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Carla Harris Urges Women to Use Their Power to Advance Themselves and Others

A woman in a green jacket is speaking at a conference.

​Day two of the 24th annual Women in Leadership (WIL) Institute in Orlando, Fla., began with the irrepressible Carla Harris exhibiting her trademark energy by bounding onto the speaker stage accompanied by a standing ovation. A legend in her own time, Harris has been a trailblazer throughout her career.

Now a senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley—after retiring from her more-than-30-year career as the company's vice chairman and managing director—Harris has executed billions of dollars of equity and equity-related transactions. Her three books on how to achieve corporate leadership roles by being your authentic self—Expect to Win (Penguin Publishing Group, 2009), Strategize to Win (Avery, 2014) and Lead to Win (Avery, 2022)—are widely read by aspiring leaders seeking her advice on how to rise to the top. And if that's not enough, Harris also has a successful career as an award-winning gospel recording artist who has released four CDs—with her sixth sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall scheduled for next week.

Use Your Voice

Harris urged the over 2,000 WIL Institute attendees to—like she has—take charge of the power they possess as leaders and not allow others to diminish or disregard it. She ensured her audience that, as women in positions of power, "everyone is watching you," taking cues from your behavior and determining whether to follow your lead.

"As senior women in your organizations, every single one of you in this room has influence," Harris declared. "You need to understand that you have it, and that you can use it. Because what you do not use, you will definitely lose. You got here because you earned that seat at that table. Don't give away your power by ignoring that fact."

One of the big mistakes a woman in a position of power can make is to stay quiet, Harris said. The key to achieving the confidence to speak and lead comfortably is to be authentic. "The worst thing you can do is not be yourself," Harris said. "Most people are not comfortable in their own skin. When you show people you are confident in yourself and comfortable with who you authentically are, they will gravitate toward you.

"Make sure your voice is in the room." Harris repeatedly emphasized. "Then you can use silence as power and convey messages by the look on your face—the way the boys do."

Adapt Your Power

Just as important as using your voice, Harris stressed, is listening to the voices of others. "One of the most valuable things you can do as an influential leader is to listen," she affirmed, "because people will always tell you what they value and what they want. When you know that, you can deliver—and then you can make the sale."

But simply being aware of the power you possess, Harris continued, is just part of it. You must also know how to wield that power with different people and in different situations. It's not a one-size-fits-all type of deal, she explained. As a woman from the South, Harris knows that how she uses her power in New York City will not accomplish her client goals in Alabama. So, she said, instead of getting "Full Frontal Carla," they get "Carla Light."

"I know those boys in Birmingham can't handle the Full Frontal Carla that I am in New York City," Harris explained to her smiling audience. But rather being disingenuous, she said, Carla Light is just as much a part of her as the Carla who does business in New York.

"I'm self-aware enough that when I walk into that Birmingham board room, I know I have to be able to connect with those men so they will hear me," she said. "It's about speaking and showing up in a way that your listeners will hear you, embrace you and act upon what you say."

Be Generous

Just as you can use your influence as currency when doing business, Harris said, you can also use it to raise up future leaders.

"Give your influence away," she urged her listeners. "Amplify your impact by creating other leaders. Think of yourself as a kingmaker, a queenmaker." Invest in the success of the people in whom you see potential, she continued, because building one another up goes both ways. "You won't be successful if your people don't believe in you, so you have to invest in their success as well."

You can do this in several ways, Harris explained, and you often have to tailor how you champion your colleagues by knowing how they are uniquely inspired. For example, she said, younger professionals tend to be more motivated by "atta girl" affirmations than professionals from older generations.

Creating a culture of mutual support, Harris said, can be foundational in building up trust among your team members. "Leaders, hear me clearly," Harris told her audience. "If you don't trust them, they won't trust you."

See One Another

Saying that "leadership is all about inclusivity," Harris emphasized at the end of her talk that just as aspiring and established women leaders want their input sought out, so too must they seek out the input of a diverse array of perspectives if they want to be successful. Call people by name, Harris explained, "Say 'I see you,' and invite them to join the conversation. Everyone values being heard."

Harris closed with a rendition of a song she wrote that she plans to sing at Carnegie Hall next week: "Everybody Is Somebody's Child." "No matter how different we seem, we need to identify what we have in common," Harris said. "And one of those things is that everyone is somebody's child."

Barbara A. Gabriel is the managing editor of SHRM's Managing Smart.


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