Leadership Columbia Continues to Pave the Way

A training program that focuses on community involvement



The Leadership Columbia class is volunteering at the Harvest Hope Food Bank packing and prepping boxes for shipment.

Photography by Bob Lancaster

In 1972, Richard Nixon was president, John West was governor of South Carolina, John Campbell was mayor of Columbia, and Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me was residing at the top of the pop charts. That was also the year a group of future civic leaders in Columbia and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce launched the program now known as Leadership Columbia.

The program, then called the Greater Columbia Forum, graduated four classes between 1972 and 1976. In 1980, it was reinstated as Leadership Columbia and has been an important program of the chamber and the Columbia civic community ever since.

Candy Waites was in the first class of the Greater Columbia Forum. Candy was in her late 20s at the time and president of the local League of Women Voters, one of only two women in the first class. She has since gone on to serve on County Council, in the General Assembly and in many volunteer roles in the community.

“In 1972, there was excitement and enthusiasm because this was a new concept,” she says. “Participants had grown up in a segregated society, and this gave us an opportunity to meet, share ideas and work with our black or white contemporaries.” 

Challenges in the early 1970s were quite different from today, but Candy notes that, regardless of issues and concerns, any time people come together from different backgrounds, races, genders and occupations to work and learn together, the future of the community is given greater value. 

“Too often people are isolated in their own worlds and are uninformed about what exists outside. Some are unwilling, unprepared or unable to communicate to solve problems or develop dreams,” she says. Leadership Columbia was just the forum needed to change that.

Lee Bussell, chairman and CEO of Chernoff Newman and former chair of both the Columbia and State Chambers of Commerce, agrees that the diversity of the program and of its participants is one of the real strengths that has kept the program thriving for 40 years. 

“Today’s classes are much more diverse — not just in race in gender — but in professions. Today you see far more than just business leaders in Leadership Columbia. Participants come from non-profits, government and academia bringing a wide diversity of perspectives to the program,” Lee says.

Lee notes that the first few years of the program focused on orientation sessions about various programs and services around the Midlands area. But moving into the 1980s, the program took on more of a focus on leadership training and community involvement rather than solely an orientation to the Columbia community. 

“This training in leadership and community service makes the program even more attractive to an employer looking for professional development opportunities for his employees,” says Will Johnson, class of 2008 and current president of the Leadership Columbia Alumni Association. “For businesses that want their employees to be leaders who are engaged and active in Columbia, I would argue that Leadership Columbia is the perfect place to send them.” 

Lee agrees that Leadership Columbia has become a great venue for leadership development. He is one of several people from his class who is still actively involved 30 years later in the Columbia business and civic community. “I was one of the younger ones in that class in 1982. At that point, we were having to go out and recruit to get 30 people in a class.” This year, however, there were more than 130 applicants for 60 spots.

“Today’s Leadership Columbia really builds strong leadership skills,” Lee says. “You can see that commitment in how the program is now staffed with dedication to running this program and the young professionals group.”

Lee was one of several Leadership Columbia alumni recently involved with the search process to hire the chamber’s new VP for Talent and Leadership Development and who serves as the director of Leadership Columbia. “The search committee was serious and passionate about finding the right person for this job,” he says. 

Anissa Floyd started with the chamber as the vice president for talent and leadership development in November. Having practiced law in Atlanta for more than eight years, she says she was drawn back to her hometown of Columbia. 

“I was attracted to this position because I wanted to merge my avocation and my vocation. Prior to joining the Columbia Chamber, I worked on various leadership development initiatives and programs as a volunteer,” Anissa says. “I even taught a leadership development course at my alma mater, Spelman College. I am delighted to have the opportunity to pursue my passion full-time through my work with Leadership Columbia and the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.”

The thriving Leadership Columbia program that Anissa will now lead has seen steady growth over the years. As the program continued to expand in the 1980s, class size and focus grew. Jim Christopher, president of Asbill-Christopher, was in the class of 1986. He says that Columbia in the 1980s was transitioning from a sleepy town into a vibrant city, and his Leadership Columbia class looked at what was being done elsewhere that might work in Columbia. 

