Q&A: John Germ is a man of commitment

When John Germ takes office as Rotary International’s president in July, it will mark his 40th year in Rotary. In that time, he’s likely best-known for leading Rotary’s $200 Million Challenge, a fundraising effort sparked by a challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Rotarians surpassed that goal in 2011, raising $228.7 million toward polio immunization activities. “I never questioned that we would raise the funds,” he says. “Rotarians have been so generous.” In fact, raising money for polio was one of Germ’s first leadership roles. He became a member of the Rotary Club of Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1976. “I wasn’t involved, other than going to meetings, until 1983 when I was asked to be club secretary,” he says. “Then I was asked to participate as district co-chair for the polio fundraising campaign.” After that, he was hooked. “The more active I became, and the more good that I saw being done, the more I wanted to do,” he says. Germ went on to serve Rotary as vice president, director, Foundation trustee and vice chair, and RI president’s aide. He and his wife, Judy, are also members of the Arch Klumph Society. Professionally, Germ continues to consult for Campbell & Associates, a Chattanooga engineering firm he started working for in 1965 and eventually served as chairman and CEO. Editor in Chief John Rezek spoke with him about his next big commitment – his yearlong role as RI president.

THE ROTARIAN: What are the most important rules of leadership, and from whom did you learn them?

GERM: To me, the most important rule of leadership is to be a good listener. A good leader must be a person who can motivate, encourage, delegate, inspire, and communicate well. Listening enables you to better understand the needs and desires of others.

TR: What does a person in your position never do?

GERM: A person in my position never asks anyone to do something I would not do myself.

TR: What are the core qualities and character traits that every Rotarian should have?

GERM: The most important core value is integrity. Without integrity, one has nothing.

TR: Some presidents spend most of their time traveling; some frequently attend to business at RI headquarters. Which will you be?

GERM: I intend to do both. Visiting clubs and districts is important to provide motivation, to say thank you for the work being done, and to convey the TEAM message: “Together everyone achieves more.” At the same time, coordinating activities and providing continuity between RI leaders, staff, and The Rotary Foundation leadership is critical. Therefore, we must hold meetings that include the president, president-elect, president-nominee, TRF chair, TRF chair-elect and the general secretary. There should be joint board meetings, at least one per year, to ensure continuity and cooperation. This requires time in Evanston.

TR: What are Rotary’s most existential challenges? What can individual Rotarians do to meet them?

GERM: Rotary’s biggest challenge is membership. We need to expand our membership so we can do more work. We need to attract younger people, like Rotary youth program alumni. Recently retired individuals are another group to engage. We are an organization with high ethical standards and a classification system. These standards should be maintained and our current members educated on why each one of them should be sponsoring other qualified individuals to become Rotarians.

TR: Why is it so hard for the public to understand what Rotary is and does? How would you remedy that?

GERM: For many years, Rotarians worked both locally and globally without seeking publicity or recognition. When a survey was conducted a few years ago, it was no surprise to me that the general public was unaware of Rotary and the work we do. We need to wear our Rotary pin with pride. We need to enhance Rotary’s public image by successfully and enthusiastically marketing who we are and the amazing things we are doing and have done locally and globally. No one should ever have to ask, “What is Rotary?”

TR: What was more difficult to decide upon: your presidential theme or design of your tie?

GERM: The design of the tie. It was easy to create a theme around service. I was inspired by the work that Rotarians do locally and globally through the polio eradication campaign and in the six areas of focus of The Rotary Foundation – so my theme is how I describe our work, Rotary Serving Humanity.

TR: What were the two or three most important steps in your journey to the presidency? What advice would you give to a Rotarian who wants to follow in your footsteps?

GERM: I think I became president due to hard work. I successfully completed terms on the Board of Directors, as a trustee for The Rotary Foundation, and have been involved in projects locally and globally. It all starts at the club level. One must be a successful club president, district governor, and RI director to be considered by the nominating committee. A broad base of experience is essential along with a vision to improve Rotary. A person needs to work hard and do the best they can while always learning something new every step along the way.

TR: What was your reaction upon hearing the news of your nomination?

GERM: Judy and I were having dinner when we received the phone call. We were excited and humbled by the news. When we listened to the comments of the nominating committee members, we were more humbled and realized a great amount of faith was being placed in us to lead Rotary, especially in the centennial year of The Rotary Foundation.

TR: Which jobs in Rotary have you enjoyed the most?

GERM: The job I enjoyed most following being club president was chairing the $200 Million Challenge. Visiting clubs and districts, seeing the enthusiasm of Rotarians to fulfill our promise to the children of the world for eradicating polio, was overwhelming. Participating in National Immunization Days and seeing the smiles on the mothers’ faces as their child received those two precious drops had chills running up and down my back. How can one do better work than that?

TR: Let’s imagine that the president can accomplish anything he wants during his presidential year. What are the top three things you want to accomplish?

GERM: First, eradicate polio. Second, increase our membership so we can have more willing hands, caring hearts, and inquisitive minds. We also need to increase diversity within our organization. Third, create more partnerships and sponsorships with corporations and foundations. Our work with the Gates Foundation, WHO, UNICEF, and CDC shows us that working together is successful.

TR: If you could change one thing about RI immediately, what would it be?

GERM: To have Rotary run more like a business rather than a social services organization. A major source of Rotary’s income is membership dues. I’d look into new sources of revenue, such as partnerships or sponsorships. We also need to be sure the services offered are those that the clubs and districts want and not what we think they want or need. When a business begins to see expenses increase without an increase in revenue, the business looks at ways to cut costs and not necessarily increase fees charged for services. A business always looks for better ways to do things.

TR: Rotarians employ about 600 people to run the organization. You’ve met many staff members over the years. Characterize their efforts to a member who has no idea what RI does. Do Rotarians get value for their money?

GERM: Rotary staff support is essential for Rotary to do the work it does. Our outstanding staff works diligently to provide the tools needed for clubs to function better. This includes developing education materials, grant assistance, and stewardship guidance. The staff provides great value to our organization.

TR: If you were asked to describe five important, though not necessarily apparent, characteristics about yourself, what would you say?

GERM: My parents taught my brothers and me to be respectful of all people and to be honest and trustworthy in all aspects of life. I have been described as an out-of-the-box thinker, respectful, reliable, trustworthy, persistent, a motivator, a delegator, a confidant, and a team-builder.

TR: If you could have a personal conversation with every Rotarian, what would you say to each of them?

GERM: I would say thank you for what you have done; thank you for what you are doing; and thank you for what you are going to do to improve your community and change lives. I would also ask them to repay the opportunity someone gave them by asking each member to invite another person to become a Rotarian.