As one of the most powerful women on Wall Street, Carla Harris knows the value of hard work. Over the course of her 30-plus year career at Morgan Stanley, the Harvard Business School graduate has worked her way up from an investment banker in 1987 to now serving as a Senior Client advisor at the financial services firm.

For more than a decade of her career she worked as a senior member of the Equity Syndicate desk, where she made quite a name for herself after executing IPOs for companies like UPS, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and the $3.2 billion common stock transaction for Immunex Corporation — one of the largest biotech common stock transactions in U.S. history. But Harris, who serves on the board of Walmart, Cummins Corporation, and MetLife, says it took more than hard work to get her to where she is today.

“I can say with confidence, it is hard to outwork Carla Harris,” the bestselling author and speaker told Chief Members. “But your hard work — and that investment in just work — will not complete your success equation.”

Sitting down with Chief Member Keena Baudin, Global Head of Egon Zehnder’s Private Capital Practice, Harris shares why she believes sponsorship is the most important relationship you can have in your career. And, why now more than ever it’s important for leaders to ask, and not wait, for what they want at work.

On Learning the Value of Hard Work at Harvard

“I didn't go to undergrad thinking I'd have to work three jobs. But I also went to undergrad knowing that my parents did not have the assets that would enable them to send me all the way through. And at that time, none of the schools were really giving out full scholarships just based on need. So I knew I would in fact have to work. So, it underscored what I say today that you cannot outwork me. Even 36 years into it, I can say with confidence it is hard to outwork Carla Harris. But I also talk about the fact that your hard work and that investment in just work will not complete your success equation. But, it did prepare me for the long hours on Wall Street.”

On Coining the Phrase ‘Sponsorship’

“I tell people that it is the most important relationship in your career… I had my aha moment during my first evaluation season. Back then, the way Wall Street evaluated its professionals was that there was this roundtable process. If you were an analyst, the associates convened for a roundtable to talk about the analysts and to rate them. If you were an associate, the VPs talked about you. If you were VP, the EDs talked about you. [And so on,] and it was done in a very subjective fashion.

“Here I was thinking that there was this paper that everybody would see that would talk about the deals you worked on, the analysis you did, and what a great job or not that you did. But in that process, I realized how subjective it was because what happened was somebody said, John Smith and somebody else said, A superstar. Fire in the belly. That kid walks on water. And then I noticed there was somebody in the corner that was recording that and that person got the top bucket. And then somebody said, Jamie Smith. And somebody else said, You know, good pair of hands, safe, pretty solid kid, middle bucket. And then somebody said, Jim Smith. And it was like, Disaster. Kid doesn't have a clue. He's a big show so no bucket. And I remember clutching my pearls saying, Who's going to speak for me? And that's when I realized that there was something that was objective about the process, you know the reality of what you did, but so much depended on who was speaking on your behalf and what they had to say and whether or not anybody else in that room would challenge that point of view. And that's when I started saying, Okay, I hear this thing about a mentor, but you need a sponsor.

“I obviously wrote about it in my first book, Expect to Win. But it is critical. Nobody makes it alone. And it doesn't matter how smart you are or how hard you work, somebody will have to carry your paper into the room because every major decision about your career from your promotion, to your compensation, to your assignments are made in a room behind closed doors where you are not present.”

Nobody makes it alone. And it doesn't matter how smart you are or how hard you work, somebody will have to carry your paper into the room because every major decision about your career from your promotion, to your compensation, to your assignments are made in a room behind closed doors where you are not present.
Morgan Stanley executive Carla Harris

On How to Secure a Sponsor

“In a nirvana environment, somebody says to you, I'm going to make it happen for you. I'm going to make sure you're successful in this environment. But for many women and people of color, it doesn't happen that easily. And sometimes, as I like to say, you must exercise your power and ask for a sponsor.

“That's one of the things I had to do when I was up for a big promotion. I had asked somebody and they told me who was on the promotion committee and how it worked. And as I started thinking about it, I was like, He's going to fight for him. She's going to fight for him, He's going to fight for her. And I couldn't with confidence say who was going to pound the table on my behalf, and that's when I knew my promotion was vulnerable. Not because I hadn't earned it. Not because I wasn't senior enough. And not because there wasn't great client feedback.

“So I went to somebody who I knew had a seat around the table, who I knew had the juice, and who I knew knew me, and I said, It's really important for me to get promoted this year. There's nothing more that I can say and show the organization about my readiness or my worthiness, but you and I both know that somebody has to be behind closed doors pounding the table for me. You know me, you know my work, you know the client feedback, and I think you would do a terrific job on my behalf. And the guy said yes. And I say to people all the time when I tell this story, that was a very important conversation for me to have because one, if he had told me no then he was going to have to tell me why and that would have been important data from which I could make a decision. But since he said yes, I trusted that he would get it done. But, as I like to say, I believe in insurance. So I knew somebody who was a key influencer to other people in that room, and I went to that person as well. So just in case he got a little weak behind closed doors, he'd have an Amen corner back there.”

