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Top 100 Executive Leadership Award: Sloan Harris has steered VLK Architects to new heights

In an industry where innovation and collaboration are the cornerstones of success, Sloan Harris’ vision and leadership skill have steered VLK Architects to new heights. In recognition of his accomplishments, he was presented the Executive Leadership Award at the Business Press’ 2021 Top 100 event on Dec. 1.

Since joining VLK in 2003, Harris quickly established a reputation as a strategic manager, designer and entrepreneur with a passionate commitment to improving communities.

But after being named CEO in early 2020, Harris could not have foreseen what would be perhaps the greatest challenge of his career.

“Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented uncertainty and disruption to every aspect of our lives,” Harris said. “What I discovered from within myself during the pandemic was a new level of acceptance I’d never experienced before, especially as it pertained to so many things that we simply could not control.”

Harris realized the firm had to adapt to keep the business persevering. But on a personal level, he discovered a new sense of empathy for the people around him.

Promoted to principal in 2012 and partner in 2015, his oversight of business growth, operations and client management while directing several projects, including the Arlington school district’s Dipert Career and Technology Center, helped establish VLK as one of the most successful architecture firms in the industry. Also, his leadership guided the expansion of the firm from two to five offices. VLK now has offices in Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio.

“Everyone was dealing with their own version of the reality of the pandemic, and I found it critical to continue to recognize that and remind myself that everyone had their own circumstances they were dealing with,” he said “Sometimes the only thing I could offer was empathy.”

Besides making safety a priority for employees, the firm continued to deliver for clients, including helping mitigate the pandemic’s impact on materials and labor shortages and capital financing for  projects.

“As a result, we came through the crisis more resilient than ever,” he said. “I’ve expected a great deal of every VLK employee during this time, and I try hard to ensure that all of them know how much I value their contributions. We share in the success of our evolution and what we’ve accomplished as a team. It’s something we can all be proud of.”

Speaking to the Top 100 audience, Harris detailed two key things he learned through the pandemic.

“First is acknowledging one’s lack of control,” he said. “Not that I could control these things before the pandemic, but I certainly realized I couldn’t control them during the pandemic. I can’t control the media. I cannot control the politics. I cannot control COVID-19. I could not control the CDCs guidelines. I could not control the health department’s guidelines. I couldn’t control what the WHO was saying and all the things in between, but what I could control is what we were doing as a firm.

“I quickly and luckily acknowledged that I’m going to focus on what I can control and that’s service for our clients, the health of our employees, the happiness of our employees and the quality of our work.

“The second thing that I learned was empathy and truly understanding what empathy meant to me and the impact that empathy could have on my organization. And keep in mind, it wasn’t just a pandemic that was happening at this moment in time. There was a ton of other things that came to the forefront, and rightfully so, regarding social justice, diversity, equality, equity. Everybody was experiencing different things in their lives and that notion of we’re all in this together… Can I use cuss words? Is that okay? Because that’s bullshit. We weren’t all in it together. Everybody was experiencing COVID and other personal issues on a whole different level. And empathizing with that, to me, was the most important way that I could instill a sense of confidence amongst our employees.”

Harris earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Texas in Arlington, where he also earned his MBA.He is NCARB-certified and a LEED Accredited Professional.

Harris is also active in civic and professional organizations, including the American Institute of Architects, Fort Worth Chapter, and the Construction Specifications Institute. He has served on the City of Fort Worth Planning Commission (2014-2017) and as a board member for the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth, the Texas Transit Alliance, and the Cultural District Alliance.

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