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Pam Farris: Giving leaders an opportunity to shine

By Jen Wood Cunningham

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Over the years, there have been many women who have broken through glass ceilings to higher positions of power and into industries where women are uncommon.

Pam Farris is a woman who has broken through both and is helping men and women broaden their skills, knowledge and career possibilities. 

Farris spends her time cultivating rising leaders as the executive director of Leadership West Virginia, a statewide program to develop, strengthen and connect emerging leaders in the state. 

Farris studied business at West Virginia University and spent 22 years of her career at Employers Service, a family-owned business. There, she said, owner and her mentor, Herk Sims, gave her "the opportunity to shine," something she now does for others.

Farris remembers many times when Sims gave her opportunities, but one sticks out in her memory. Sims asked her to present the annual report for a client, a large coal company. "He came to me and said, 'You've been handling this account and you are the eyes and the ears of this client, and I want you to be a part of the presentation.'"

As she stepped into the boardroom, she realized that she was the only female in the room. She wasn't surprised, but was excited.

 "I had made it. It was finally my chance to sit in a room with the men," she said. "I knew that everything he had shown and taught me, I was going to be able to do."

Sims' philosophy, according to Farris, was, "You can do the very best job for your client, but if you don't tell your client what you're doing for them and how good it is, in the right way, then they may never know. They need to understand and have that relationship with you, that you are doing what you need to do for them in a very positive way."

Farris was working at Employer Service in 1998 when she participated in Leadership West Virginia.

"Mr. Sims and the management team really felt that it was a great opportunity for their employees. I got to experience what I am doing [now] from the other side," she said.

Her earlier participation in the program helped when she applied for the position of executive director seven years later. There were more than 60 applicants for the position, she said.

"I really thought I would stay [at Employer Service] for the remainder of my career. I loved the people and the work, but to take that chance to see what else may be out there... It has opened up a door for me and for Leadership West Virginia." 

Leadership West Virginia is an eight-month program for about 50 leaders from a variety of industries and communities who are selected through a competitive application process. Participants travel across the state each month for a two-day session to learn about the challenges and successes within the state.

For example, in May, Logan community members and businesses provided opportunities for participants to ride on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, tour a mining training facility and a reclaimed mining site, experience a mining blast, see the aerial view of mining sites and to hear from mining professionals about the industry. 

More than 1,000 people have graduated from the program, which is financially supported by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, corporations, local chamber organizations, businesses where the sessions are held, alumni and program tuition.

Farris grew up in rural western Pennsylvania with five siblings and two very hard-working and dedicated parents. She and her siblings are first-generation college graduates.

She became interested in business through her oldest sister who, according to Farris, is the most independent member of her family and was a buyer for a manufacturing company. That her sister had found her talents helped Farris find her own.

"I think I found my gift and honed in on it and keep moving in that direction. I love to be around people and to make a difference, and have others make a difference in my life. Marketing, client relations, and now what I'm doing just seem to all fit into what I like to do."

Sixty years ago, her mother worked in the office of a manufacturing plant before she got married. "You couldn't be a married woman and work in that company," Farris said.

Her mother and father were married when her mother worked at the plant. "Her boss dearly loved her and her work and kept it quiet for a while, but others found out and she eventually left the job." 

Farris' father worked in a manufacturing plant as a foreman and superintendent. "He was very dedicated to what he did. He was very proud to take the family to the [annual company gathering]."

Farris smiled. "Our personalities are very similar. We both like to be around people and take charge."

She said, "Right before he passed away, he planned an event for the community and was one of the oldest members of the planning committee...He had a great work ethic. He taught us to give it our all."

In 1983, Farris married her husband, Joe, and came to Charleston. They have two sons who both attend West Virginia State University. "We try to instill in our kids how important respect is. Respect of time, people, yourself, property...Respect is a big piece of what I try to live by, too."

Another lesson Farris has learned and lives by is, "Don't make up your mind until you've experienced it."

She continued, "We've got a beautiful state and very good and caring people in our state. There's so much to see and to know before you make a decision. You can't talk about something unless you know it."

Farris believes that the important role that Leadership West Virginia plays is to give leaders in the state the opportunity to expand their knowledge and experiences so that they can be better equipped to make decisions in business, in their communities, in their careers, and in their personal lives.

Jen Wood Cunningham may be contacted at jenreneewood@gmail.com.

 


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