Tools for Maximising Your Career Success

Speaker: Carla Harris, Vice Chairman, Managing Director, Senior Client Advisor- Morgan Stanley

Moderated by: Madhu Veeraraghavan, Director and T.A. Pai Chair Professor of Finance, T A Pai Management Institute (TAPMI)

Contributed by: Ishwar Chidambaram, CFA, CIPM

Carla Harris enthralled the audience with her outstanding presentation, in which she spoke about the everyday tools and techniques necessary for maximizing one’s career success. She began by asserting that every organization- no matter how meritocratic- will always have the human element. She then proceeded to share her nuggets of wisdom, which she called “Carla’s Pearls”. These Pearls of wisdom formed the bulwark around which her presentation was based. They are as follows:

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

Harris said that how people perceive you will directly impact their interactions with you. The market’s perception about you supersedes your own intelligence and work ethic. For example, if you are looking for a team leadership role, it essential to be perceived as motivational, inspirational and organized, otherwise it will be next to impossible to get the assignment. While other people’s perception may seem to be outside your control, Harris contended that it is possible to train people to think positively about you. You start by selecting 3 adjectives that you would like people to use to describe you when you are not in the room. These 3 adjectives must be consistent with who you really are, and they must be qualities valued by the organization. Once you have identified those 3 adjectives, it is important to 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 a few months, she had established a reputation as one of the toughest employees at Morgan Stanley.

If you offer that which is not valued, you will not be rewarded.  Never assume you know what success looks like. Instead you must ask “What does success look like in this seat?” Success is always shifting.

Corollary for leaders: It is incumbent on leaders to define what success looks like, to get maximum productivity, even in uncertain environments. All human beings are programmed to outperform.

Harris then proceeded to explain the difference between a mentor and a sponsor, stating that both are indispensable to success in scaling the corporate ladder.

Carla’s Second Pearl: Be Comfortable Taking Risks

Having knowledge alone is no longer sufficient to distinguish yourself from your peers. It is important to be comfortable taking risks.

In the current economic environment, many people are afraid to take the risks that can propel their careers. Harris quipped that “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,”. “Whenever we are in tough economic environments and everybody else is besieged with fear, and everybody else is ducking, you must have clear vision.It’s exactly those kinds of environments where you can markedly accelerate your success.” On the other hand, “Keeping your head down is equivalent to submerging your voice”. This is counterproductive, as “your voice is at the center of your power”. Fear has no place in your success equation, as it stands for “False Evidence Appearing Real”.

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

The remarkable fact of life is that most people are not comfortable in their own skin. “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. She now has 3 CDs and 5 sold out programs at Carnegie Hall.

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

Performance currency, which is generated by under promising and overdelivering, is valuable because it will:

  • Get you noticed.
  • Get you paid and promoted.
  • May even attract a sponsor/mentor.

But the problem with performance currency is that it is subject to diminishing marginal returns. There is no premium associated with it, and its level declines over time.

Relationship currency, on the other hand, is never associated with diminishing marginal returns. Hence it is critical to cultivate relationships in organizations. Make sure as many people as possible are aware about your performance, as their judgments are directly influenced by relationships. Your ability to ascend will depend on whether someone knows you.

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.” Very few people have original thoughts. Therefore there is a need to both educate and sell. You need to identify who are the winners and losers for each revolutionary change. It’s important to cultivate strategic thinking.

The remarkable session was brought to an end by Carla singing a rousing operatic hymn and the audience joined her in chorus!







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