We first encountered Carla Harris and her philosophies on career success thanks to TED, and were struck by her passion and enthusiasm. In researching more about her, we learnt that she’s a Harvard alumna, has a 30+ year career on Wall Street, and is also a successful singer and author – in short, a multi-talented woman, and an inspiration to so many.
The secret to growing your power is to give it away. When you empower other people, you grow your impact and your influence exponentially.”
Carla began her investment banking career in 1987, starting in mergers and acquisitions “to learn the most in the shortest period of time”. She has been with Morgan Stanley for over 30 years, and is now Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, among other roles. She has released a number of albums, and has performed at Carnegie Hall multiple times. She is also a sought-after speaker, and has written books about career success.
Carla’s TED talk, given at TEDWomen 2018, focuses on sponsors, people “who will speak on your behalf in the top-level, closed-door meetings you’re not invited to (yet)”. It is roughly 13½ minutes long, and below the video we recap highlights, together with more of her pearls on performance, relationships, perceptions, power, risk and mistakes, among others.
In her talk, Carla references the year-end evaluation process, called moderation in some companies, where employees are allocated into categories e.g. top, middle, lower. This ranking then is “translated into a bonus range that would be assigned to each professional”. During his career, our Executive Director has experienced these types of meetings a number of times, including when selecting bursary candidates at a previous employer, and Carla’s description of the importance of someone speaking on your behalf is spot-on. And, on the topic of performance reviews: for more on preparing for your one-to-one performance discussion with your direct manager, see our post: Ace your Performance Appraisal.
One of Carla’s insights that is particularly useful for those starting out is that career success is not merely a function of how smart you are and how hard you work. “The combination of the two did not equal maximising my success, so I had to ask myself what’s missing in this success equation… You cannot have a 100% meritocratic environment when there is a human element involved in the evaluative equation, because by definition, that makes it subjective… there's not one evaluative process that I can think of, whether it's in academia, health care, financial services, not one that does not have a human element. So that means it has that measure of subjectivity. There is a measure of subjectivity in who is presenting your case. There is a measure of subjectivity in what they say and how they interpret any objective data that you might have. There is a measure of subjectivity in how they say what they're going to say to influence the outcome. So therefore, you need to make sure that that person who is speaking [on your behalf] has your best interests at heart and has the power to get it, whatever it is for you, to get it done behind closed doors.”
Carla expands on sponsors: “This person that is carrying your interest, or as I like to say, carrying your paper into the room, this person who is spending their valuable political and social capital on you, this person who is going to pound the table on your behalf, this is a sponsor… You are not going to ascend in any organisation without a sponsor… And if you can't answer who is carrying your paper into the room, then I will tell you to divert some of your hardworking energies into investing in a sponsor relationship, because it will be critical to your success.”
Performance Currency and Relationship Currency
Two concepts that Carla often talks about often, signalling their importance, are (i) performance currency and (ii) relationship currency. The former is valuable especially at the start of your career, but the latter is even more valuable, growing in importance as your career matures. Performance currency “is the currency that is generated by your delivering that which was asked of you and a little bit extra. Every time you deliver upon an assignment above people's expectations, you generate performance currency.”
“Performance currency is valuable for three reasons:
1) It will get you noticed. It will create a reputation for you.
2) It will also get you paid and promoted very early on in your career and very early on in any environment.
3) It may attract a sponsor. Why? Because strong performance currency raises your level of visibility in the environment… such that a sponsor may be attracted to you. Why? Because everybody loves a star.
But if you find yourself in a situation where you don't have a sponsor, here's the good news: remember that you can exercise your power and ask for one."
“...Here’s the problem with performance currency: over time, performance currency starts to experience diminishing marginal returns… Why? Because now you have created a new standard of excellence. Everybody knows that you will do a great job. Everybody expects that you will always deliver, so there is no longer any premium associated with your deliverable. The currency that now becomes most important is relationship currency…”
“Relationship currency is the currency that is generated by the investments you make in the people in your environment. You cannot ask someone to use their hard-earned personal influential currency on your behalf if you've never had any interaction with them. It is not going to happen. So it is important that you invest the time to connect, to engage and to get to know the people that are in your environment, and more importantly to give them the opportunity to know you. Because once they know you, there's a higher probability that when you approach them to ask them to be your sponsor, they will answer in the affirmative.”
“Your ability to ascend in any job that you choose will be a function of somebody’s judgement. Judgement about whether or not you’re ready, judgement about whether or not you’ll be successful, and judgement about whether or not the team will follow you. And judgement are directly influenced by relationships… Your performance currency may get your name on the shortlist that’s being discussed behind closed doors, but when your name is called if no-one in that room can speak on your behalf, they simply go to the next name and it has nothing to do with your ability to do the job, but everything to do with whether or not somebody knows you well enough to speak on your behalf. So when all else fails, invest in the relationships.”
