Campus & Community

Morgan Stanley VP Carla Harris Tells Stevens Students What It Takes to Manage a Career for Leadership Success

Every industry sells the concept of a meritocracy when describing their hiring and promotional practices, but keeping your head down and working hard, by themselves, will not take you very far in your career. 

That was the message of Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley and the featured speaker in the Excellence Through Diversity Lecture Series at Stevens Institute of Technology October 21.

The lecture, sponsored by the Lore-El Center for Women’s Leadership, Graduate Student Affairs and Diversity Education, along with generous support provided by Dianne (Smith) Szipszky '90 '91, was the marquee event of the LeadHERship Conference held at Stevens. 

“The conference strives to promote and amplify the voices of women in STEM by bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences for a day of motivation, networking, skills-building and professional development," said Kristie Damell, associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator. 

“We chose Carla Harris to be our keynote speaker for the conference because her extraordinary ability to translate her experience and accomplishments into actionable advice that can help women advance in their careers resonates with students at the early stages of discovering their careers as well as seasoned professionals in senior-level positions.”

Perception is the co-pilot to reality

Full of wit, humor and charisma, the seasoned Wall Street pro, who is also an author and accomplished gospel singer who has performed at Carnegie Hall, mesmerized an audience of students, faculty, staff and invited guests at Stevens’ DeBaun Auditorium as she dispensed her signature “Carla’s Pearls” – words of wisdom gained from a storied career in the fiercely competitive world of finance.

Throughout the hour-long lecture, Harris gave a masterclass on how to manage a career with intent and purpose and position oneself to maximize success as a leader.  

The most important lesson learned from her three decades on “The Street,” she says, is that “the lens in which people look at you will directly impact how they deal with you.”

Understanding this came roughly five years into her career, she says, when a senior managing director told her he didn’t think she was “tough” enough for the industry.

“The fact that he was questioning whether I was tough enough was a wakeup call to me that the real Carla Harris was no longer walking into Morgan Stanley," she recalled. "Somewhere I had lost my voice, somewhere I had lost my confidence, and it was creating a competitive disadvantage.”

“Your authenticity is at the heart of your power, and authenticity is at the heart of powerful, impactful, influential leadership. Most people are not comfortable in their own skin, so when they see someone who is comfortable and confident in their own they will gravitate toward you.” 

People can be “trained” to perceive you in a certain way, Harris added. Identify three adjectives that you want people to use to describe you when you are not in the room, and behave consistently in accordance to those adjectives at work, she told the audience. (Those three adjectives must not only be consistent with who you really are, they must also be valued in the organization, she emphasized.)

“If you are in a finance role, people better describe you as analytical and quantitative. If you are in a marketing role, they should say you’re a creative, out-of-the box thinker. If you're a sales pro, they should say you’re relationship-oriented,” explained Harris.

The power of relationships and of articulating your voice

“You cannot do it alone. To maximize your success for the seat that you are sitting in or the seat that you aspire to sit in, you will need the relationships of others,” Harris stressed. 

She then outlined a trifecta of strategic relationships one should form – the advisor, the mentor and the sponsor – that can have a direct or indirect impact on one’s career aspirations.

Harris defines an advisor as someone within the organization with the intellect and/or experience who can answer whatever discreet work-related question you may have.

A mentor, on the other hand, does not have to be in the same organization, she noted, but is someone who can be trusted with confidential information – “the good, the bad and the ugly” – someone who can give tailored advice that is “specific to you and to your clear aspirations.”

Yet even more important than an advisor or mentor, the relationship one must have in order to ascend in any career is one with a sponsor, Harris said. 

“This is the person who, behind closed doors, will argue passionately on your behalf as to why you should get the great bonus, why you should get the promotion, and why you should get the next great opportunity," she explained. "Make no mistake: this is the person that is spending their valuable political and social capital on you. So you need to be able to articulate why you are worthy of that capital.”

Never be afraid to ask for a promotion or pay raise, she added, noting that people in an organization need to be aware of your own expectations and ambitions.

“Do not leave it to chance. You must articulate your desire for a promotion or bonus," counselled Harris. "While you cannot control what’s going to happen behind closed doors when folks start having the conversation about candidates, you can control whether or not you ask.”

And anyone who aspires to be a leader in the 21st century must be comfortable with taking risks, the Wall Street veteran stressed.

“Anytime you approach anything in your life personally or professionally from a position of fear, you will always underpenetrate that opportunity,” said Harris. “So what's the worst thing that can happen? So you fail. But now you know how to do it better, now you know how to do it differently, now you know how to do it successfully.”

To learn more about future events, as well as past lectures in the series, visit Excellence Through Diversity Lecture Series.