Excellence In Leadership: Warren D. Harris, Virginia Beach Economic Development
Director of Economic Development, City of Virginia Beach
By Barrett Baker
The son of a retired military officer and an elementary school principal, Warren D. Harris was raised on the importance and value of education and discipline. The foundation was set early on for him that hard work, self-motivation and a little luck were the keys to enable his forward progress. Mediocracy just wasn’t an option.
He attended the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) for his undergraduate degree in Political Science and Old Dominion University for his master’s degree in Public Administration. He has since served as director of economic development for the City of Virginia Beach for more than 10 years after having a very successful work experience with the City of Chesapeake, at one point acting as interim assistant city manager and eventually serving as director of economic development there.
Through his efforts with the American Economic Development Organization (AEDO), Virginia Beach is one of only 50 accredited economic development organizations in the world. He has received numerous awards from the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) for his economic development marketing campaigns, and he has established two international offices—one in Düsseldorf, Germany that represents Virginia Beach economic development, and a trade office in Olongapo, Philippines. His work in economic development has led to travel on foreign trade missions with the governor of Virginia, and on behalf of the City of Virginia Beach with the mayor, to countries and cities in the Far East, Europe, South America and throughout the United States.
What is your role as director of economic development in Virginia Beach?
My role is to execute the goals of the City Council and our citizens to grow our economy. This has been accomplished by supporting new and existing companies’ growth and working to diversify our target industry sectors—resulting in expanding our tax base and increasing our city’s per capita income with new and expanding job opportunities.
How do your leadership skills help make that happen?
First, I think it’s important to create a “can-do” environment and put people in a position to succeed. It is equally important to lead by example and provide consistency with direction and communications with your team. I must also say that good leaders must also be good listeners and even be followers when alternate ideas or solutions arise.
What do you think has been the key to your success?
Vision—meaning knowing the targets that need to be hit before anyone else; providing consistency; maintaining a can-do spirit and providing constant communication up and down the entire organization. A wise man once told me, “Working smarter is far better than working harder.” So, you need to surround yourself with diversely creative and knowledgeable people.
In your opinion, are leaders born or are they developed?
I believe both are true. General Russel L. Honoré (retired Lieutenant General who served as the 33rd commanding general of the U.S. First Army at Fort Gillem, Ga.), for example, is probably best known for serving as the Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. He had the responsibility of coordinating military relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and is the person who comes to mind when I think of a born leader. I am quite sure he also mentored many others future leaders with his wisdom and knowledge along the way. So certainly, some people are born leaders, but many others, I would suggest, are developed.
What advice do you have for future business leaders of the world?
Business leaders need to stay flexible and agile to recognize the importance of meeting the growing expectations of customers (constituents). We live in an environment where the speed of technology and innovation drive services to the marketplace quickly. We are in an age of rapid and continuous growth, and the need for information is at an all-time high. This demand has had a profound impact on the delivery of services.
Any advice for middle management leaders who are looking to move ahead?
Be a sponge and absorb information from those around you, and become a subject matter expert. Display your team leadership and expertise for the job. Build your professional network and be ready to walk through your door of opportunity when it opens. If it’s not opening fast enough, knock and peek inside to get attention.