Practical analysis for investment professionals
19 June 2017

Maximize Career Success: Pearls from Carla Harris

When Carla Harris married in 2001, The New York Times described the bride as “a quintessential Type-A Wall Streeter — the sort of person who gets impatient for the sun to rise.”

Harris’s characteristic charm and energy were front and center in Philadelphia at the 70th CFA Institute Annual Conference as she shared some of “Carla’s pearls” — hard-earned pearls of wisdom and career advice, gleaned from her nearly three decades on Wall Street.

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Harris, vice chairman of wealth management; managing director; and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, told her audience that everyone needs to cultivate performance currency and relationship currency — ideas she expands on in her book, Strategize to Win.

Performance currency is simply delivering what was asked of you plus a little bit more. Relationship currency is created by spending time with people in your organization.

Harris said performance currency will get you noticed, but it is your relationships that allow you to maximize your success.

“Performance currency raises your profile and helps the conversation for finding a sponsor,” she said. “But over time, it experiences diminishing marginal returns. Why? Because you have created a standard of excellence. You’re expected to deliver. Now you need relationship currency, which is generated by the investments you make in the people in your environment.”

Harris said that people often make the mistake of thinking their work will speak for itself. It won’t.

“The work does not speak,” she said. “You must put your work in context, and the only way to do that is through the relationships you have in your professional environment.”

Relationship Alpha tile

Relationship currency is key to career progression. “Your ability to ascend will be a function of somebody’s judgment about whether you will ultimately be successful, and judgments are influenced by relationships,” Harris said. “People won’t spend their currency on someone they do not know.”

“Performance currency may get you on the short-list of names discussed behind closed doors,” she added. “But when your name is called, if there is no one to speak on your behalf, they will move on to the next name. You must have someone who will speak on your behalf. Performance currency gives you the opportunity to move, but it is relationship currency that truly gives you mobility.”

Harris said leaders are authentic and they portray what success looks like. People gravitate toward those who are comfortable in their own skin. “Authenticity is your competitive advantage,” she said.

Harris defines the characteristics of a leader as:

L = Leverage. There is no monopoly on intelligence, and good leaders need to leverage others’ experiences and intellect to achieve their goals.

E = Efficiency. Successful leaders are clear about what success looks like for the team. “If you are not clear, you create a tremendous amount of frustration in the food chain. As the leader, it is your job to define what success looks like. When people know what they are playing for, they are motivated to outperform.”

A = Authenticity. “This is at the heart of your power,” said Harris. “Your authenticity is your distinct competitive advantage; no one can be you like you can . . . Most people are not comfortable in their own skin, so when they see someone who is, they gravitate to that person. Bring your authentic self to the table and people will trust you.”

D = Decisive, Diversity. The price of inaction is greater than the cost of making a mistake, Harris said. “You must be decisive as a leader. If you’re going to fail, fail fast.” Take the lesson and move on. Also, you must ensure your teams are diverse — diversity drives innovation.

E = Engaged. Leaders must engage with their people. “Twenty-first-century leadership demands that you have a high degree of engagement.”

R = Risk. “You must be comfortable taking risks,” Harris said. “Change is something you must embrace if you are going to lead in the 21st century.”

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If you are faced with a risk but are not sure whether to take it, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Will that new opportunity give you skills and experiences you wouldn’t pick up if you stayed in your current seat for another 12 months?
  2. Will it expose you to people, relationships, and networks that you would not otherwise obtain?
  3. Will it help you generate new branches on your personal decision tree of opportunity that you wouldn’t develop if you stayed put for another 12 months?

If the answer is “yes” to all three, take the risk.

For more of Harris’s pearls of wisdom, see “Five Battle-Tested Strategies for Success.”

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Photo courtesy of W. Scott Mitchell



View the full transcript (PDF).

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About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster was a content director on the professional learning team at CFA Institute and host of the Take 15 Podcast. She is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Lauren spent nearly a decade on staff at the Financial Times as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau, followed by freelance writing for Barron’s and the FT. Lauren holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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