Pearls of Wisdom


Sarah Morgan

Pearls of Wisdom

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In an engaging session, Morgan Stanley Managing Director, gospel artist, author, and public speaker Carla Harris tackled career advancement, racial injustice, and leading in turbulent times. Sarah Morgan reports.

“Everyone tells you that you have to put your head down and work really hard, yet there is no true meritocracy anywhere in anybody’s career. There’s always a human element that is part of the evaluative equation,” stated Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Wealth Management and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley (US).

Ms. Harris, who served as Chair of the Morgan Stanley Foundation from 2005 to 2014 and sits on the boards of several community organizations, participated in a Fireside Chat yesterday.

Directing some comments to those starting out in their careers, Ms. Harris noted that there were two types of currency in any workplace: performance currency and relationship currency.

Early on in a career or new job, employees can obtain performance currency by delivering that which was asked of you—and a little extra. Performance currency is valuable for three reasons, said Ms. Harris. It will get you noticed. It will get you paid and promoted. And, it may even attract a sponsor.

“The sponsor is the most important relationship you will have in your career. A sponsor is the person who is carrying your paper into the room, that room where you are not present, that room where all critical decisions about your career will be made,” she added.

However, over time, this currency starts to experience “diminishing marginal returns” because you have established a new standard of excellence for yourself, she said.

At this point, relationship currency kicks in, Ms. Harris continued. Employees generate relationship currency by investing in the people in your environment. It never diminishes.

“Your ability to ascend in any environment will be a function of somebody’s judgment—judgment about whether you’re ready, about whether the team will follow you, and about whether you will ultimately be successful,” she said, adding: “Judgments are directly influenced by relationships.”

“Performance currency is valuable for three reasons. It will get you noticed. It will get you paid and promoted. And, it may even attract a sponsor.” Carla Harris, Morgan Stanley







Leading the Way

On the other side of the coin sit leaders who, in 2020, have had to steer their organizations through turbulent times. As soon as the lockdowns began, Ms. Harris was inundated with questions from people in the C-suite asking how they should lead in this critical moment.

Ms. Harris, who said she had seen a “lot of turbulent times” in her 33 years on Wall Street, shared three pieces of advice for leaders.

First: be visible, she said, adding that “whenever we are in uncertain times, people’s appetite for certainty goes through the roof.”

Second, be transparent. “People will need to trust you in order for you to lead them into unknown territory,” she said.

Lastly, she concluded: “You must be empathetic. Now’s the time to show up as a leader and say to your people, ‘I know you’re feeling some kind of way. I’m feeling some kind of way too, but let me tell you how I’m managing that.’”

According to Ms. Harris, “By sharing these tools, you’re not only underscoring your authenticity, you’re also strengthening your relationship currency.”

Opening a Powder Keg

Leaders must grapple with difficult conversations, particularly this year in light of the pandemic and the racial injustice movement.

“I’m so excited that we are at least having this discussion, notwithstanding the terrible tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. No question about it, those things have been horrific,” Ms. Harris said.

“However, I do think it opened the powder keg and allowed us to have conversations that, frankly, we should have been having all along. If there are things we can’t talk about, then there are structural impediments to our overall success as people and as organizations.”

Ms. Harris added that we are finally “piercing that veil” around why companies should focus on diversity and inclusion. For a long time, the “why” has been because “it’s the right thing to do.”

“As a leader, and a woman of color, I have said to people, ‘let’s not talk about the right thing to do’ because frankly, you and I might not agree on the right thing to do. But, as business people, we are likely to agree on the commercial thing to do,” she said.

“The commercial imperative is innovation. We are now starting to focus on that.”

Ultimately, leaders have an “excellent opportunity right now to provoke courageous conversations,” she noted.

“Use the opportunity to get started. There’s a high probability that you will not fail, especially if you ask for help before you start the conversation.”






All Topics On the Table

2020 Annual Meeting Co-Chair Elisabeth Bradley, Vice President, Innovation Law: Trademarks, Copyrights, and Brand Protection, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company (US) interviewed Ms. Harris in the Fireside Chat.

She noted that some people feel that it is more difficult for certain companies to have these conversations.

Ms. Bradley added: “We may have seen in the news that some companies have decided not to take positions. That creates a challenge for the colleagues at those companies who want to have discussions about this.”

In response, Ms. Harris was clear that no topics should be off the table, and “as risky as people might have thought these conversations were before,” for the first time, companies have “air cover.”

“That air cover is called COVID-19 and the social unrest on the back of racial injustice. If for some reason it doesn’t work, you have the cover of this as a thing that provoked the conversation,” she said.

Ms. Harris concluded: “Use the opportunity to get started. There’s a high probability that you will not fail, especially if you ask for help before you start the conversation.”

INTA 2020, D&I, racism, pandemic, innovation, trademarks, copyright, brand protection, Bristol-Myers Squibb, COVID-19