Carla Harris: Tools for Maximizing Your Success

At Oslo Business Forum, Carla shared with participants her hard-earned and heard-learned pearls of wisdom to help them become more intentional leaders.

Carla Harris is a former Vice Chairman, Wealth Management, Managing Director, and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley, where she was responsible for increasing client connectivity and penetration to enhance revenue generation across the firm.

Intentional Leadership

When it comes to leadership, Carla Harris has learned a few things about surviving and thriving. As she reflects on her experience, one of the greatest lessons she recalls is that leaders must show up intentionally every single day.

“If you are choosing to sit in a leadership seat today, it is more important than ever that you are intentional,” Carla told leaders at Oslo Business Forum.

Leaders are working in a different context today, one that differs greatly from the past. The old context valued production and execution and rewarded people with leadership roles without considering whether they were capable of inspiring others.

“The old leadership context will not work in today’s environment,” Carla said.

Today, a shift is taking place in which transparency, inclusivity, and feedback are table stakes traits for leaders. The drivers of this shift are the global pandemic and rising social unrest. As we’ve begun to emerge from these challenges, Carla has observed two things happening:

  1. The amplification of voice and choice, and
  2. The change in contract between employer and employee.

“In 2020, you could no longer tell me how I needed to show up,” said Carla. “Employees are now exercising their voices.”

She noted that many leaders struggle to figure out how to motivate and inspire people in this new context.

“What do you have to do to be a powerful, impactful, influential leader in today’s environment?” asked Carla. She offered participants at Oslo Business Forum eight “pearls of intentional leadership” that she says leaders must employ for their success.

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Pearl #1: Authenticity

Carla has learned that authenticity is critical to intentional leadership. “The last thing any of us should do is submerge that which is uniquely you,” she said. “You create a competitive disadvantage when you behave in ways inauthentic to you.”

But authenticity is easier said than done. During 35 years on Wall Street, Carla has observed that most people are not comfortable in their own skin—but when they see someone who is, they gravitate towards that person.

“The easiest way to penetrate a relationship is to bring your authentic self into an environment,” Carla said. “Then people trust you, and trust is at the heart of any relationship.”

Her experience has proven this, and she reflected on how relationship building has helped her naturally differentiate herself from others. When she opened up, she saw that clients “heard me with a different ear and saw me through a different lens.”

But many of us have been conditioned to believe there is a prescription for rising to the top, and that formula has not included authenticity. Carla reminded leaders at Oslo Business Forum that when you’re preoccupied with trying to show up in a certain way, you lose the opportunity to connect authentically.

Creating authentic connections in the environment we work in today requires leaders to be three things:

  1. Visible. Leaders must offer people the stability they crave in times of uncertainty by being visible, even when they can’t be physically present.
  2. Transparent. Leaders cannot get the best from their teams when it’s perceived they are holding something back.
  3. Empathetic. Leaders can unlock outsized productivity by provoking courageous conversations. 

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Pearl #2: Trust

When it comes to unlocking success, Carla has learned an important lesson: no leader can do it alone. To excel in any endeavor, you need someone else’s intellect, experience, and access to their network. “In order for someone to give you that, they have to trust you,” Carla said.

Carla noted that trust is especially critical in today’s environment where we’re leading people into unknown territory. “None of us have led in what lies on the other side of a global pandemic,” she said.

Amid such uncertainty, leaders may be confounded by how to create trust. Carla said, “The key is simply to deliver over and over and over again.”

As you build relationships, it will become evident what people value. And when you understand their values, you can strategize how to deliver.

Pearl #3: Clarity

As we venture into territories unknown, Carla has observed that people’s need for clarity has increased at the same time that leaders have experienced less clarity themselves.

“As a powerful and influential leader, it is your job to create clarity even when you cannot see,” said Carla. “Define what success looks like, and everybody on your team will be motivated and inspired to deliver beyond that which has been defined.”

Carla advised leaders at Oslo Business Forum to focus on the clarity they can provide, even if it means defining success for just a finite period of time. Articulate the problem you’re trying to solve, work towards the answer, and if you fail, fail fast and start again.

