Pearls of Wisdom: How to be an Influential Leader

October 8, 2020

During the closing Omni Session of the 2020 ALTA ONE, Wall Street and investment guru Carla Harris shared some of her “Pearls of Wisdom” and what it takes to be an effective leader in today’s workforce.

Harris said her “Pearls of Wisdom” advice was developed by grit and formed oyer time by resiliency. Her unique and powerful pieces of guidance were crafted over 35 years as an African American woman on Wall Street.

Harris shared eight key things she sees as essential for modern leaders, including authenticity, trust, clarity, creating other leaders, diversity, innovation, inclusivity and voice.

“These are hard-learned and earned pearls,” said Harris, who is vice chairman and managing director at Morgan Stanley. ““I have learned a few things about not only surviving, but, in fact, thriving, in the seat that you sit in or the seat that you aspire to sit in.”


The first pearl Harris shared was being authentic. She said this is a person’s competitive advantage. If someone speaks and are not authentic, it creates a disadvantage. Success depends on the ability to penetrate relationships. “The easiest way to do that is to bring authentic self to the table,” Harris said. “Trust is at the heart of any successful relationships. In today’s current environment, Harris said there are three things that’s needed in order to sit in the leadership seat: “First, you must be visible. People must see you. Second, you must be transparent about what you know and don’t know. Third, you must also be empathetic. Think about your customers and how this pandemic has affected them.”


Harris said leaders can’t do it alone. They need the intellect, experience and the relationships of others. Building trust is about delivering repeatedly. “Think about the people in your own life,” Harris said. “Why do you trust these people? Because they have delivered. Whenever I try to penetrate a relationship, I think of four things of value I can provide before I ask for business.”


Employees may always not know what to do to deliver excellence. It’s incumbent on leaders to create and define what success looks like, even when they can’t see it. “Find a discreet period of time and define what you think success looks like,” Harris said.

Cultivate Leaders

Once someone attains a leadership role, Harris says it’s important to cultivate and lift up others. This is essential to continue driving innovation. “This is how you amplify your impact as a leader,” she said. “That’s how you expand your footprint. You may find by giving others the ability to lead, they may also innovate. You may be an outstanding executor, but if you can inspire others that will put you further.”


Harris said companies that lack diverse thinking at the decision-making table will have a gap in their go-to-market strategy. Leaders must avail themselves to all the intellect in the marketplace. “You need a lot of ideas and perspectives, which are born from experiences. So, you need a lot of people in the room. Excellence today looks different. You must model what excellence looks like to Millennials and Gen Z. You want to be hyper-focused that you have a diverse organization.”


For companies to consistently innovate, leaders must teach them that it’s OK to fail. “In order to teach them to fail, celebrate the failures,” Harris suggest. “When someone takes a risk, and it doesn’t work out, be careful how you react. You must react constructively, or staff will never reach far enough. Be careful how you message failures.”


Harris says showing up as an inclusive leader simply means asking for others’ opinions. Leaders can elicit conversation by showing the team a problem, offer one perspective, and then ask others to add on. “Invite people into the conversation by name,” Harris added. “Who doesn’t value being seen by the boss? Everyone values being heard. This puts everyone’s fingerprints on the blueprint.”


In an environment that’s uncertain, employees may feel unsure about what will happen to the company. Employees want the organization’s leader to give a voice to that reality. “If you fail to give voice to that reality, then you impair the trust and authenticity that you’ve built up with your team,” Harris said. “Fear has no play in your success equation.”

“Courage is what holds these strands of pearls together,” Harris concluded. “It takes courage to call a thing a thing. We have all had situations where we know something should have been said in the room, but we simply looked down at our shoes. It takes courage to be an inclusive leader, to engage enough of your people that you can invite them into the conversation, into the solutions, into the results by name. it takes courage to each people how to fail. It takes courage to be intentional about diversity when we are competing in a dynamic environment. It takes courage to create clarity when you can’t see. It takes courage to create other leaders, especially when you are unsure of your own career trajectory. It takes courage to engage enough with your clients and your teams to build their trust and listen to what they value so you can deliver on that value proposition. It takes courage to bring your authentic self into any environment. If you want to be a powerful influential leader, in today’s environment, you must both expect and strategize to win.”

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