Joanna Chmiel: “Say yes – and see what happens”

District 95 Division Governor of the Year and co-owner of software company Briisk is not driven by awards and badges. She’s crazy about extending her limits.

I met Joanna for the first time at the 2014 District Fall Conference in Frankfurt. From our conversation, I remember her saying: “I want things to be perfect.” One year later at the District conference in Prague, she was called up on the stage to receive an award for the Division Governor of the year 2014-2015. It looked like the “perfect” was not an empty word.

She says that Toastmasters changed her life, as it showed her what she truly wanted to do. Shortly after joining her first club, she changed the field of work from being an engineer in telco to public relations and crisis management.

In the interview, she speaks about what it feels like to be the Division Governor of the year, why is it important to be invisible and sums up her active approach to life in a simple and straightforward statement: “I say yes to opportunities – and then just wait to see what happens”.

Interview originally posted on Toastmasters District 95 Website.

Joanna Chmiel Sebastian Dackow

Photo: Sebastian Dacków

It’s Saturday morning. The interview takes place via Skype line Prague-Poznań. After Joanna makes an arrangement with her cat that for the upcoming hour or so, it would not parade itself in front of her laptop’s camera, she smiles and nods to signal she’s ready for my first question.

Imagine: You’re back in Prague at the District Conference. Gala dinner. Someone is calling you to come up on the stage. You realize, that the reason why you’re called is that you won the Division Governor of the year award. How did that feel?

It was one of the most surprising moments I had in Prague. When I think of all the other Division Governors, the work they did, how they worked with their teams, I would never imagine myself winning that award. But if you ask me how it felt…

Yes, what was running through your head, in that moment?

Nothing. I was in the nothingness box. (laughs) I was so overwhelmed… When they called me, I didn’t even know what the award was. I looked at the trophy and couldn’t read a letter. Only a couple of minutes after leaving the stage, when I was able to take a few deep breaths, I realised the importance of the award and felt very grateful. Grateful to be working with people who appreciated my efforts, in an environment where I didn’t have to think of gathering accomplishments. For me, it developed in a natural way, because I was with those people who wanted me to succeed.

You said you would never imagine yourself winning the award. But now, looking back – why do you think it was you who was picked?

You will not believe me, but I haven’t even tried to think of it. The trophy says that it’s given to people in recognition of exceptional leadership and devoted service. So either the people who recognized me with it did it because they appreciated the way I worked as a Division Governor. How I was approaching my team: Trying to appreciate their success and always being thankful for the time they devoted to Toastmasters. Maybe it’s because I really wanted to make people in my Division more aware of all the opportunities they had within the organization’s structures.

But these are just my guesses. I didn’t have a plan to be the best in Education, the best in number of clubs, the best in something else, because, what does it actually mean? Every Division is different. Even every Area Governor was different. I was working with three of them – and they were so different from one another. The clubs they worked with… varied a lot. And I’m sure that this was not just the case in my Division, but in all of them. So how can you compare?

You’re right, we can’t compare that. So let me rephrase the question – if you take a look back at your Division Governor year, what is the one thing that you’re most proud of?

The one thing I was most proud of was the Toastmasters Leadership Institute we had in Toruń. For couple of reasons. The first – I felt that the organizing team wanted to give the best officers’ training they could. In my opinion, people develop best when they are given the opportunity to work on their leadership skills. The focus on this leadership part is still smaller than the one on communication.

Even though a couple of years back Toastmasters have re-branded with the “Where Leaders Are Made”, when you go to the level of clubs, you still don’t see that. So going back to the TLI and what I was proud of was – that the organizers saw that. We spent quite some hours talking about it, just discussing what the program should look like so that it would serve the purpose. And they created an agenda with different modules, where people could choose the topics they wanted. With focus on leadership.

The people on the team were given big responsibility and they managed it wonderfully. I was so proud of them. And it was one of the best highlights of the year for me.

I can imagine it was. Speaking people being given responsibility – I remember that in one of your speeches, you mentioned that as a Division Governor you learned to be invisible. I think it’s quite a brilliant thought – could you speak a bit more about that?

