People from Leadership West Virginia talking in a circle

More than 1,000 of West Virginia’s top business leaders, entrepreneurs, and politicos all have one thing in common.

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

They’re everywhere—in every corner of the state and every field imaginable, from manufacturing to law to arts education. They sit on boards, write books, run fundraisers, and start businesses. They could be your boss, your doctor, your accountant, or the owner of your favorite restaurant in town. And they all have one thing in common: Leadership West Virginia. The group has been grooming West Virginia’s leaders for 24 years now. More than 1,000 people have worked their way through its yearlong program, and alumni include some of West Virginia’s most prominent figures in all kinds of fields. “The idea behind Leadership West Virginia is to offer people stepping into leadership roles the skills they need to go forward,” says Pam Farris, the organization’s executive director.

Leadership West Virginia was born in 1991, a program of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. The idea was to put together a formal system that could groom West Virginia’s next generation of leaders, and continue to do so for years to come—instead of one event about leadership, why not an entire course on it? “We know that the faces of leadership continue to change,” Farris says. “And we need to be able to change with them.”

Every year dozens of West Virginians are nominated for the program. Administrators then weed through a huge pool of applications to select the next Leadership West Virginia class. As you’d hope for the application for a program that will groom your state’s newest leaders, even the basic qualifications are demanding. Applicants are expected to be somewhat experienced in their fields already, and to have demonstrated some forward movement along their career paths. They need to show that they’ve been involved in their communities, and that they have sincere concern for West Virginia. “The most important thing on the application probably is where we ask the individual to give us their vision for where we need to go with the state,” Farris says. “If you don’t have anything to say, you’re not ready for the class.” Nominations are accepted all year, and Farris encourages people to nominate themselves. Applications are due in November and the new class is announced around February.

Around 50 people are chosen for each yearlong session. They come together for two days every month in different parts of the state, for sessions on a broad range of topics. It’s a smorgasbord of things meant to promote leadership and teach these professionals about the state. This year they’re going to Logan County to learn about the coal industry, Fayette County to talk tourism, and Morgantown to discuss legal issues. “And we’re interacting with experts on the topic, we’re doing activities,” Farris says. “The best way to learn is to be interactive and to be involved and to be making it happen.”

In the session about economic development, for example, the class plays a game developed by Pat Kelly, the CEO of the West Virginia Healthcare Association and a Leadership West Virginia alumnus. The class is split in half, with people on one side playing the role of a state. “In other words, you might have all the characteristics of a great state to bring in economic development, or you may be not such a great state in terms of bringing in economic development,” Farris says. The other people represent companies that are looking to locate in one of those states—it’s the states’ job to woo those businesses, while the businesses try to negotiate the best deals they can. “At the end the companies announce where they’re going and what enticed them,” Farris says. “And we get to see what it would be like to be in the economic development field. It’s a great way to try something you may never have tried otherwise.”

The program starts in March with a session in which participants talk about leadership in the broader sense, and about themselves. “We talk about self-examination,” says David Clayman, who administers that session every year. “We might not all be charge-down-the-hill leaders, but we all are stewards of the state. We look at ourselves and what we have to offer.” Clayman is the founder of Clayman & Associates, a Charleston clinical and forensic psychology company, and a 1998 Leadership West Virginia alumnus. He also sits on Leadership West Virginia’s Board of Directors. Clayman has been a board member at a lot of organizations around the state, but says Leadership’s board is unique. “It’s the only board I’ve ever been on where nobody wants to leave—we’re all angling for how we can stay on,” he says. “It’s apolitical, there’s no intrigue. We’re all just there to make the program better.” He also says his overall experience with Leadership West Virginia has been one of the very best things he’s done as a professional in the state. “I know it sounds like we’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid, but it’s because we really have,” he says. “Have you ever been in a room with 50 Type A personalities? It’s great because it kind of equalizes everybody, and it’s so amazing to be around people who motivate you like that.”

In the last few years the program’s administrators have started working on organizing and mobilizing Leadership’s vast network of alumni—a network that includes people at the top of practically every industry in West Virginia. Alumni have always been connected in some way. There’s a newsletter, and for a few years now there’s been a conference, plus all the informal ways alumni interact. “I’ve never had a call to a Leadership person not returned when I say I’m a Leadership West Virginia alum,” Clayman says. Now the plan is to formalize those connections to make them more powerful and more efficient.

To do that, Leadership is creating a network of alumni chapters, so alumni can engage with one another on the regional level as well as the state level. It’s a simple thing that administrators think could be really powerful. “The big thing for us in the future is to maintain the high quality and the integrity of the program, but also to find ways to encourage and enhance the involvement of alumni,” Clayman says. “We want to go beyond just getting together to have social time.”

Written by Shay Maunz
Photographed by Nikki Bowman

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