“We thought that recycling and litter awareness was a good idea, and we found that the Keep America Beautiful program worked elsewhere so we started one here,” Jim recalls. He recalls his class having fun on early “recycling Saturdays” where they manned a line of containers by the K-Mart on Fort Jackson Boulevard where people could bring their glass and paper to be recycled. 

“People wanted so badly to recycle that it almost overwhelmed the program, but fortunately the city started the curbside program when they saw the demand. It’s as hard now to remember a time without the present curbside program as it is to remember a black and white television,” Jim says.

The class project is one of the major parts of the Leadership Columbia curriculum each year and an important part of the teambuilding and leadership development process that Leadership Columbia encourages. The class determines the project focus, raises the money necessary to complete it and then carries it out. Since the project became part of the curriculum in 1983, classes have taken on projects as diverse as an industry survey to a mural at Riverwalk Park, and a renovation of the Family Shelter to a career fair for at-risk youth.

The 1996 class earned an additional lesson from its class project to build a playground at Gonzales Park. Walker McKay recalls how the class raised the money to buy the new equipment only to arrive on site the Saturday they were scheduled to install it to find some of the boxes holding the equipment had been burned.

“We had to move ahead with what we had that day,” Walker recalls. “But one thing we learned from our leader training in the Leadership Columbia program was to be ready for anything. We really put that principle into action that day.”

This year’s class is taking on the challenge of eating disorders in teenagers by working with The Hearth, a program of the Carolina Children’s Home. The project will include increasing community awareness of The Hearth and of eating disorders, renovating a cottage and building an on-site healing garden. 

“Our class is eager to help make The Hearth a safe, affordable and welcoming place for those in and around our community. We have 59 very talented and giving individuals excited to make a difference,” says Stephen Creech of Blue Cross Blue Shield and a 2014 Leadership Columbia class member.

Beyond the hands-on nature of the class project, Leadership Columbia graduates point to the networking, relationship building and friendships as other tremendous benefits of the program.

Rebecca Best had the unique perspective of being a program participant then later running Leadership Columbia as a member of the Chamber staff. She was with the United Way of South Carolina in 1996 and then later joined the chamber staff in 1999. 

“I not only learned so much about Columbia, but I also still remain friends with so many of my classmates,” Rebecca says. “A great example of how friendships turn into working relationships is with that of Elise Partin, mayor of Cayce. Elise was in my class, and today I enjoy not only our friendship but also being able to work with her in my role of government relations director for the Homebuilders Association, the Central Carolina Realtors Association and the Consolidated Multiple Listing Service.”

Elise agrees that Leadership Columbia is a critical program for building future leaders in the Midlands. “The value of the leadership training was phenomenal when coupled with knowledge of the inner workings of our community,” she says. “That is surpassed only by the value of the connections and friendships that come out of your class year and interactions with other alumni.”

Another positive aspect of Leadership Columbia is that, while the program has strong staff leadership, the curriculum is driven by volunteers. Alumni of the program organize the sessions and arrange for the speakers. Session topics each year range from local government and education to arts and economic development.

In addition to planning the program sessions, the alumni group holds a luncheon series and other events that take place downtown after work. “The Leadership Columbia experience can last far beyond the one year of the program.” Will Johnson, also an attorney with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, says. “The Leadership Columbia Alumni Association is such an easy way to stay involved with the Leadership Columbia program after graduation. We offer a variety of options for graduates to keep up with their classmates, to get to know other Leadership Columbia alumni, and to hear from some outstanding men and women who have established themselves as leaders in Columbia and beyond.” 

This spring, the Alumni Association luncheon series will feature speakers such as Harris DeLoach with Sonoco Products Company, Citadel President John Rosa, University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, and Darla Moore with Rainwater Inc. and The Palmetto Institute.

Beyond the class project and professional networking, Leadership Columbia has been known to encourage other types of relationships, too. Sally and Walker McKay met as classmates in the class of 1996 and married in 1997. Both agree that Leadership Columbia was a great stepping stone for their individual careers and their personal “happy ever after.”

To Learn more about the Leadership Columbia program or how to apply, visit www.columbiachamber.com/leadershipcolumbia, call (803) 733-1123 or email Anissa Floyd at afloyd@columbiachamber.com.