Carla Harris, the managing director at Morgan Stanley

Carla Harris – Leadership Beyond the Crisis

Carla Harris, is the Vice Chairman, Managing Director, and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley, and the author of Strategize to Win and Expect to Win. At our online event in September 2020, she listed 8 things that should be on top of every leader’s mind today. Harris also highlighted a few additional issues all leaders should pay special attention to in order to get through the crisis.

8 Pearls of Intentional Leadership

Leadership needs a change, Harris stated, not due to the pandemic and the social unrest we live in today, but due to the generational shift in the workforce. She proposed that to become a powerful, impactful, influential leader, you must be an intentional leader. More specifically, you must be intentional about 8 things, or pearls, as Harris likes to call them.

Pearl #1: Authenticity. “Your authenticity is your distinct competitive advantage.” Especially in today’s chaotic environment, people are looking for something real and certain. Furthermore, anytime you’re trying to speak or behave in an inauthentic way, you are wasting intellectual capacity that you could use to listen and engage with your team or your customers, Harris argued. She also pointed out that authenticity is one of the easiest ways to build trust.

Pearl #2: Building Trust. “You know that as a leader you will go into territories unknown. And you cannot do it alone.” If you want your people to follow you into the unknown, you need their trust. And how do you build trust, besides being authentic? According to Harris, you simply need to deliver. Whether it is your team or your customers, you need to continuously keep on delivering value to make them trust you.

Pearl #3: Creating Clarity. “It is your job to create clarity even when you cannot see.” Harris underlined that even when you are going into territories unknown, you as a leader need to create clarity for your team. In particular, you need to determine what success is, she said. When success is not defined, we don’t know where to go. But when success has been defined, we as humans are inspired to go beyond, Harris claimed.

Pearl #4: Creating Other Leaders. “Leadership is a journey from execution to empowerment.” Harris made it crystal clear that once you choose to sit on a leadership seat, you should be disproportionately focused on creating other leaders. That is how you amplify your impact on your organization and magnify the organization’s impact in the industry. So, you need to learn how to let things go and let other people grow.

Pearl #5: Diversity. Innovation is born from ideas. Ideas are born from perspectives. Perspectives are born from experiences. Experiences are born from people. That is why, Harris argued, you need diversity: in order to innovate. And to survive today, innovation is a must.

Pearl #6: Innovation. “In order to innovate, you must teach your team how to innovate. But how do you teach people how to innovate? You must teach them how to fail.” Harris highlighted that if people are afraid of failing, they will never reach far enough to truly innovate. Therefore, be very careful about how you react when someone takes a risk and it doesn’t work out. According to Harris, you need to encourage people to take risks and turn their possible mistakes into valuable learnings.

Pearl #7: Inclusivity. Harris mentioned that in order to be a good leader, you need to see and hear your employees. All leaders should “solicit other people’s voices”. In practice, she suggested that next time you have an issue at hand, you should invite each of your team members by name into the discussion. That way you show them that you see and hear them, and you also make them equally invested in the successor the failure of the endeavor in question.

Pearl #8: Your Own Voice. “You must be willing to call a thing a thing, no matter how bad the thing might be.” We as humans are often afraid to exercise our own voice, but Harris argued that as a leader you can’t have a place for that fear. Your team is expecting you to give voice to whatever the situation is. And if you fail in that, they start to mistrust you, she underlined.
“The strand that holds all of these pearls together is courage”, Harris concluded. She suggested that every leader should be intentional about these 8 things, and pursuing each of them requires courage.

Be Visible, Transparent, and Empathetic

During her keynote, Harris emphasized that while working in this “global shelter in place protocol”, there are actually three things leaders need to do.

The first one she raised was visibility. “Your people need to see you. They want something that represents some type of certainty, so they need to see you.” She pointed out that even if it would be via a video screen, it doesn’t matter, but your team needs to see you.

Secondly, Harris mentioned transparency. “You need to make sure that they know what you know and when you know it. And when you don’t know something, you should be transparent about that.” This is central especially when things are challenging and unsure. “Transparency also engenders trust,” Harris emphasized.

The third piece of advice Harris gave us was to focus on empathy. She highlighted that empathy is critical in this situation, as your team is likely to be stressed and scared. As a leader, you need to understand that, and show that you understand. “And again, it will engender trust, and it will deepen the relationship”, she argued.

Leadership Challenges in the New Normal

During the Q&A session between Carla Harris and Christin Bøsterud, EY Norway Managing Partner, a few current leadership challenges were raised, and
during the discussion, Harris provided her insights on how to deal with them.

First, Harris mentioned that creating and developing a company culture can be a challenge now as we are mostly working remotely. She argued that before a company culture was defined more easily, simply, by people being in the same place. Now, leaders need to put more thought into it and figure out new ways to create and develop their culture remotely. “Think about what really is important. Is it important that people do things a certain way or is it important that they actually get it done?”, Harris asked.

Another challenge that came up in the discussion, was the difficulty to innovate in this remote setting. However, Harris didn’t find this to be a problem. She mentioned that there are numerous digital tools that allow us to get together and communicate. Harris also pointed out that for many people this might be even an easier setting to innovate. “I think that outside of the confines of the way things used to happen, and outside of the confines of physical buildings, people can actually be far more innovative. This shelter in place environment has created a level playing field.”

The leadership challenge to balance between control and trust was also raised during the discussion. Harris strongly suggested focusing on building trust because that also gives people the responsibility to deliver. “If you know that somebody trusts you, you don’t want to let them down. I do think most people work that way.” She advised to keep loose control, e.g. through regular discussions with the team, but to also give space. “I would certainly air on the side of trusting people and giving them a lot of latitude to execute and more importantly to create.”

To sum up her insights, Harris reminded that although these are unprecedented times, leaders should use this as an opportunity to be powerful, impactful, and influential leaders. This is the time to leverage the intellect and experience of your employees. They might have great ideas that you never came up with, but involving them also shows that you care about them and value them. So, use your people to define what the new normal looks like for your company. You might come out of this crisis with a very powerful organization, Harris encouraged.

This article is a summary of Carla’s keynote at our New Normal online event in September 2020. If you want to find out what the other speakers said, download the entire event summary.


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