(smiles) Sure. People have different leadership styles. Looking at myself two years back, I was a person who loved to organize things, but also who had to have everything under control. I had to be the one who’s pulling all the strings.

Because you like things to be perfect, right?

Right. But then, when I was faced with bigger events – with more of them, and in the role of a Division Governor, it was not about me pulling all the strings. Then it was about letting other people do that. It’s a bit like running a company. Sometimes, when you hire people, you know what they are going to do. You can picture their workplace responsibilities in a very detailed way. But no matter how rich theír CV is, you never know exactly who you have in front of you.

You mean, how much the other person knows, what ideas that person has?

Exactly. Some of them will want to show you how good they are, just learn something and then look for other opportunities. But you’re looking for people who are truly engaged, who will give their heart into their work. And those are the people to whom you give a chance.

They might not be perfect on paper, but when they are thankful for being given a chance to show what’s in them, they will do it with more conviction and with more heart than those who brag on paper.

It’s the same with other projects, such as organizing Toastmasters conferences. When you work with people with potential, you just need to polish those diamonds a bit and give them an opportunity to shine. If you’re a policeman with all the checklists and you stick your nose into everything, no one will shine. Not even you.

Because the people get annoyed by that?

Not exactly. Look – you do things in a different way than I do them. One of the most difficult things I was faced with was just to acknowledge, appreciate and let it be. Just assigning the thing that needs to be done, but giving the freedom to think and act to others. And this way to be invisible, not necessarily steering the organization, event, or the project at hand.

You learned to do this as the Division Governor? You were not always like this, right?

Well, I actually still am a bit of a control freak. And as you mentioned – I like things to be perfect. And when I mean perfect, it’s the way I design them in my head. So I still have the temptation to ask people to do things – and then convince them to do them my way. Which makes no sense. Because if I want things to be done my way, I should do them myself.

You mentioned that being invisible works too in running a company. You’re a co-owner of a software company – you actually grew a lot over the past year, didn’t you?

Yes, we grew three times – from 4 in December 2014 to 13 this December. And we are still growing.

Wow, that’s quite impressive…

Thank you.

For me, it’s always interesting to see how we can use Toastmasters skills in real life. As some people say – “hey, this Toastmasters thing, you’re just playing there. But the real world is out there.” I was curious if you see any areas – or any skills – that you learned in Toastmasters that you use in running your business.

Let me start in the beginning. I have an engineering background. I worked with computers, lots of data, building mobile networks… When I joined Toastmasters, I realized that my mission was to communicate with people. More than I used to do in my engineering job.

So basically, Toastmasters helped you find out what you wanted to do in your life.

That’s about right. Even though I came to Toastmasters just by accident, it helped me realize what I wanted to do. It made me not only change my job, but also the areas I worked on. Afterwards I started working in public relations and marketing in IT.

Really? That was quite a change from an engineering job!

Yes it was. But still, it was something that gave me joy. I had to write, talk, argue, use the communication skills I was developing. And the hunch I had was that I would not be able to develop them having an engineering background. At this point, I’m using my Toastmasters skills every day. I talk to clients, I’m looking for new clients, trying to sell our services… Everything I’m doing now circles around communication and leadership.

Tell me more…

Let’s take communication first. I write content for marketing materials.. As you can imagine, being able to write text in the right structure, with the right wording, that is persuasive – that’s something we learn within the CC manual.

As for leadership: I organize meetings for programmers. Those are people who are rather withdrawn from public speaking, but who are still willing to share their experience. Of course, sometimes I have to be quite persuasive to make them talk. Unlike some salespeople, they are definitely not stage animals.

But in fact – even programmers have to be good communicators.

Oh yes, I remember you wrote a post on this topic.

That’s right. They work in teams – they lead teams! For example, in my company, they are every day involved in Skype calls with the clients. They have to be communicative, they have to be nice – these are all skills you learn in Toastmasters.

Agree, communication skills are key in basically every area in life. So, Toastmasters gave you a chance to express yourself and this way you were able to find what you really wanted to do in life.

Yes. That’s it.

