Women We Love – Carla Harris

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By Kathryn Whitbourne

Morgan Stanley managing director Carla Harris

As a full-time managing director at global financial services firm Morgan Stanley, part-time gospel singer, and best-selling author of Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving in the Workplace (Plume) just out in paperback, Carla Harris seems to embody success in all areas. But she is also happy to share what she calls “Carla’s Pearls” – pearls of wisdom for getting ahead in your career.  She shares some of them with Hope.

Hope:  How has the reception for your book been?
Harris:  More than I could have ever imagined.  I’ve been so humbled and thrilled and excited that people are using the pearls because I’ve gone around for years saying, “Look they work for me, it will work [for you] no matter where you are in your career,” and to see that come to fruition has been great.

Hope:  In your book you say one way you hang to your job is to keep relevant.  Can you give an example of that?
Harris:   Part of it is understanding the environment you are in.  If you are in a for-profit environment, how does the company make money? Is it a client-based business?  Is it a data-driven model? You want to get yourself in that success equation.  So for example, if you are at an investment bank, you know this is a transaction-driven business, it’s about client interaction.  So you should be in an external facing area because that’s where you can create some real value for yourself doing those transactions or in having clients come back and say, “Boy, I really liked working with [her] a lot.”

Hope: With so many people job hunting now, what is the best way for them to get a foot in the door or get heard with so much competition?
Harris:  Even in a “tough environment” there are always companies that are hiring.  Frankly in my experience, those same companies that are laying off are also hiring. Companies use these kinds of environments to “upgrade” their workforce if you will so there is always someone they have their eye on at a competitive firm or there is a wish list for someone with a different set of skills.

Second thing, focus on what the buyer is buying, not so much on what they say the prerequisite skills are.  So you go online and for example you see a job in a non-profit to do development and they say they’re looking for someone with seven to 10 years of experience.  Well, that’s really telling you they are looking for someone who can come in and hit the ground running. They’re really looking for someone with a big Rolodex who can quickly start soliciting big donors.

If you understand what the buyer is really buying then you know how to sell your experience.  Too often people walk in to interviews trying to anticipate what they think the other person wants to hear, forgetting that they (the interviewee) really has the power.  The interviewer’s job is to find the best person to fill that seat.  You, as the interviewee, has to make that person feel like they’re making a mistake if they don’t choose you.

Hope: So how do you get to that interview?  People feel like they apply online into a vacuum, and make calls that aren’t returned.  How do get throughout that wall?
Harris:  That’s where your network comes into play. A lot of us, particularly folks of color, don’t use our network.  We are socialized to say, “Oh, you can’t bother so and so.”  Your network is one of the most valuable pieces in your toolchest.  If you want to work at Morgan Stanley, for instance, ask yourself, “Who do I know at Morgan Stanley?” You might be surprised at who you know or who you know that might know someone there.

Hope: You write that one’s personal life, their hobbies, can be a big bridge in building relationships in the office.  How does that work?
Harris:  If you are in a client-driven business, it’s about building relationships with your clients and also internally.  If people know you and get comfortable with who you are, you have a much better chance of getting a mentor and a sponsor and getting turned on to new opportunities internally.

In the early days I didn’t want my colleagues to think of me as a singer when I am a banker.  What I started realizing was clients would say, “You’re a singer?  What do you sing?” and then we’d end up with a 10 minute conversation about singing which gave me an opportunity to build a bridge with that client.  So when I started to do a pitch, that listener was listening to me with a different ear because we’d already connected on something else.

Hope: The last pearl you write about, what you call your most precious pearl, is your faith. Can you talk about faith and your work?
Harris:  I use these tools of faith and prayer to stay focused, motivated and confident that I will be able to complete the task at hand. If I look at the market and things are not going well,  I remind myself that while this may look like a daunting task, Philippians 4:13 says you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.

Hope:  Do you talk about your faith at work?  Do you think that is appropriate?
Harris:  Sure, I talk about it a lot.  I never wear holy roller on my sleeve but I never hide who I am. First of all it is not incumbent on you to push it down someone’s throat but it is about who you are.  I’ll give you an example.  If a deal was not going well, I might say, “OK, I’m going to St. Patrick’s Cathedral because they have a 12 o’clock mass and I’m need to pray on this.”  And at the end of the day when the deal was completed, I might say, “Well, you all know why this came together, right?” And they would joke and laugh with me, but at the same time if a deal was not going right, they would say, “Carla, are you going to go to the 12 o’clock mass? We need some help on this.”  Or someone would pull me in a conference room and say, “My mother is diagnosed with something. I know you have a hotline to Heaven.  Could you say a prayer for her?”  So people came to know this was an integral part of who I was, and if they needed an extra prayer or needed extra help, they knew where to go.

Hope: Have you ever had a time where you felt conflicted between your Christian faith and something you were asked to do something on Wall Street?
Harris: Never. I can honestly tell you I have never seen any conflict between Carla the spiritual warrior and Carla the investment banker.

For more info on Carla Harris, visit carlaspearls.com

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