How to Be Heard in Times of Uncertainty: Risk-Taking, Relationships, Authenticity, and Perception


Earning leadership currency in your organization is essential to progressing along your career path — but it’s not easy to do. The cream always rises to the top, but how does it happen? Not by chance, according to Carla Harris, Managing Director at Morgan Stanley. And it’s not just about putting your head down and working hard either. To succeed in your career and in any organization requires building support networks and having a strategy for creating a strong presence.

Harris recently appeared on Cloud Council, where she shared her “Pearls” of wisdom with our audience, which are outlined in her book Expect to Win. During the podcast, we had the opportunity to hear her insights about taking risks, building key relationships, and the power of perception in the workplace. Harris also spoke to the importance of expecting to win and authenticity, key topics she covers in her latest book, Strategize To Win. Her lessons in leadership are especially relevant today, as leaders across industries grapple with the challenges of the pandemic and its impacts on businesses.

Leader, Author, Singer.

At Morgan Stanley, Harris is responsible for increasing client connectivity and penetration to enhance revenue generation across the firm. But her talents and contributions far exceed her current role on Wall Street. 

Over the past three decades, Harris’s experiences have spanned the technology, media, retail, telecommunications, transportation, industrial, and healthcare industries. She was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council and served as a senior member of the equity syndicate desk. During this time she executed such transactions as initial public offerings for UPS, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and others, as well as the $3.2 billion common stock transaction for Immunex Corporation, one of the largest in U.S. history. Her resume boasts a long list of accolades and recognitions, including being named among “The 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America,” Fortune’s Most Influential List, and U.S. Bankers’ “Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance” list for three consecutive years. She is also a highly sought-after public speaker. 

On top of it all, Harris is an accomplished Gospel singer who has produced multiple CDs and performed five sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall — a side to her success that has bolstered competitive advantage in the investment banking industry. (More on that later.)

“Your role as a leader is to motivate and inspire people to deliver beyond what they think is possible"

On The Art Of Risk-Taking

Success on Wall Street requires grit and hard work, but Harris says the “producer” culture doesn’t prepare you for the challenges of leadership. “Your role as a leader is to motivate and inspire people to deliver beyond what they think is possible,” she said. "That’s what’s required of leaders, particularly in today’s challenging economic environment.”

Harris discovered this essential truth early, as she moved rapidly up the ladder, beginning in mergers and acquisitions. “I was drawn to this market segment because I knew it would be a challenge,” she said. “When someone says I can’t do something, I set out to prove them wrong!” She later moved into long-term investing and capital funds, then sought out a new challenge in asset management, helping to raise funds to support women- and minority-owned asset managers — a risky move at that time. 

But risk, Harris said, is essential to growth. “It’s not about whether or not you’ll be successful in that risk you take; it’s how you leverage having taken the risk.” To assess risk, she said, ask three questions: Will the new thing give you skills and experiences that you wouldn't get if you stayed in your current seat? Will the new thing create relationships or networks that you wouldn't get if you stayed in your current seat? Will that new thing create new branches on your personal decision tree of opportunity? “If the answer to all three is yes” she said, “take the risk!”

Advisors, Sponsors And Mentors: What's The Difference

Along with taking calculated risks, choosing the right advisors, sponsors, and mentors to help propel you along your career path is essential. But how do you choose the right people for each of these roles? Harris explains they have very different attributes and functions.

“Anyone in your organization who has the experience and knowledge to answer discrete questions is an advisor,” Harris said. “But a mentor’s job is to provide advice that’s tailored specifically to you and your career aspirations. A mentor needs to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, so he or she must be someone you trust. They don’t need to work in your organization. They just need to know you well and understand the context in which you're working, so they can tailor their advice. And they must have your best interests at heart.”

But the most important relationship, Harris said, is with your sponsor. “Your sponsor is the person representing you behind closed doors, in the boardroom, where all the important decisions about your career are made. So you only want to tell them the good, the good, and the good,” she said. “They’re investing their valuable time and social capital on you, so you need to articulate why you are worthy of it.” 

Choosing the right sponsor depends on who has influence within your organization, and how often you intersect with them in your environment. “Relationships build with frequency of touch,” Harris said.

"Your sponsor is the person representing you behind closed doors, in the boardroom, where all the important decisions about your career are made. So you only want to tell them the good, the good, and the good"

"Perception Is Reality's Co-Pilot"

Managing perception is another “pearl” in Harris’s treasure chest of wisdom. Perceptions influence reality, and people form them quickly. “When you begin a new role, you have 90 days to establish who you are as a leader,” she said. 

Harris recommends choosing three adjectives that describe you as a superstar in the new role, then letting those adjectives govern your behavior day in and day out for at least the first three months. “People will begin to think of you however you have trained them to think of you,” she said. “Two fiscal quarters of consistent behavior around your chosen adjectives will create the perception you want people to have, and they’ll start describing you in that way.”

But the perception must fit the role. “Traits people value in an associate working on mergers and acquisitions may be ‘analytical,’ ‘quantitative’ and ‘persistent,’ while the traits of a managing director might look very different. In this role, no one cares if I can build an analytical model — they want to know if I can build relationships. You have to determine what traits would be most valued in your role and align your behavior with them.”

Keep Your Head Up In Times Of Crisis

Harris often speaks about holding an expectation to win — but in the wake of COVID-19, optimism is challenging. Having an “expect-to-win” mentality and demeanor is even more critical now. “None of us have experienced this level of social unrest in our lifetime,” she said. "Those who hold leadership positions must rest in the knowledge that they’re leaders because they’re good at what they do, good at building relationships and have the experience to make the right decisions for their team and company, under any circumstances. Having an expectation to win and do well will lead to the right outcomes.”

According to Harris, times of crisis and uncertainty present an opportunity to initiate real change and assert your power. “Keeping your head down won’t keep you from getting shot, so you might as well keep your head up so you can see the bullet coming,” she said. “In other words, don’t submerge your voice — it’s the heart of your power. When you submerge your voice, you become irrelevant, when you could be putting forth your ideas.” 

Tough times, said Harris, are when rule books are rewritten, and leaders have the opportunity to influence what the future will look like. “Chaos breeds opportunity, and the beauty about this chaos is you can leverage the air cover of COVID-19 and the broader social unrest to seize those opportunities and get your voice heard.”

Authenticity Strengthens Relationships

Whether you’re working alongside her, watching her speak on stage or listening to her on a podcast, Harris’s authenticity shines through. Being authentic, she said, has contributed to her ability to form lasting, meaningful relationships. “When you bring your authentic self to the table, people trust you, and trust is at the heart of every successful relationship.” 

Harris discovered the power of authenticity early in her career. Although at Morgan Stanley she was advised to downplay her successes as a performing artist with potential clients, she soon learned that what made her unique provided competitive advantage. “When Carla Harris the singer enters the room with Carla Harris the banker, it differentiates me from other bankers pitching the client.” 

Harris makes a point of bringing authenticity to every situation. “There’s no way to know which version of me will connect with someone and help forge a relationship,” she said. “When you bring your authentic self to the table, you motivate and inspire those around you to do the same, and if we are empowered to be ourselves, we perform at our best.”  


Cloud Counsel

Leadership: Currency, Change and Creating a Powerful Presence 


Retail Reshapes for the Modern World

Stay in the Loop

Stay in the Loop

Sign up to stay updated on CXO Focus and new thought leadership content