On the Way Up the Corporate Ladder, Carry Your “Pearls” Advises Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris

womanladder.JPGBy Michele Drayton

This past April 2014, the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Chicago Chapter held its 31st Annual Celebration of Achievement Luncheon in Chicago, marking the 35th anniversary of the chapter’s founding and showcasing the accomplishments of corporate executives and entrepreneurs.

Keynote speaker Carla A. Harris recounted how when she came to Wall Street in 1987, she felt that she had the smarts and work ethic that appeared to guarantee success. Realizing quickly that this would take her only so far, she reached for her “pearls,” or career strategies that propelled her to success. She shared them before a rapt audience of nearly 500 women and men at the event.

Leading in Turbulent Times
“If you consider yourself a leader in the 21st century, you must be comfortable taking risks,” said Harris, commanding the center of the stage as she discussed one of her pearls. “In the environment we’ve had for the last six years everyone else may be ducking, but you have to have clear vision to see opportunity. Now is not the time to keep your head down. When you submerge your voice you become irrelevant.”

The women who are fearless as turmoil ensues – Harris cited GM CEO Mary Barra, Xerox Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns and HP President and CEO Meg Whitman – reinforce the fact that uncertain circumstances can produce uncommon victories.

Even amid the economic doldrums reflected in a 6.7 percent unemployment rate, Harris urged women to take the lead on a new project or recommend a process improvement. Those actions demonstrate relevance, and colleagues and stakeholders will take notice and say: “She’s trying to put points on the board. She’s moving the ball down the field. She is a keeper,” Harris said.

Crafting Your Personal Brand
A Wall Street veteran for nearly 27 years, Harris is Vice Chairman of Wealth Management, Senior Client Advisor and Managing Director at Morgan Stanley in New York. She is the author of the book, Expect to Win, her playbook for workplace success.

One insight Harris learned early involves understanding the importance of workplace perception. For example, a woman aiming for a P&L role will not get tapped for that position unless colleagues see her as quantitative, analytical and strategic. Harris advised audience members to select three words they want colleagues to use to describe them when they are not in the room, where decisions are made about hiring, promotion and compensation.

Recounting her own experience, Harris remembered a senior colleague telling her she wasn’t “tough” enough for investment banking. Instead of rebuffing the colleague, Harris, who earned two degrees from Harvard, changed her modus operandi. For the ensuing 90 days, she told the audience, she walked tough, talked tough and used the adjective to describe herself in conversation. Soon, she heard colleagues take into account how “tough” she was as they prepped for meetings with her.

“You can train people in the way you want them to think about you,” said Harris, recently installed as Chair of the National Women’s Business Council.

Know Yourself
Harris also recommended that audience members be authentic on the job because in relationship-driven business it opens up the opportunity to connect with a client on a different level. She related her experience. Before making a formal pitch for Burger King’s $300 million IPO, she asked the client whether the company planned to bring back both verses of the “Have It Your Way” jingle. The client insisted the jingle had only one verse until Harris sang both. Morgan Stanley got the account and Harris maintained a working relationship with the client.

This pearl? “Nobody can be you the way that you can be you,” said Harris, who has produced gospel CDs and sung at Carnegie Hall. “It is your distinct competitive advantage.” Most people aren’t comfortable in their own skin and they will gravitate toward people who are, she added.

Harris brought her message full circle with her most important pearl, what some might call faith. Women should accept that the answers to the most daunting workplace challenges are within their reach by way of their intelligence, their professional experience and their network. “If you expect to win, you will,’’ Harris said, as audience members at the sold-out event stood to applaud.

Honoring Female Visionaries in Business
The title of Harris’ book served as an appropriate theme for the NAWBO-Chicago event, which honored the following eight Corporate Women of Achievement:

  • Daniela O’Leary-Gill, Senior Vice President, Personal and Small Business Banking Strategy; Chief Community Reinvestment Officer, BMO Harris Bank
  • Margaret Jura, Financial Representative, COUNTRY Financial
  • Donnie F. Chestnutt, Vice President, Business Development Officer, First Midwest Bank
  • Daphne McCoy, Principal, Miller, Cooper & Co., Ltd.
  • Diane R. Cole, Area Director, The Regus Group
  • Rhonda C. Thomas, Partner, Thompson Coburn LLP
  • Jing Cesarone, CEO ChinaWise, Joint-venture Partner, Voltage Digital
  • Pamela Sharar-Stoppel, President and CEO, Wheaton Bank & Trust, a Wintrust Community Bank

In addition, NAWBO-Chicago recognized Susan Dawson, Partner, Waltz Palmer & Dawson, LLC, as Member of the Year; Anna Maria Viti-Welch, President of Guy Viti Insurance, as Business Owner of the Year; Emilia DiMenco, President and CEO of the Women’s Business Development Center, as Visionary Award Recipient; and Jayme Joyce, Co-founder, Joone Studios, as Young Entrepreneur Award Recipient.

The atmosphere in the ballroom of the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park remained electric as attendees gathered their belongings, which included signed copies of Harris’ book that Morgan Stanley, one of the event sponsors, provided.

Harris’ presentation was visionary, said Thomas, an award winner. “You hear someone say something that in one sense is so simple and, in another sense, is so spot on.”

Erin Kelly Herrera, principal of Eclectik Design, LLC in Chicago, said she planned to read Harris’ book and considered the adjectives she wants used to define her as a business owner. “How do I convey them in my behavior? Do I do that or do I do it well enough?” Herrera said.

Lori Hilson Cioromski, president and CEO of TH Hilson Company, a specialty chemicals business, referenced Harris’ remarks about exploiting opportunity even in difficult times. After the economy tanked, she cut staff by 30 percent, imposed a five percent pay cut and slashed expenses everywhere except sales, and refocused on the basics. Her actions paid off in the form of a 42.7 percent increase in revenues since 2009.

Echoing Harris, Cioromoski who serves as president of NAWBO-Chicago said women cannot allow fear to overwhelm them. “When people say you can’t do it,’’ she said, “be true to yourself and know that you can.”

Carla, we like your astuteness.

1 Response

  1. Cathey W. Law

    Great words of wisdom. I will remember these points as I wear my pearls, which I often do.