Practical analysis for investment professionals
09 June 2015

Five Battle-Tested Strategies for Success

“When I walked out of the lauded halls of Harvard undergrad and Harvard Business School, I embraced this concept of a meritocracy,” Carla Harris said, recalling the start of her 28-year career on Wall Street. “Success was merely a function of how smart you were and how hard you worked. Yet, when I started my career — it didn’t quite work out that way. . . . So, I had to ask myself, what’s missing in this success equation?”

Having since risen to a managing director and vice chairman of global wealth management at Morgan Stanley, Harris now shares her “battle-tested” tools for thriving in the workplace in her books, Expect to Win and Strategize to Win, and through numerous speaking engagements. Her presentation at the Women in Investment Management Conference generated the most buzz among conference attendees, with whom Harris shared five of “Carla’s pearls.” (You can watch Carla’s full presentation on our Livestream page.)

Carla’s First Pearl: Perception Is the Copilot to Reality

“How people perceive you will directly impact how they deal with you,” Harris said. While your intelligence and work ethic will affect your success, “a very big component of your success equation is the perception that the market place has about you.”

For example, “if you would like to manage a large group of people, but you are not seen as being motivational, inspirational, or organized, it doesn’t matter that you can do it. It doesn’t even matter that you did do it. You won’t get the opportunity to do that if you are not perceived as such.”

While other people’s perceptions may seem out of your control, Harris argued that it is possible to train people to think about you the way you want them to. You start by picking three adjectives that you would like people to use to describe you when you are not in the room. These three adjectives must be consistent with who you actually are — “Nobody can be you the way you can be you” — and also must be things that your organization values.

Once you’ve identified those three adjectives, behave consistently around those adjectives and even use that language when describing yourself. Harris offered an example from her own career to illustrate: After a manager told her that he thought she wasn’t tough enough for finance, Harris talked tough, walked tough, and described herself as tough from then on. Within three months, she had established a reputation as one of the toughest employees at Morgan Stanley.

It also helps, Harris added, if you can establish those adjectives upfront whenever you move into a new role. Ask your supervisor what success in this position looks like. If the supervisor doesn’t have an answer, try pitching your vision.

Carla’s Second Pearl: You Must Be Comfortable Taking Risks

“Fifteen years ago, you could create a competitive differential for yourself, if you had information that other people didn’t have,” Harris said. But, these days “the way you differentiate yourself in any environment is by showing that you are comfortable taking risks, because it says to to the marketplace that you are comfortable with change.”

Harris pointed to predictions that millennials will have four to five different careers — careers, not jobs — before they retire. So, she advises them to think in terms of six to seven modules of five years. For baby boomers, she suggests they think of “Me 2.0” every three to five years.

In the current economic environment, though, many people are afraid to take the sorts of risks that can drive their careers. “Keeping your head down will not keep you from getting shot, so as I like to say, you might as well keep your head up so you can see the bullet coming,” Harris joked. “Whenever we are in tough economic environments and everybody else is besieged with fear, and everybody else is ducking, you have clear vision. . . . It’s exactly those kinds of environments where you can markedly accelerate your success.”

If you are afraid of acting on a new opportunity, Harris advises that you ask yourself three questions:

  • Will the new opportunity give you new skills and experiences that you would not get if you stayed in your current seat another 12 months?
  • Will the new opportunity expose you to people, relationships, and networks that you would not get if you stayed in your current seat another 12 months?
  • Will the new opportunity create new branches on your personal decision tree of opportunity if you stay in your current seat another 12 months?

If the answer to all three is yes, you should take the risk.

Carla’s Third Pearl: Nobody Can Be You the Way That You Can Be You

“Anytime that you are trying to speak or behave in a way that is inauthentic to who you really are, you will create a competitive disadvantage for yourself, because you’re using valuable intellectual capacity” that could be put to better use, Harris said. “When you bring your authentic self to the table, people will trust you, and trust is at the heart of any successful relationship.”

Although Harris has a successful second career as a singer, she wanted to keep it a secret when she first started in finance — until, that is, she saw the clients’ reactions. Sharing this part of her life created an opportunity to connect with potential clients on a personal level and helped her stand out.

