subject, analyzing it, showing the benefits… You can say that nowadays everyone can have a blog. But for me it’s an opportunity to say something that matters. And if there is just a single person to whom it matters, then it’s fine for me.

Maybe the last area I’d like to touch is the future – you’re going to England now. What is it you want to be doing over the next couple of years – where do you want to get?

I have some kind of visualization of what I want to be doing in a few years. I also realized that you are shaped by the people you have around you, you take them as examples and you are emulating them. So I would also like to try new experiences to see how it works somewhere else. I have decided for this move for my professional career. I would like to see how this works somewhere else, where the most important decisions are made. In London, England.

Basically, you want to go to London, because that’s the place where the main decisions are made, where the biggest deals are being struck, where the best people work.

Yes.


Would you call yourself ambitious?

Yeah.

What is it that drives the ambition? Why do you want to be successful in doing what you are doing?

It’s perhaps discovering new things. Something you just realize you can do. It’s about having a satisfying job that fulfills you. Something that is your lifestyle, hobby and not just a job.  And ultimately I want to keep learning new things all the time.

Is it important for you to learn new things?

Yes it is. And also what I got from Toastmasters – you’re not afraid to make big moves. In the Toastmasters environment you are exposed to new challenges. For example someone asks you to give a speech with just one day notice. You don’t have time to prepare, it feels inconvenient but then you do it.

Or there is an important conference and someone asks you: Lukas, can you give a workshop? You say “yes, I can do it”. When you start thinking this way, you realize that you really can. It’s just in your mind. I believe most people can do what they really want to do, they just don’t believe in themselves and their abilities. Toastmasters gives them self-confidence, not just on stage, but also in life.

Why do you think people don’t believe in themselves?

One of the things was that often you are not aware of what you are potentially able to do. And in Toastmasters you meet a lot of people who influence you, direct you and inspire you. They open your eyes and show you possibilities you have not thought of before. That you can do something different, do something extra, something to grow yourself.

It’s the whole environment that makes you discover new things. Perhaps there are also people who are not self-confident. That’s OK. But when you are self-confident, you can achieve more and move mountains. You might answer to an opportunity with “oh no, no, I can’t do it”, or you say “I’m not experienced enough”, “there are other people who are more experienced than me”. But that’s never true. You can simply do it.


I’m also thinking how to make people more confident, more relaxed about what they’re doing… Do you think there is some simple cure for that? Except for sending everyone to Toastmasters…

I was holding back myself that I was against social media and Facebook in particular, I would not post a single picture of me or post a personal comment. And then once I tried, and I got feedback as “oh, you look great”, or “oh, that was fun” and you get more feedback like this – and this positive feedback motivates you to do it again – and more often. It’s about providing positive feedback to others to encourage them to do what they are doing.

You need to figure out how to reward people for taking the little steps.

Yes.

And maybe with every step they take, they will feel more relaxed and more willing to take bigger ones.

And they shouldn’t be judged by other people and if they are, they need to take a personal distance. People may say bad things, they may gossip…

We have some ideas in our minds of what people would think. I guess when you are older, you get more confident.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you and you’d like to tell the world?

I would like to thank everyone who supported me, also to you and people in our Toastmasters club and my friends. As I said before – we are shaped by people around us. The person who I am right now is because I was given this opportunity to create this club. So, thank you, for doing this interview.

You’re welcome, it was my pleasure.

(long pause)

By the way, thanks for sending the interview with Lady Gaga. It was interesting to read about her. It motivated me. She said something like “who would do it if not me” and “I’m not just a 24-year old girl, I’m Lady Gaga”. That really showed some self-confidence. I think there are these moments in your life when you start having doubts and you need to get back on track.

Yeah. I really liked her final words, where she told the interviewer (Neil Strauss): “Use the stuff that will make me a legend. I want to become a legend.”

Oh yes, that’s what she said.

I really liked it. I mean, it was so honest. I think all of us want to make an impact on the world, be recognized, but everyone is holding back. Nobody would say it aloud.

I think it also changes with age. A few years ago, I wanted to be anonymous. Now I have this need – and I don’t think it’s bad.

It’s not bad to want to be famous?

To want to be famous. To have an impact. To want to become a legend.

 


Photographs by Michaela Zimolová. Thank you! 🙂

 

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4 thoughts on “Interview: Iwona Winiarska

  1. Loved the interview! It’s great to see what you guys are up to, and obviously I can relate to what Iwona says about operating in a different language and different environment. I’m determined to get back to Prague and deliver a Toastmasters speech or two in Czech one of these days….

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