On Renaming the ‘Great Resignation’ as the ‘Great Contemplation’

“I call it the ‘Great Contemplation’ because I think that people have had two and a half, now three years, to be at home and ask themselves these questions. Do I like my job? Do I like my boss? Am I being treated the way I should be treated? Am I getting paid what I should get paid? Do I like the career platform? Do I like the career trajectory?, all without the distraction of walking in the building. And let's face it, pre-pandemic, many of us, certainly I'm guilty of this, were running around so fast that you failed to say, Who am I today in 2019 versus who I was in 2012? Do I really like what I'm doing?

“It's so easy to just keep doing what you're doing, especially if you're super busy, and you don't stop to ask yourself these questions, which really make all the difference in the trajectory of your life. And as people asked themselves these questions, over the last two and a half, three years, many of them came to the conclusion, No, I'm not being treated the way I want to be treated. No, I don't really like what I'm doing. And no, I'm not inspired or motivated by working for this person. And they came to a different decision, which is why they chose to leave.

“So, I believe every organization is going to be called upon to be able to articulate their unique value proposition. And every senior person in every organization needs to be able to articulate that value and answer the question of why you should work here.”

On Defining What ‘Having It All’ Means to You

“I bristle every time I hear a senior woman say, You can't have it all, because I feel we give the wrong message to more junior women and they feel like they have to make these compromises. I don't think you have to make these compromises. I do think you have to define what having it all means to you… And it takes some time to define that. And by the way, that may evolve over time and you need to be free to let that happen.

“I think it's about making sure that you're living your life according to your report card and not a report card that has been informed by society, by your family, or by somebody else. And it takes some time, intentionality, and courage, frankly, to figure out what's important to you.”

On Getting Rid of Personal Timelines

“One of the things that was always important to me was to be a mother. I didn't really care that much about being somebody's wife, but I wanted to be somebody's mama. Now, as God would have it, it didn't happen for me until much later… I have young children. I have a 7-year-old and a 2 ½-year-old… If you had said to me when I was 28 or 35 that I was going to have kids in my 50s then I would've probably tried to bet you every dime you had thinking that I would win. But frankly, I do believe that part of what my success equation looks like is listening to [God] as well. And this is when He chose to bless me with that opportunity. I didn't get married until I was 38 and ended up marrying one of my childhood sweethearts.

“Carla Harris today is a very different woman than I was at 28, at 35, at 42. So I feel enormously blessed and I am having a ball as a mother with young kids at this point in my life. You just have to do what works for you, and I was clear that I didn't want to compromise on motherhood.”

On What Inspired her to Write Her Latest Book, Lead to Win

“When we went into this shelter-in-place protocol, my phone began ringing off the hook and I was hearing from CEOs and senior leaders across all industries. The questions that I received were, How do I lead in this moment? How do I motivate and inspire my people? We still have to make the quarter, how are we going to deliver on that? How do I help people manage the personal and the professional when it's all happening in the personal? And I had several revelations from that. Number one, this was a moment where your authenticity was demanded by your people. Millennials and Gen Zers are the dominant population in the workforce, and they demand that as table stakes. And you have leaders who have become leaders because they have been in producer cultures like yours and mine and it has nothing to do with whether or not they could motivate and inspire people just as long as they were a great producer.

“And so you have a little bit of a mismatch going on because these leaders grew up in an environment where it was a ‘my way or the highway’ leadership style, and most people lead the way they were led. So you have this leadership style sitting in this environment where you have millennials and Gen Zers who want to be motivated and inspired and that ‘my way or the highway’ style will not work. I like to tell the joke that for us, if your boss says jump, your answer is, how high? You say jump to a millennial and they're going to ask, why? And most people are not used to being questioned like that. So I realized that I had a perspective, and I've been talking about the need for a different leadership style since the fourth quarter of 2018.”

On Asking for What You Want

“Many people are afraid to ask and you can't be, especially if you want to maximize your career success because as you get more senior, it is really critical that you make your intentions and your expectations known. Early in your career, people will tap you on the shoulder for this opportunity and that opportunity. But as you get more senior, they are expecting you to drive that.

“Now, I believe you should drive it from day one, but certainly when you're 10 years in at an organization, you cannot wait for people to tap you on the shoulder. You need to say, I'm interested in A or B or C. And I'm a big fan of saying to an organization that I'm interested in these kinds of opportunities because if you limit to just one then you give them an easy no. But if you say, I'm interested in advancing my career, or acquiring these skills, or creating different kinds of value for the organization, and I can do that from that seat, that seat, and that seat, now you create a productive conversation and real choices for the organization and for yourself.”

On Chaos Breeding Opportunity

“We are in a very chaotic environment, and as I write in my first book Expect to Win, chaos breeds opportunity. So everybody should be really assertive about going for it, whatever it is for you. Think out of the box. Go beyond what seems like is reasonable for you. You have absolutely nothing to lose. Do not wait for somebody else to define what things are going to look like on the other side of this pandemic when you have the opportunity to design it. I like to say, don't be dictated to when you can design it.”