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Carla Harris – How to Become a Powerful, Impactful, Influential Leader

Carla Harris, the Managing Director of the Wall Street investment banking firm Morgan Stanley, welcomed the audience to her new world order where only the people with the courage to become powerful, impactful, and influential leaders will be able to inspire and motivate today’s changing workforce. At the workplace, millennials and Generation Z are looking for leaders who motivate and inspire, not at Baby Boomer leaders touting the old “my way or the highway” mindset. She shared eight concepts, or pearls, to becoming a manager that can attract and retain the best talent.

Harris’s first prescription was authenticity, a distinct competitive advantage that lies at the heart of powerful, impactful, influential leadership. When leaders bring their authentic selves to the table, not only are they able to “own the relationship,” but they motivate others to do the same. According to Harris, whenever people are in an environment where they can be who they really are, they can outperform expectations.

Trust is essential in a competitive environment, where innovation is the dominant competitive parameter. Leaders must engage with employees and clients through understanding their values, and deliver on these values. By building intentional trust, leaders can lead their teams successfully into “unfamiliar territory.”

Diversity a key element of innovation

The courage to create clarity is essential for leaders because there are times it is not possible to make projections for the year or the quarter or even the next month — let alone the following day. Managers should create clarity about what success looks like, even for a finite period. Doing this helps their team aim for concrete performance goals.

People in leadership positions should invest in creating other leaders, Harris declared. She noted that “leadership is a journey from execution to empowerment.” If managers want to “amplify their impact and contribution” to their company, nurturing other leaders is imperative. It is important to know how to delegate and give others the chance to shine.“If all roads lead only to you, success will be capped because you are only one woman and one man,” she advised. This is how new leaders are forged.

Harris advocated focusing on diversity as a “dominant competitive parameter.” She pointed out that innovation is born from ideas; they require different perspectives from a multitude of people. Since people have unique perspectives, managers should assemble a diverse group to create “that one innovative idea that allows a firm to obtain and retain a leadership position.” Many companies have had problematic go-to-market strategies which do not take into account diversities. To avoid these problems, Harris advises to intentionally hire for diversity.

“If you have homogenous thinking at the table, you will have a gap in your go-to-market strategy. You miss the benefit of the intellect, experiences, perspectives and networks that come with having different people at the table.”

Inclusivity non-negotiable for millennials

Being intentional about innovation means teaching teams how to fail by celebrating failure. If taking a risk does not work out, leaders should commend the effort, discuss what the team learned, and use the lessons as building blocks for the next potential success. If people are afraid of failure, they will not attempt to innovate at the highest level. “Anytime you approach anything in your life— personally or professionally — from a position of fear, you will always under-penetrate that opportunity,” Harris warned. By taking risks, a leader can compete and lead with a high level of success.

Inclusivity is fundamental for millennial professionals who want transparency, inclusivity, and feedback. Leaders must model inclusivity every day by “soliciting other people’s voices.” She proposed an exercise in which leaders assemble their teams on four occasions to discuss a problem or case. They should involve each person individually to contribute, listen, and discuss. By the fifth time, team members will contribute freely what they feel ought to be included.

Finally, leaders should use their voice “to call a thing a thing, regardless of what the thing is or how horrible or politically incorrect it might be.” This means being willing to call it as it is when the business is not going well, or when it is time to restructure.

Millennials and Generation Z demand a different type of leadership than baby boomers did, Harris concluded. Having the courage to adopt and intentionally apply these eight principles will help managers strategize to win and become powerful, impactful, influential leaders, who can inspire and motivate millennial and Generation Z teams.


This article is a summary of Harris’s speech at Nordic Business Forum Helsinki in 2019. If you want to read what the other speakers said at the event, download the executive summary for free.

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