Building work relationships
Carla regularly emphasises that “it’s your job to make sure that as many people as possible in the organisation are aware of your outsized contribution… You must put your work in context, and the only way that you can put your work in context is through the relationships that you have in your environment.” She gives the following suggestions for how to cultivate strong relationships at work:
While Carla says that your sponsor is the person “you tell the good, the good and the good to”, she also recognises the role of mentors: “a mentor's job is to give you tailored advice, tailored specifically to you and to your career aspirations. They're the ones who give you the good, the bad and the ugly in a no-holds-barred way… So by definition, it needs to be somebody that you trust, and it needs to be somebody that knows you very well… Your mentor does not need to be within your organisation, nor do they need to look like you, but they must understand your context. They must understand the context that you are working in in order to give you tailored advice that you can successfully execute”.
Characteristics of a good sponsor
Sponsors need to have three primary characteristics, says Carla:
1) “They need to have a seat at the decision-making table”
2) “They need to have exposure to your work in order to have credibility behind closed doors”, and
3) “They need to have some juice, or let me say it differently, they'd better have some power i.e. a respected voice at that table – they have the ability to get it done.”
They need these three characteristics because they’ll be “argu[ing] passionately on your behalf as to why you should get the promotion, why you should get the great bonus, why you should get the next great opportunity”.
“The way to grow your power is to give it away, and your voice is at the heart of your power. Use it.”
Learning from mistakes
Carla’s reflections on failure and making mistakes:
There is one person that has responsibility for your career, and that is you. It is not anybody else’s responsibility."
Taking responsibility for our own careers
“There is one person that has responsibility for your career, and that is you. It is not anybody else’s responsibility, especially not HR, to decide when it’s time for you to go to the next role, when it’s time to get a pay raise, when it is time for you to get promoted. It is your responsibility to know when that time is, and it is your responsibility to ask. Especially with respect to compensation. There is nobody sitting around saying ‘Oh, Carla might like to get paid more money’. It is your responsibility to understand the market value of your seat, and when you understand the market value of your seat, and you are in fact delivering good value, you should ask to make sure that you are getting paid the market value of your seat”.
“Advice that I would give to young professionals today: do as much as you can in the first two or three years of your work life or your professional journey, and then step back and take a pause and think about all of the skills that you have acquired. Now recalibrate and think about whether or not you want to continue to apply them and learn in that lane or if you would like to take those skills and actually apply into a completely different industry.”
Carla offers great advice to help you decide when facing a risk, where you’re not sure whether to go for something. She suggests asking yourself three questions:
1) “Will this new thing give you skills and experiences that you would not get if you stayed in your current seat another twelve months?”
2) “Will this new thing expose you to people, relationships and networks that you would not get if you stayed in your current seat another twelve months?”
3) “Will this new thing create new branches on your personal decision tree of opportunity i.e. you could go off and do some other things that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you’d stayed in your current seat another twelve months?”
“If the answer to all three of those questions is ‘yes’, you should absolutely take the risk.”
Mastering Perceptions: “Perception is the co-pilot to reality”
Another excellent pearl is about how others perceive you: “Perception is the co-pilot to reality: how people perceive you will directly impact how they deal with you. And it’s important that you if want to maximise your success, you should understand the perception that exists about you in the marketplace. What lens are they looking through when they are looking at you?… You can train people to think about you in the way that you want them to think about you… You pick three adjectives that you would like people to use to describe you when you’re not in the room… Pick three adjectives that are absolutely consistent with who you really are [and] three that are valued in that organisation. Where they intersect is how you must behave consistently if you want to train people to think about you in a certain way… You must use this language in your environment particularly when you are talking about yourself… What adjectives are associated with success for the job that you aspire to get?”
Advice for Leaders
Carla uses the acronym LEADER to set out important characteristics and behaviours for leaders:
L: Leverage the intellect, experience and/or the relationships of those working with you, and encourage your people to be comfortable to take risks
E: Efficiency – be very clear about what success looks like (even if only in the short-term) to motivate and inspire your team to outperform
A: Authenticity is your distinct competitive advantage – nobody can be you the way you can be you. Trust is at the heart of any successful relationship.
D: Decisiveness and Diversity. It is important to gather data and solicit opinions but the team is depending on you to make a decision. As we need a lot of different ideas to innovate, we need different perspectives, so we need different experiences, and hence a lot of different people. We must have a mindset of inclusive leadership: power and courage to solicit other peoples’ voices.
E: Engage with your people – this is what spurs outsized productivity from each of your team
R: Be comfortable taking Risk and display courage.
Other nuggets from Carla include: “be consistent”, “be intentional about your communication, your performance, your relationships”, “underpromise and overdeliver”, and “you cannot do it alone”.
Powerful, impactful, influential leaders understand that there is no monopoly on intelligence. You won’t always have the best idea, you won’t always have the right idea, but somebody in your environment has the intellect, the experience and/or the relationships to help the team successfully prosecute any endeavour… Your job is to create an environment where those who are working with you… want to contribute their out-of-the-box ideas [to innovate and compete].”
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