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Pearl #4: Creating Other Leaders

“If you are choosing to sit in that leadership seat, you must be disproportionately focused on creating other leaders,” said Carla. She has learned that developing future leaders is the most important contribution leaders can make to their organizations.

“Leadership is a journey from execution to empowerment,” Carla said. “This was a very interesting journey for me to take.” She described that she was a great executor but realized as she took her leadership seat that this is not what being a leader is all about.

"Leadership is a journey from execution to empowerment."

Carla shared two key insights that have helped her on her leadership journey:

  1. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. She advised leaders not to get mired in execution because leadership has evolved from oversight to insight. 
  2. You must be willing to let it go. She reminded leaders that the only way to progress on your own journey is to move in a forward direction.

Pearl #5: Diversity

Carla believes that diversity is what excellence looks like, but we must be mindful that “it will not just happen.” This again summons leaders to be intentional in their leadership. 

“When I walked out of Harvard Business School in 1987, excellence was six white men at the top,” Carla said. “I knew that as a woman, and as a woman of color, if I wanted to play, I had to be comfortable being the first and the only in many rooms.”

Carla pointed to the commercial and competitive imperative around diversity. “Innovation is the dominant competitive parameter across all industries,” she said. “And innovation is born from ideas.” 

"Innovation is the dominant competitive parameter across all industries."

Pearl #7: Inclusivity 

Carla has come to understand that solving difficult challenges requires leaders to create greater inclusion. And her advice for fostering inclusivity? “You simply solicit other people’s voices,” she said.  

Carla encouraged leaders at Oslo Business Forum to intentionally invite greater participation the next time they bring their teams together. An intentional leader should ask people to share their perspectives, to voice dissent, and to counter notions and theories. 

When you’ve invited people into the conversation and the solution-making process, you’ve done two important things with your team. “You said, ‘I see you,’ and you said, ‘I hear you,’” Carla said. 

Everyone values being heard, and Carla believes that when leaders build inclusivity, they generate immediate currency that can be reinvested to further strengthen relationships—and results. “Now you’ve put everybody’s fingerprints on the blueprint,” she said. “Everyone is now equally invested in the success or failure of that endeavor.”

Pearl #8: Voice

One of the most important things Carla has learned on her leadership journey is that leaders are accountable to give voice to sometimes unpleasant topics. “If you are an influential leader, you must be willing to call a thing a thing no matter how bad the thing might be,” said Carla. 

In her view, giving voice is equal to creating transparency—and transparency is critical to avoid undermining a leader’s authenticity. But Carla has experienced that voicing dissent, expressing uncertainty, or naming problems is a difficult thing for leaders to do. 

When Carla considers why leaders don’t give voice, it leads her to one answer: fear. She is eager to help leaders overcome this threat. 

“Fear has no place in your success equation,” said Carla. “Anytime you approach anything from a position of fear, you will always under-penetrate that opportunity.”

The strand that holds the pearls together: Courage

Carla concluded her insight-sharing by offering leaders at Oslo Business Forum the strand that holds all the pearls of wisdom together. That crucial strand is courage.

  • She asked leaders in the audience to remember that it takes courage to:
  • Give voice and call a thing a thing.
  • Create inclusivity by inviting people into reimagining your business.
  • Drive innovation by teaching people how to fail. 
  • Support diversity in an intentional way.
  • Create other leaders when you are unsure of your own leadership trajectory.
  • Create clarity when you cannot see the future.
  • Build trust when you are leading people into unknown territory.
  • Bring your authentic self to any environment. 

Key Points:

  • The old leadership context valued production and execution over inspiration and motivation.
  • The new leadership context values transparency, inclusivity, and feedback.
  • Intentional leadership is the key to success in this new context.
  • The pearls of intentional leadership are authenticity, trust, clarity, creating other leaders, diversity, innovation, inclusivity, and voice.
  • The strand that holds these pearls together is courage.
  • In today’s environment, leaders must have the courage to be visible, transparent, and empathetic.

Questions to Consider:

  • Are you intentional about how you show up as a leader?
  • How does your team perceive your leadership? What can you do to ensure their perception aligns with how you want to be seen?
  • Which of Carla Harris’ pearls of wisdom resonates most with you? Which can you be more intentional about bringing into your leadership?

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