“Can we have an adult conversation?” In her idiosyncratic, charismatic style, Carla Harris broached the tough issues about gender and racial discrimination at work during the Clayman Institute’s annual Jing Lyman Lecture held in early November. Currently, Harris holds the positions of Vice Chairman, Managing Director, and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley. Among many distinctions, she has been named to Fortune Most Influential List, Essence Magazine’s “50 Women Who are Shaping the World,” and U. S. Bankers Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance.
In her lecture, Harris posed questions strategically and used “we” liberally. According to her, these are positive and encouraging techniques for inciting change.
Harris would know.
Harris has fought for change throughout her more than thirty years on Wall Street, or what she, during her lecture, jokingly called “the Street.” Her ability to battle discrimination head on—among the many challenges she has faced in investment banking—earned her a reputation on the Street for being “tough.”
Harris shared this and other “Pearls of Wisdom” to a captivated audience at Paul Brest Hall, proving how she embodies the spirit of the lecture’s namesake, Jing Lyman, who was a trailblazer—in every sense of the word—in promoting gender equality.
Off Wall Street, Harris has achieved fame as an author of two bestsellers, Strategize to Win (2014) and Expect to Win (2009), both of which provide attainable strategies to overcome obstacles at work and climb the corporate ladder. She is also an acclaimed gospel singer, and has recorded three albums and performed five sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.
In her lecture, Harris attributed her success on and off Wall Street to a combination of her Ivy League pedigree—she holds an AB and an MBA from Harvard—and her strong work ethic, a product of growing up as a woman in the south. She learned early in her career that “meritocracy” is a buzzword, rather than a reality. “Every company will sell you ‘meritocracy,’” she observed. Yet, as a young Harvard graduate forging a career on Wall Street, Harris did not buy into the lingo or promise of meritocracy, because she knew that there is no objective truth to the word. Rather, Harris explained, meritocracy “is always subjective because of the human element.”
To succeed in an industry that espouses meritocracy but does not always reward hard work, Harris developed her “well-earned ‘Pearls of Wisdom.’” These “pearls,” as she calls them, are set of tools, strategies, and insights sharpened by her own experience, and which are just as valuable—if not more so—than those found inside oysters. “My pearls have been tried and tested,” Harris quipped to laughter and applause from the audience.
At the lecture, Harris shared key pearls, including one which she placed great emphasis on: “perception is the co-pilot to reality.” According to Harris, the work you do is less important than how others perceive you and your work. Other people make decisions—including pay, promotions, and assignments—when an employee is not in the room, which is why that employee must try to influence and manage her colleagues’ impressions of her to the best of her ability through language and actions. Harris advised the audience to brainstorm the attributes they aspire to embody, keeping in mind their employer’s values and why they were hired.
This pearl was inspired by an “aha” moment about five years into Harris’ career, when a senior manager said, “You’re smart, you work hard, but I don’t think you are tough enough for this business.” Harris felt discouraged: “The last thing you want as a woman, especially as a woman on Wall Street, is that you aren’t tough enough,” she said.
Harris recalled feeling surprised, too, because she believed “toughness” was one of her strongest attributes. She felt authentically tough, and certainly “tough enough” for Wall Street. She gave the example of when she defied her high school guidance counselor’s advice to convey not only her toughness but her resilience: Her counselor told her not to apply to Ivy League universities. Undeterred and even encouraged by the challenge, she applied—she was accepted into every Ivy League school where she submitted an application.
After the interaction with the senior manager, Harris recalled, “I walked tough, talked tough.” She incorporated the language and described herself as “tough,” because, she emphasized, employees must use the language that they want others to use about them; like an echo effect. To the end, the language stuck: People began to fear meetings with Harris because she had earned a reputation for being “tough.”
During the audience Q&A, Harris put this pearl into action. One woman asked how she should handle rumors that her boss viewed her as bossy and aggressive. Harris warned, “Be careful of rumors and be careful of the narrative you write in your own head.” She advised the woman to address the rumor head on. Harris recommended confronting the supervisor by saying, “I see myself as efficient and action-oriented but other people see me as bossy and aggressive. How do you see me?” Harris explained how this changes the conversation and shifts the supervisor’s perception of her.
When daunted by these types of tough conversations, Harris thinks of the worst-case scenario. She comes to terms with that worst case and then imagines what success would look like. Harris emphasized, “Focus on the latter.”
Before the evening lecture, Harris had coffee with graduate students at Serra House as part of the Clayman Institute’s Graduate Voice and Influence Program, which empowers female and underrepresented doctoral students by providing expert-led training and guidance to increase their voice and impact in their future careers. At this afternoon event about how she contributes to efforts to promote equality at her firm, Harris responded with two primary strategies: The first strategy is to lead by example. Using her own career as a case-in-point, Harris explained how she changed her unit’s recruiting practices, and it led to a mandate that women comprise twenty-five percent of new recruits—a big jump for Wall Street.
Regarding the second strategy, Harris “hugs the data” to make a business case for diversity. She recalled a time when male colleagues questioned a woman’s analytical skills as a reason to deny her a promotion. Harris challenged them to raise the firm’s evaluation standards. She asked, “How do you know that her analytical skills aren’t good enough? Have you tested her?” In this way, Harris pushed her colleagues to do better than the status quo and raise the bar for evaluation performance in the industry.
On the business case for diversity, Harris said, “It’s not black or white, it’s green.” On Wall Street, every decision boils down to money.
“It’s about innovation,” Harris explained, in a sentiment she reiterated later that evening at the Jing Lyman Lecture. “To get a lot of ideas in the room, you need a lot of perspectives in the room, because ideas are born from perspectives. And you need a lot of different experiences in the room because perspectives are born from experiences, which means you must start with a lot of different people in the room to get to that one idea.”
Harris’s business case for diversity, along with her solutions-based pearls of wisdom, point to the pernicious problem of stereotyping and bias in today’s workplaces—a call that resonates with scholars at the Clayman Institute. Most notably, Institute Director Shelley Correll recently published an article on her “small wins” model of change in the workplace. Drawing from her team’s case studies of interventions at work organizations, Correll found that concrete changes—such as reducing bias in evaluations by establishing clear and consistent criteria—lead to long-term successes, including the hiring and promotion of more women.
Like Harris, Correll emphasizes the importance of a having a “we” mentality in these efforts. Collaborating with other change-makers and inspiring a commitment to gender equality are vital. Harris, like Jing Lyman, is a striking change-maker, on Wall Street and beyond. For her, gender and racial diversity is more than a commitment. It’s a lifestyle.