Now if we speak about leadership a bit. The skill to be invisible – or maybe something else. Is there something you learned in Toastmasters that you’re putting into practice?

There is one thing. Listening. When you really want to be invisible, you need to know what people want to achieve. Even though they might not be ready to do that.

You mean you need to find out what drives them?

Rather what they want to achieve. So that you’re able to say “You know, there is this project you would be a perfect match for, because this, this and that”. It’s very similar to when you talk to a client. When you want to qualify a client – to see whether your product or service could match their needs, first you need to know what their needs are. You have to ask about it. No one will tell you right away when you call them on the phone. You have to be enquiring enough, curious about their needs and about the ways you can fulfill them.

Sometimes it appears there is nothing you can do for them. And it’s fine. But when you don’t listen, you’ll never get the proper answer. So this way, this skill of listening – that can be developed and improved when you are a Toastmaster – is helping me in my daily job.

One more area I’d like to touch with you – your TEDx talk. I think for many people who come to Toastmasters, giving a speech at TED or TEDx is the ultimate goal. How different was it for you to prepare for a TEDx talk than preparing for a normal Toastmasters speech?

When you mentioned the topic, I had to smile. The whole adventure of giving the TEDx talk was something I would never imagine possible. The previous year – I would have no courage to do that. I would think that there is nothing interesting in my life happening that I could share. You know, this “who am I to talk to two hundred people about things I’ve learned – and are these things more important than the things they have learned”.

But I think that on the wave of the whole last year – that was amazing for me for different reasons – I had the courage to ask for it. And even when I think of this, it’s different from what I know from Toastmasters speeches. In Toastmasters, there is always a VPE asking you to sign up for a speech. When you want to give a speech, it’s appreciated. But nobody asks you to give a TEDx talk. So that was a different thing. Just applying for it was a big step. Filling the form was like a job interview. A qualification process. I had to make the organizers believe that what I had to say would matter.

Another difference –  with Toastmasters speeches, because they are just shorter, I have no trouble figuring out what to say. But when it comes to a TEDx talk – I know that it has to be meaningful, it has to have value and it is 18 minutes long – in the beginning I had no idea what to say. And I think that this was something that distinguished the TEDx talk from all the – more than 40 – speeches I gave in Toastmasters.

For this one, I got to work with people from whom I know I could really learn. And giving the speech, I learned what kind of mentor I would like to be for other people. The support I was given, the trust… it was something I can not measure.

So definitely something different than a regular Toastmasters speech.

Definitely. And I recommend it to anyone. TEDx speech is something big, something to be proud of – but on the other hand, when we give speeches in Toastmasters, they are not less meaningful, just because they are given in a different environment. Some of them are really a wonderful material for a TEDx speech. It’s just a matter of saying yes to the opportunity.

You’re saying people should not be afraid to speak at TEDx, when they’re giving speeches at Toastmasters?


You’ve mentioned that it feels a bit uncomfortable to be in the position when you want to give a TEDx talk when nobody asked you for it. If I connect it to what you said about you being picked as the Division Governor of the year… I have this impression that you’re the person who does not like to put herself too much in the spotlight.

(laughs) I love to be in the spotlight…

Do you?

I love it, it’s just not my goal to be there.

I see a contradiction there.

Let me explain. It’s about the drive. I’m not driven to be in the spotlight. The moment itself is very important for me. But I don’t work to get there. Through the things I do and the way I behave, I believe I deserve to be in that place. It’s not that I just work so much to get a medal, a trophy or a cup. I don’t do it for those things and I don’t do it even for the recognition.

I am very much aware of how recognition works, how much confidence it can give and how people can grow because they like to be appreciated. And I like it too. But even though it’s something that makes me very grateful – I work to learn, not to get another badge on my vest.

When you speak about it this way, it seems to me that it’s really important for you to give the impression of being modest. Is that the case?

(takes a long time to think) That’s a tough question, because I never considered myself modest. I mean – I don’t think I have any image of myself I want to show to people. Through whatever I do I want to learn more about myself. And I want to become more understanding, more of a listener, more someone who can help other people become better.

