I Met the Real SuperWoman … Her Name is Carla Harris

August 27, 2016


The mind fascinates me. Depending on your primary side of the brain you’re either creative or analytical. Of course, there are variances, and it’s a lot more complicated than creative or analytical, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Every once in while you meet those who have mastered both and flow seamlessly between the two, much to the benefit of those directly and indirectly affected by their God-given greatness. Carla Harris is one of those masters. She is the highest ranking black woman on Wall Street, and you may already know she is the Vice Chairman of Wealth Management and is the Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley. But, what you may not already know is that she is also the author of the books “Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving in the Workplace” and “Strategize to Win: The New Way to Start Out, Step Up, or Start Over in Your Career”, and she is also a multi-album gospel recording artist. See, I told you she was superwoman!


I was introduced to Carla two years ago after her appointment from President Obama as the chair of the National Women's Business Council. A firm believer in pulling everything you desire into your universe I made a decision I’d meet her and learn firsthand how she became superwoman. I mean really who wouldn’t want to meet superwoman in the flesh. Imagine my excitement when I finally met her at the United State of Women Summit in Washington, DC. Although she wore no cape, her presence and surety of self commanded the room as she led it packed full of women and girls on how to best access capital for growth. This single action verified, undeniably, she is indeed, superwoman. Her wisdom is unparalleled, her delivery flawless, and her personality is hilarious. I hope you enjoy her as much as I did:



Perception is the co-pilot to reality!



Alechia Reese: What has been the greatest obstacle on your journey to the discovery of your life's purpose?


Carla Harris: I would say not really understanding some of the rules of the game in terms of my environment. Coming out of college and graduate school, I really did embrace the whole meritocracy that success was just about being smart and working hard. Then when things weren’t going as I thought they should have, especially according to that matrix and that equation, I didn’t quite know why and that was actually a big stumbling block because I had to stop to try to figure that out. I realized overtime, and over a few other experiences that there are other things that informs your success equation, like understanding that perception was a co-product to reality and how people perceive you directly impacts how they deal with you. Then it was also understanding that you have the power to teach people how to think about you and that you have the opportunity to make sure that your behavior was consistent with what was valued in your organization. I would say it was lessons like that that were the biggest stumbling block. [At the time] not understanding why things aren’t going well, then having to take the time to discover the hard way, those were the biggest blocks. And then I would also say not really understanding the power of relationships, that your hard work by itself again would only get you so far. You are going to need other people’s relationships in order for you to really get to where you want to go and to maximize your success. I didn’t have any concept like that when I was first starting out my career.



Alechia Reese: If you could describe yourself in 6 words, and only 6 words, what would they be and why?


Carla Harris: The top story I tell all the time is also written in my book so I won’t  give you all the details around that but, I have always seen myself as someone who was 'Tough' and then one day somebody says that they don’t think that I was tough enough and that opened another chapter around perception. But I absolutely am, I can roll with the punches pretty well and can withstand lots of pressure. 

'Fair' is something that I think that I have always been, I have taken to account other people’s views, and as many different views as I can and I always try to get to what the right answer is for all involved. So I think am a very fair person and I give people lots of chances in a way to execute or to deliver. 


'Loyal' in that one of the things I pride myself in is that am a really good friend, you can always count on me to be there for you, you can always count on me to be a great cheerleader and be very very encouraging, I always have an encouraging word for someone, and if I’ve said am going to stick by you, am going to stick by you through thick and thin and through mistakes, so, loyal is one that I think it’s also worth it.


So 'commercial', obviously I’ve been a banker for almost 30 years, I am always thinking about how I get to the right outcome and if this is business involved you know how we make money around it. That’s one of the reasons that I would say this business is consistent with my personality.

'Spiritual', there’s no question that I credit all of my success to whose I am, and not who I am; and as an 'executor', I get things done.



Alechia Reese: What’s the one thing that you would tell your younger self if you could go back and talk to her.


Carla Harris: Yes, that’s easy! I get asked the question all the time, “Own your Power!” We easily give our power away. I was just talking to a young lady who’s here for the summer, and she was talking about not feeling like she could make it in this environment and I started laughing because it’s definitely a big mistake I made. I ignored the fact that it takes an enormous amount of time, time and a certain level of competitiveness to get a job in this place. So if you got here, you’ve got what it takes to be successful in this space. True, there will be people who will try to make you feel that you shouldn’t be here, but that’s you giving away your power. You’ve got to know that you know that you know you’ve got the intellect, and the experience and the aptitude to be able to knock the cover off the ball and you’ve got to own that, at all times! Never let anybody make you bend  to the left or right away from that fact. That is the fact, that’s what you stand on. So, if I was talking to my small 25- year-old self, the first thing I will tell her is to ‘Own Your Power!’


Alechia Reese: So would you say that was the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received? And I'm guessing the greatest piece of advice that you would give is ‘own your power’?


Carla Harris: One of the best pieces of advice that have gotten was when I was a 3rd year associate and a woman who was 2 years ahead of me says, ‘Carla, I will give you a piece of advice, frequently wrong, but never in doubt’ and I ask what are you talking about? She said, “If you don’t know something, you’re always quick to admit that you don’t know. That’s not really what you should do in this business because people are paying us a lot of money for our judgment and that doesn’t sit too well if you look like you don’t know. Look at the way the boys handle it, they may not know what they are talking about, but they’ll say something and do it with confidence. Well, that didn’t really sit well with me because I prided myself on knowing quite a lot. I thought it was a show of confidence if I didn’t know something and that it was no big deal. But, [as I reflected] she was right! I realized I could incorporate her advice and I didn’t have to come out and say that I don’t know but I could at least posit an answer and move on. 



