Story by Hilary Burns, Bizwomen Reporter
A Wall Street Banker and professional gospel singer, Carla Harris is not afraid to bring her full authentic self to work. One time she even started belting the Burger King jingle to the BK CEO. And for that, she won the deal.
Harris, a vice chairman of global wealth management, managing director and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, spoke to Wake Forest University’s Business School on Sept. 30 about how to succeed in the working world, she calls her tips ‘pearls of wisdom.’
Perception matters in a business setting
You can work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, but if you aren’t seen as motivational, you won’t get that promotion to management. Merit isn’t always objective.
Harris is the author of “Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving in the Workplace.”
Harris has been on Wall Street for 27 years and has learned a thing or two about being successful. She’s been named to Fortune’s “Most Influential List” and listed among American Banker’s “Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance.” President Obama also appointed Harris as the chairperson of the National Women’s Business Council in 2013.
On Tuesday, she spoke with candor about her experiences working for Morgan Stanley. The biggest takeaway? It matters what others think of you at work.
“This first pearl is the most important thing I learned after two and a half decades on the Street,” Harris said. “If you want to maximize your success, you should understand how the marketplace is viewing you. Understand the adjectives associated with success.”
Harris explained that to be successful, you must be aware of how you present yourself to others in the office. While you should be authentic, she says you can train people to think about you in a certain way. She says to choose three adjectives that you want people to use to describe you when you aren’t in the room.
“All major decisions about your career will be made when you are not in the room,” Harris said. “How do you want people to describe you when you aren’t in the room? Pick three adjectives that really describe who you are. Authenticity is important. However, pick three adjectives that are also valued in your organization.”
Harris said that if you don’t know what your organization values, go online and read how the company’s described on its website. If you’re in marketing, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking are important traits, while being analytical and logical is important for a financial analyst. Know your industry.
In Harris’s world, it’s important to be seen as tough. She remembers an “aha” moment early in her career on Wall Street when a senior manager said, “You’re smart, you work hard, but you’re not tough enough for this business.”
Harris was taken aback. She knew she was tough — really tough. Tough enough to be successful on Wall Street.
“The last thing you want to be thought of as a woman on Wall Street is not tough,” Harris said. “I realized the real Carla Harris was not walking into Morgan Stanley every day… it was creating a competitive disadvantage for me. For 90 days, I would walk tough, talk tough, eat tough, drink tough — you must have consistent behavior around those three adjectives.”
Harris says she often critiqued management presentations at work and one day, when a colleague asked her to come listen to a CEO’s presentation, she realized her acting “tough” had paid off.
“I said, ‘Tell me about this CEO. Does he have thick skin? Because I’m tough,’” she said.
From then on, her co-workers just understood: “That Carla Harris is tough.”
Be authentic in the workplace
“No one can be you as well as you can be you,” Harris said. “Never submerge what is uniquely you.”
If you bring your authentic self to the table, people will trust you. Most people, Harris says, are not confident in their own skin. So if you are authentic and honest, people will gravitate toward you.
“It is a competitive disadvantage if you are not authentic,” Harris said. “Your authenticity is at the heart of your power.”
In addition to her work with Morgan Stanley, Harris is a professional singer with three albums and two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall on her resume.
“When I started, I didn’t want anyone to talk about my life as a singer,” Harris said. “I’m not here to sing and dance boys; let’s not get it twisted. I’m tough and analytical.”
That was before Harris realized she could connect with clients on a personal level if she told them she was a singer.
They would say, “’Oh, you’re a singer? I love to sing, but I only sing in the shower’… Suddenly it was the meeting before the meeting so when I sat down to pitch, they heard me with a different ear and saw me through a different lens because Carla Harris the singer was allowed to be in the room with Carla Harris the banker,” she said. “I set myself apart from the five other bankers who pitched the IPO that day.”
Take risks and speak up
“If you consider yourself a leader in the 21st Century, you must be comfortable taking risks,” Harris said.
She remembers people telling her to keep her head down and “don’t rock the boat” when the economy turned.
“I’m here to tell you that keeping your head down will not keep you from getting shot, so you might as well keep your head up so you can see the bullet coming,” Harris said.
She said the bad economy has made some people nervous and less likely to speak up in the workplace out of fear of being let go.
“While everyone else is ducking, you have clear vision,” Harris said. “Now is not the time to keep your head down. The issue with that is you submerge your voice and you become irrelevant and you put a big target on your front and back.”
Instead of ducking out of the way, Harris suggests you stand up and offer strategies to cut costs or save time. She says you’ll be noticed for it.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” Harris said. “If you take a risk and it doesn’t work out, failure always brings you a gift, and that gift is experience.”
Use your network and expect success
Harris says that if you want to maximize your success, you must use everything in your tool chest: your academic background, experiential learning and your network.
“Your network is the most powerful tool, but it’s grossly underutilized,” Harris said. “Most of the time we are afraid … If one person rejects you there is one word: Next.”
Harris said that real winners understand that using your network leads to success. She told one story about a young man she knew who called her and told her he hadn’t heard back from business school yet.
He asked Harris if she would call and check on his application for him. She called, and the admissions office told her they were just about to send him a rejection letter. Harris spoke up and gave the candidate a good recommendation and the admissions officer said they would invite him in for an interview — but no guarantees.
Harris called the young man and told him to “leave it all on the floor” at the interview. Shortly after, the business school called her and said the candidate had been accepted.
When that young man called her to thank her, Harris stopped him.
“The applause goes to you because you used your network,” Harris told him. “If you expect to win, you will.”