Maybe modesty is one of the traits that may lead me there, but I don’t think I just see myself through a list of traits. So it’s difficult for me to answer if I would like other people to see me as modest.

Coming back a little to your TEDx talk – you gave it at TEDx Poznan, Poland. You are Polish. All the other speakers gave their speeches in Polish. But you chose to give yours in English. Why? Did you want to count it towards your Toastmasters manuals?

First of all – every speech I give, I try to make it a Toastmasters project. I was inspired to do that by your mentor, Silvana Wasitova. When Silvana was giving a speech at one of the TLIs in Krakow a couple of years back, she injected the thought that whenever you have the opportunity to speak, you should do it as a Toastmasters project. And I do that. But it was not the reason.

The reason why I did it was – I’m a member of an English speaking club. When I think of public speaking – English is the first language that comes to my mind. My friend told me recently: “I heard you speak English and I heard you speak Polish – and there is such a difference in the energy.”

So your public speaking in English is better than your public speaking in Polish?

Just different. But it made me realize that I might appear to be a different person when speaking in English than in Polish. The problem with speaking my mother tongue is that I feel the responsibility to use beautiful language, good wordings, metaphors…

You feel more constrained by the vast possibilities you have speaking in Polish, while in English you can focus more on being on the spot?

Exactly. In public speaking, I’m definitely way more confident when speaking in English. I didn’t want to add to the stress by having to speak in Polish. I still remember the stress doing the first rehearsal of my TEDx talk. You know – and I don’t know if I should be telling you this – never ever in Toastmasters did I have to have my speech prepared 3 weeks in advance. Usually I do most of the work the last week before the speech. And – I didn’t expect it to be different with the TEDx speech.

So when I had to have it prepared 3 weeks before, it was so lousy… I was so glad the rehearsal was over Skype… And even better, because of the bandwidth, we switched the camera off, so they did not see I was reading the whole thing from my notes. The most stressful talk that I ever had – it was this TEDx rehearsal.

Then it got only better. In the end, I was grateful that I had to have the draft this long before, so I had time to work on it. And in the last hours before the speech I was still able to come up with a couple of wits my audience appreciated.

In the end – you made it.

Yes I did.

Joanna Chmiel Jonathan Baudet

Photo: Jonathan Baudet

The last thing I would like to talk about is related to your TEDx talk, but also to your life. Or at least to the impression you give. Your TEDx talk was about goals and how you can get others – via social media – to support you in achieving those goals. You said: “Pain is temporary, but pride and memories will stay forever.” I think that’s quite profound, and it shows that you’re someone who really cares about achieving her goals in your life. Where is this coming from?

It’s not exactly about achieving goals. I care about being able to stretch my limits. I have always felt running was not for me. But then I started with it this year. And now in December, I enrolled for a half marathon in March. It is a path towards achievement, but it’s not about the achievement itself, it’s about something that can make you better, that can make you learn about yourself, about your boundaries, limitations…

It’s about making yourself aware that in fact there are very few things that are truly impossible. That’s what drives me.

I believe this is true for all of us. There’s one person with whom I work a lot and whose opinion I truly value. One thing I remember from our conversations is when he said that “you never get what you don’t ask for”. You never know if you can achieve if you don’t try. So I try doing things. And sometimes I achieve something along the way.

That is, by being able to extend your limits, you are proving to yourself that when there’s something you want, you might be able to get it.

I’m building this type of confidence, that… If I want something I am able to get it. That I am worth getting it.

That you’re worth getting it.


Why is it important for you to know that?

I have different goals in my life. Some small, some huge. When I know I’m able to achieve the small ones, then I’m probably able to achieve also the bigger ones. If I’m able to achieve the ACG, then what could be the next step? Maybe a TEDx talk. If I’m able to give a TEDx talk, what could be the next step? This is the way I think.

Joanna, thank you for the interview! Last question: If you could give a single piece of advice to all the Toastmasters out there – and all the people who want to get more from their lives – what would it be?

Say “yes” more often. We meet so many opportunities, but too often we don’t think we’re good enough to seize them. But we are good enough. Otherwise those opportunities would not have come.

So it is: “Say yes?”

Say yes – and see what happens.

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