Relationships are key. It is the most important tool in your tool chest.



Alechia Reese: That makes sense! Now, we've discussed how life is about relationships. How have you best used your relationships to navigate in such a competitive arena and then succeed? 


Carla Harris: I will give you an example, with the National Women Business Council for example, it was the relationship that exposed me to that opportunity. I had not done anything in President Obama’s administration, but a woman who was in his cabinet knew about this opportunity and picked up the phone one day and called me because she's seen me and knows my passion around women and women leadership. She called, and I mean literally just like you and I are talking, and  I am sitting in my office and said, "Hey, how would you like to work for this administration?" I said ‘that sounds really interesting depending on the roll’. She walked me through it and it fit right in the middle of the fairway for me. So that was one way that a relationship leveraged into an amazing opportunity. Secondly, once I got into that role, I didn’t know anything about Washington at all, I knew nothing, zero because I had never been to Washington. So it was talking to people who had had some interaction and experience in Washington that gave me some insight on how to manage it when I got into the seat. Then when I got into the seat, the person that was in the executive director role before me had lots of relationship from the hill, so again I leveraged their relationships, their Washington history even though they were 20 years my junior. I was able to leverage their experience to get to the relationships and the people that I needed to get to on the hill to talk about the National Women Business Council. So, it was just a series of leveraging relationships that allowed me to successfully execute a seat I had no previous exposure to. And that’s one of the reasons I talk to people about the power of relationships. If you keep good relationships with people, your ability to make an impact is exponentially bigger than who you are and where you are sitting at this point. Because if you don’t know it, or you’ve had no experience, you have to connect with somebody who has that, then use it to inform your success. So relationships are key. It is the most important tool in your tool chest.



If you are going to bother to do anything, give it your best shot!



Alechia Reese:  You have mastered something that I am cultivating in my own daughter which is mastery of both sides of the brain, you’ve done that. Exceptionally well might I add. So to whom can you attribute your mastery of such an extraordinary skill? 


Carla Harris: I would tell you that my parents, and I am sure you are doing this with your daughter, have always led me to believe I can do whatever I want to do so they never put any kind of faces around ‘oh no, you can’t do that’ ‘you shouldn’t do that’. So I was led to believe that if I wanted to do something I could just do it. They always made me want to do well academically, they created expectations that I was supposed to do well in school, I was supposed to get A's, so, again I had that appetite to do well and to excel academically. Then as I found things that I was interested in, they just allowed me to pursue them. But because they had instilled in me a mindset that if you are going to bother to do anything, give it your best shot. And my grandmother, my paternal grandmother I have to give the most credit to. She used to always say to me ‘baby, whatever you want to be, be good at it, if you want to be the garbage man, be the best garbage man swinging at the back of that truck’. She created an appetite for excelling. So when I discovered a passion around singing, my thought was, if I was going to sing well then, of course, I am going to perform. Of course, I am going to record an album. That's what you do if you are excelling in that space, so I will have to give them the credit of creating the appetite to really go for it if you’re going to bother doing anything.



Alechia Reese: I'm going to borrow that one too, don’t worry, I will give you credit. It’s a fact all communities haven't always had the same access to resources and information, agreeably that has completely changed with the digital age. But what advice would you give those who are just starting out and seeking to build a solid financial foundation?


Carla Harris: I would tell them to get as much information as you can, if you have not been exposed to wealth building and financial literacy and you’re just starting the work, you’ll need to develop an appetite for it. Read and talk to people as much as you can about finance because you don’t want to spend too many years working and not really planning and building for yourself financially. You want to start out as early as you possibly can. And even if you don’t have the chance to read and do the research, just talking to knowledgeable people, you’d be surprised what you’d learn and I will give you a quick example:


I too had not had this kind of exposure going up, so despite the fact that I had a job that would pay well, I didn’t necessarily know a lot about wealth even though I was going into financial services. About 4 years or so into my career, I happen to be literally playing cards with a good friend of mine and she said ‘so how are you doing on your 401k’? and I said you know ‘it’s okay’. At the time the firm would match up to 10% of what you put in, but because I had not had any money before, I was not matching that on 2% not realizing that it was free money. I put in 5 you put in 5 that was free money right? I had not realized the concept and I didn’t want that amount taken out of my check. She said to me, “Are you crazy? That is free money! If you’re putting up to 10% they are putting up to 10%, you if only put 2 and they put 2, you’re losing 8%. Money they would just give to you.” I felt as big as an ant, but I didn’t know, I didn’t get it, and I hadn’t realized that. I was so focused on current cash that I could put my hands on I hadn’t really thought about it the way she positioned it. So you know of course, I rectified that Monday morning. But my point is, if I had that conversation with her year one instead of year four? So even if you don’t have the chance to invest and read on your own, or go to conferences on your own, when you’re sitting there having breakfast, look at one of the financial statements, and television stations cause they often talk about wealth strategies or investment strategies. Talk to your friends about what they’re doing, ask the questions, and look for ways to educate yourself as well. 


Photo credit: Morgan Stanley



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