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“Best class ever:” Celebrating 30 years of Leadership Missouri

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The Missouri Chamber is celebrating three decades of its exclusive professional development program.

Founded in 1990, Leadership Missouri identifies current and emerging leaders to enhance their leadership skills and deepen their knowledge of the state.

A new class kicks off June 16 in Saint Louis. Over the following seven months, they will travel to Kansas City, Joplin, Jefferson City, Cape Girardeau, Chillicothe and Osage Beach to explore Missouri’s strengths and opportunities firsthand. Due to the program being postponed for pandemic safety reasons in 2020, the 2021 participants comprise the 30th class.

“Leadership Missouri was created to help leaders connect across our state’s diverse portfolio of industries. We designed it to elevate the talent of Missouri’s leadership pool and establish a forum for sharing ideas and best practices. Over the past 30 years, all of our expectations for this program have been met — and more,” said Daniel P. Mehan, Missouri Chamber President and CEO. “Leadership Missouri is no less vital today than it was at its founding. Right now, Missouri needs strong leadership to help us confront important economic competitiveness issues. We need leaders who can work across industries and regions to unite our state. That is exactly the type of experience that Leadership Missouri provides and the Missouri Chamber is proud to be offering this experience for the 30th time.”

Brian Hammons, President/CEO of Hammons Products in Stockton and 2015 Leadership Missouri Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, recalled his experience in the inaugural class held in 1990.

“The Leadership Missouri program was a visionary idea in 1990 to connect leaders with issues that impact all our communities and businesses throughout Missouri. We were told that the ‘Charter Class’ would be the first of many to come, and it’s great to see that the program has developed into a must-do for leaders in our state,” said Hammons.  “In 1990 I was relatively new in my career, and I’ve continued to draw upon the insights and connections, and to reflect fondly upon the experiences from those monthly sessions.  As I’ve now served on the Missouri Chamber board for several years, I appreciate even more the impact that Leadership Missouri has for our state.”

The common trait all successful applicants share is a strong drive to not only develop professionally, but to improve their industries and communities as well.

“We were ready to take our careers to the next level — how do we become the leaders in our industry? How do we become the leaders in our community?” said Ken Franklin, manager of government and regulatory affairs at Missouri American Water and a 2019 Leadership Missouri alum. “I knew the state pretty well from previous roles, but understanding the current situations, what people are doing on the ground, was very helpful to see in action.”

His colleague Senior Manager of Finance Andie Cokel, who also went through the program in 2019, found the experience equally valuable.

“I’m not a Missouri native, so part of my experience — what I wanted to do — was learn more about the local Missouri government. And we’ve had a lot of opportunities to meet with different elected officials,” said Cokel.

Many leaders of local chambers of commerce have taken part over the years as well.

“I had a very specific view of my own community, but to be able to broaden that and take it to a state level has really just made me think about things differently,” said 2018 alum Lara Vermillion, president of the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Alum Crystal Narr is the president of the Chillicothe Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Being able to experience health care, education, agriculture – all the different facets that are part of our Missouri economy — has really opened my eyes to a lot of different facets in industry that I probably would have never been able to otherwise,” said Narr, another 2018 alum.

More than 1,200 people have completed the program since it was founded, creating a widespread Leadership Missouri Alumni Association. The running joke among graduates is the insistence that their own class is “the best class ever,” leading to some good-natured joshing among alumni at reunion events.

But jokes aside, the statewide alumni network is a valuable resource that helps facilitate connections and keep graduates engaged with the program. In 2018, alumni even spearheaded a campaign to fund restorations for the Governor’s Mansion, ultimately raising $73,000.

Gaye Suggett, manager of regulatory affairs at Ameren, currently serves as president of the alumni association.

“As a graduate of the class of 2007, I was able to experience firsthand what a terrific program Leadership Missouri is and I feel that I became a better leader because of that experience,” said Suggett. “As a member of the Alumni Board and now as President, I have been able to stay involved with each new class and attend each graduation. It is heartwarming each year to hear the stories of success from each of the graduates. I feel honored that I am able to contribute in a small way and help to mold the leaders of today and tomorrow.”

Even 30 years later, it’s clear that no matter your industry or career goals, Leadership Missouri yields lifelong dividends.

“I have connections now that I’ll keep way into the future,” said Nicole Hood, a MoDOT engineer and 2019 alum.

Learn more at mochamber.com/leadershipmissouri.

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