Jaap Russchenberg


Interview with former District 59 Director

This time, our interviewed was Jaap Russchenberg, the former District 59 Director. Jaap is a true leader and I began our talk with a small confession: today, I’m much more interested in leadership than in communication. As an experienced leader, Jaap started laughing and reminded me that communication skills play a very important role in leadership. The lesson was just beginning...

Pedro – Do you still do speeches?

Jaap – Yes. I did last Tuesday.

Pedro – Nice! It was in the Club you started as a Toastmaster?

Jaap – No. I started my journey in 2003, one year after Toastmasters’ arrival in Netherlands. I was charter member of the  second club in the Netherlands.

Pedro – So you are one of the first Toastmasters in Netherlands.

Jaap – Yes. You have to blame my wife for that. She is American and when she came to the Netherlands, in end of the 90’s (last century!), she wanted to start an activity and said ‘let’s start a Toastmasters club’. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was about communication and leadership, so I thought it could be fun. That’s how it started. Later, as we were living near Leiden, we started a new club in Leiden.

Pedro – What is the biggest challenge of starting a new club?

Jaap – The most challenging is finding people, experienced people, who can help you during the first six weeks. What we did in Leiden was to invite people from other clubs to the new club. We could do that because we know a lot of people in Netherlands. This experienced people gave speeches, evaluations and workshops, pushing up the level of the club. It is essential to ensure quality since the beginning. If people don’t see a certain level of maturity in the club, they will not want to join. Today, our club has about 30 members and a strong reputation.

Pedro – How can we keep quality over time?

Jaap – Workshops, every three month. I usually give a workshop, an all evening workshop, on how to evaluate. It is a very interactive workshop, involving everyone. Quality meetings mean that you should not focus only on speeches, especially if you are a young club. If you are a young club, you need to bring experienced people to teach your members. Bring the knowledge in, so people can grow faster.

Pedro – When you are leading a team, how important is to involve people?

Jaap – The speech I gave last Tuesday was about personal development/leadership. This is my passion. Everything starts with personal leadership. Personal leadership means that you are aware of your development process. If you’re not able to lead yourself, you’re not able to lead others. This level of responsibility and commitment to improve is important. Once you master this, you’re able to lead others because leadership is about how to take the best out of the people. For that, you need to listen and involve. You can’t just tell people what to do. That’s what a dictator do, not a leader. I was President of Toastmasters Clubs several times and I never said to my Officers what to do. On the contrary, I always asked them what they would like to do and I helped them to meet their goals. If their goal is your goal, you will boost your team’s motivation.

Yellow CalloutPersonal leadership means that you are aware of your development process. If you’re not able to lead yourself, you’re not able to lead others

Pedro – Does it always work?

Jaap – Not always. Sometimes you have to work with people that doesn’t have any goals or that doesn’t want to work. Then, even in a volunteer organization, it’s time to say goodbye. You may want to help people but if your visions and feelings are not aligned, it doesn’t work.

Pedro – How can we say goodbye in those situations?

Jaap – Be honest. I organized a special Toastmasters event, my team had a person with a different agenda. We couldn’t communicate and I noticed that the rest of the team had problems with the agenda of this person. To keep the team together, this person had to leave or my team would fall apart. There was only one way out.

Pedro – How can a leader solve conflicts between team members?

Jaap – It depends on the problem. First, you have to listen to the people and figure out what the problem is. Is it personal? Is it an attitude problem? If it is a personal problem, people have to talk and make a choice. If it is as an attitude problem, then you are the responsible. If someone is not working hard, you have to talk with that person, explain what you noticed and ask them what they want to do about that. It’s always ‘I see this’, ‘I noticed this’. There is a triangle you should know: skills, motivation and tasks to fulfil. To be successful, these three features should always be in balance. In a volunteer organization people should be doing what they like or should be motivated, otherwise they will not do anything. Once, I’ve discussed with another Toastmaster because she said that, in Toastmasters, we should take every challenge because it will always give us an opportunity to learn. I agree but there’s something else. There’s an expression that I often use: ‘discover your strengths and develop your strengths, so you can become better in that’. Do damage control in your weaknesses. Don’t try to be good in your weaknesses because that doesn’t work. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is personal leadership.

Pedro – That’s a great insight… Many people in Toastmasters say that we should get out of our comfort zone. However, I agree with you. Somehow, it’s better to excel in something than being mediocre in many.

Jaap – I can give you a title of a book: ‘Now, Discover your Strengths’, from Marcus Buckingham. It’s the same theory we are talking about. If you don’t like math and numbers, don’t try to become an accountant!

Pedro – How can we know if we’re avoiding a fear or if we are in the ‘weakness zone’? Sometimes, we avoid things just because we’re afraid and not because we don’t like it or don’t know how to do it.

Jaap – You have to try. If you try something and you don’t get energy from it, please stop. You’re hurting yourself.

Pedro – How much time do you spend in Toastmasters?

Jaap – Not that much. As a President, I spend more time talking with my team. I ask how they are doing, if they need some help and so one. My wife hates this expression but I think it’s true: a good leader has nothing to do, and then it’s busy enough. I organized a lot of things in the past. The secret is to find the right people. My first meeting is always about bringing people together and ask them what they think their role is. We discuss this, so people know the responsibilities of everyone. After, my task is just helping people staying on their role. If people overstep boundaries, you have to talk with them. For me, that’s busy enough.

Pedro – How often do you have meetings with your team?

Jaap – For a club, once a month. For specific events, it depends. What is important is to ensure that everyone has a task and a responsibility. You just need to guide your team.

Pedro – How was your experience as a District Director?

Jaap – I noticed that not everybody was used to this kind of working. In the beginning, some people said: ‘tell what to do’. I replied: ‘no, tell me you what you want to do’. Every country in Europe has their own management style. In the South you have hierarchical organizations, while in the North you have flat organizations. Therefore, in the South, the boss will consult his team but he will decide for them. On the contrary, in the North, decisions are made together with the staff. There are cultural differences and that’s something I noticed during my time as a District Director.





Pedro – Do you have any habits to make your day more productive? I suppose you’re a very organized person…

Jaap – People say I’m organized (laugh). I get up at 6AM and until 7AM I’ll work on Toastmasters. Then, I’ve my normal job. There is one specific rule that I follow: whatever I’m doing, I’ll stop at 10PM. It doesn’t matter what it is, I’ll just say ‘I’m sorry, it’s 10PM and I’ve to spend time with my wife’. This rule is very important to me because it give me the necessary work-life balance.

 Pedro – What is your vision for the future of Toastmasters?

Jaap – Toastmasters attracts people who want to develop themselves. It’s a very cheap way to do it and it gives you the tools and the network you need. In Toastmasters, like-minded people are brought together and that contributes greatly for Toastmasters success. In the new society, soft skills are more important than knowledge skills. We need both, but soft skills are essential. Toastmasters it’s the best place to learn it and that will make our organization grow.

Pedro – After being President, District Director, and many other things, how do you keep motivated?

Jaap – The most important is to have fun. If you don’t have fun, leave the organization. For me, a Toastmasters meeting is a social event in which you can learn. For coming year, my decision is not to go further but to go back to basics. I think that after being so involved in the District, it’s time to go back to the Clubs and help people with my experience. Toastmasters it’s always about give and take.

Pedro – That’s a wonderful lesson to close our interview. Jaap, thanks for your time. I’m sure that the community will benefit a lot from your interview.

Jaap – Thank you Pedro. Have a nice weekend!




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