“When you bring your authenticity to the table, you create a dynamic where you can make a pitch a conversation,” Harris said. “And anytime you can make a pitch a conversation, you have just about achieved the sale.”

Carla’s Fourth Pearl: There Are Two Types of Currency in Any Environment — Performance Currency and Relationship Currency

But, Harris emphasized, a dollar is not a dollar is not a dollar.

Performance currency, which is generated by underpromising and overdelivering, is worth about $1.50 for the first three to four years in any positon. It is valuable because it will:

  1. Get you noticed.
  2. Get you paid and promoted.
  3. May even attract a sponsor/mentor.

But, after that initial period, “that $1.50 marches back down to a dollar,” according to Harris. “Why? Because now it is assumed that you will always deliver an outstanding and excellent product because you have created a new standard, so there is no premium associated with your delivery.”

Relationship currency, in contrast, is worth about $2.25, and it never experiences any diminishing marginal returns. “Your ability to ascend will be a function of somebody’s judgment,” and “judgments are directly influenced by relationships,” Harris said.

Furthermore, taking a “I let my work speak for itself” attitude doesn’t work — because the work does not actually speak. “You must put your work in context in your environment,” Harris said, “and the only way that you put it in context, is through the relationships that you have.”

Carla’s Fifth Pearl: Success Does Not Just Happen

“There’s only one person that has responsibility for your career, and that is you,” Harris said. “So you must ask for the compensation, you must ask for the promotion — and you must be intentional about it. You must be intentional about your performance.”

During the question-and-answer period, someone asked whether Harris had ever experienced low points in her career, and if so, how she had soldiered on. Harris pointed back to a statement she’d made earlier in her presentation: “Whenever you’re going into a new situation, know what you’re playing for. If you know what you’re playing for, it will keep you motivated and inspired to deliver excellence every day.”

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Photo credit: W. Scott Mitchell

About the Author(s)
Jennifer Curry

Jennifer Curry formerly served as managing editor of the Enterprising Investor. Previously, she was the social media manager at the New York Society of Security Analysts (NYSSA). Prior to her work at NYSSA, Curry worked as the senior project editor for a nonfiction imprint at Barnes & Noble Publishing and as an assistant editor at the H.W. Wilson Company. She is the editor of several volumes in the Reference Shelf series, and her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, IndustryWeek, Barnes & Noble Review, and other publications. Curry holds a BS in journalism and a BA in anthropology from the University of Kansas, and an MA in anthropology from Hunter College, City University of New York.

14 thoughts on “Five Battle-Tested Strategies for Success”

  1. Shreenivas Kunte, CFA says:

    Refreshingly insightful !

    1. Jennifer Curry says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. Harris is an amazing speaker.

      1. Marjorie Thompson says:

        We would like to have Carla speak at our 2016 Women’s Leadership Conference – how can I reach her?

  2. Joan Grant says:

    Truly inspirational – Carla is an excellent speaker.

    1. Jennifer Curry says:


  3. Dale says:

    What an inspiring and informative talk! I will be able to utilize Carla’s Pearls professional and personally! Thank you.

    1. Jennifer Curry says:

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Savio Cardozo says:

    Hello Jennifer
    Thank you for sharing this.
    Those words, or as you more appropriately call them, pearls of wisdom are reflective of a thoughtful person who has fought and survived a few battles.
    I very much enjoyed reading it, and for the advice.
    Thanks again and best wishes

    1. Jennifer Curry says:

      I got a lot out of Carla’s speech as well. It was a pleasure to write it up. Thanks for reading!

  5. Mayank says:

    Carla is truely an amazing speaker…Thanks jenny for sharing

    1. Jennifer Curry says:

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Joan Grant says:

    Jennifer – just a note to advise you that the link is now showing a different video – it I not the presentation delivered by Carla Harris. Carla’s presentation was so inspirational that I wanted to view it again, but the link shows an different presentation – there is an error at this link.

    1. Jennifer Curry says:

      Hey Joan,

      Due to an upcoming platform transition, we had to switch out some of our video content. The version you saw on your second return was an unedited version of the event; Carla’s speech didn’t start until 12 minutes in, which is probably why it seemed like a different event altogether. Thanks for letting me know that it was confusing to the readers. I’ve taken out the embedded video. You can still see the edited version of the video on our Livestream page:

      Thanks again!


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