Carla Harris, Vice Chairman & Managing Director, Morgan Stanley


On building and maintaining a culture of values:

  • Your people need to know what they are playing for. They need to know how they can be successful in the seat they are in, working for you.
  • I am also willing to be wrong in front of the people I am working with, because I want them to see that it is okay to be wrong.
  • Fear is not a part of my culture, and I don’t want people to be afraid of me.
  • …In terms of maintaining culture, you have to live it every day.
  • Part of being authentic is choosing a working environment or a job that lets you be you. It may not be the natural part of you, but you need to pick a seat where you can bring all of who you are to the table.
  • You can’t suppress all the unique things that make you, because that is your competitive advantage.


What experiences and people have been most influential in your life? What pushed you to be who you are today?

The most influential person in my life has been my mother. She taught me to multi-task, and told me incessantly that there was nothing I couldn’t do. Words like “multi-task” weren’t around much when I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, but I watched my mom work and raise a family.

There are also people who indirectly inspired me. If there is something you tell me that I can’t do, then I am all over it like a bad smell. Teachers and counselors who said I “couldn’t” ironically became motivators for me. My high school counselor discouraged me from applying to Ivy League schools, saying they were too difficult, hard to get into, and competitive. I graduated high school summa cum laude and applied anyway, and I got into every Ivy League school I applied to. Moreover, the next year when I was trying to declare my major as a freshman at Harvard, the professor PhD candidate who taught my section of introductory Economics told me, “girl, whatever you do, don’t declare Economics, because you can’t think.” And of course, that led me to walk right over to the freshman dean and sign up for Economics. 4 years later when I was graduating magna cum laude in Economics, I went and thanked him.

You say you are negatively motivated, but have you ever had a moment where the negativity got you down and you were overcome by self-doubt or failure?

Yes.  There was a year when I was expecting a promotion but didn’t get promoted, and I had a very strong emotional reaction to this.  This reaction was my first response, but I also had a second response.  I realized that I had a personal agenda, and I went back and asked myself, “what did I want out of this experience, and did I achieve everything I wanted to from this experience?”  The answer was “no,” and I knew I had to keep working and keep achieving my goals.  If you have an agenda, it will keep you from making emotional decisions about your career and about your life, because when something happens that you didn’t expect, or that made you feel like a failure, you can go back and ask yourself, “did I get what I wanted out of this experience, or should I go back and achieve more?”  I use this very aggressively, and that’s why I didn’t get down on myself when I didn’t get promoted.

It’s also important to understand what role you play in the failure, or whatever the disappointment was.  The year that I didn’t get promoted, I looked back and asked myself, “what happened here? Let me retrace how I ended up in this situation. What role did I play in this equation?”  You have to make sure you learn from what you potentially did wrong.  I’m a big fan of the saying, “if you do not pass the test, you will repeat the class.”

Do you think it is unusual to be so negatively-motivated?

Today, it definitely is.  For example, when kids try out for some middle school sports team and they don’t make it, the information given to them is, “I didn’t make it, so I’m not going to try again,” or “I’m benched and I don’t play, so I’m going to quit.”  When my generation was growing up and there was a disappointment, the message was, “try harder next time,” or “practice a little bit more, and then you will do better.”

I think the problem stems from an education platform that doesn’t allow kids to fail.  What you see these days in nursery school, for example, is that when there is a race, everyone gets a prize.  So, even when Johnny isn’t as fast as the fastest kid in his class, he still gets a prize.  There is no more sense of disappointment, or feeling that, “I’m going to try harder and do better next time.”  Without this feeling of disappointment, how does he learn to try harder?  I think that’s part of the issue with the younger kids today.  When they don’t get promoted or don’t reach one of their goals, where’s the sense of resilience and the desire to try harder?  They just want to walk away and quit, or conclude, “that’s not for me.”  But that’s not necessarily true. They do not understand how to get up when they have been slapped down.

My mother always said, “quitters never win and winners never quit,” and “if you give up now, of course you’re never going to make it.”  That is what I tell a lot of my mentees.  “You know how the story ends if you quit now, but if you continue, there’s a 50-50 chance that you’re going to make it.” Those are some of the messages I still use to this day, and I have certainly used them through my 25-year journey on Wall Street. 

How did you enter into the finance industry and get your first break on Wall Street?

We are all a function and a product of what we’ve been exposed to. Coming from the South as a person of color in the 1970’s and 80’s, if you were smart and could speak well, then people would try to push you into one of three lanes. They would try to push you into being a nurse or doctor, a teacher, or a lawyer. My mom was a teacher, so I didn’t want any part of that, and while I was good at math and sciences, I had no passion for it. People said, “So, you have to be a lawyer.” And I agreed because I thought a lawyer was someone who called the shots – someone who had a prestigious career and platform.

My journey on Wall Street began the summer after my sophomore year, when I had the chance to participate in the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) program.  At that time, the program was only 3 years old.  They went to top schools to find candidates of color to expose them to Wall Street, and to expose Wall Street to candidates of color.

I initially thought I was going to be a lawyer, but the SEO program put me on a completely different trajectory. I realized that the things I thought I liked about Law existed on Wall Street too; that the business people called the shots, not the lawyers. The lawyers help you do it in the context of the law. Moreover, business was quantitatively and analytically driven, and I liked the objectivity of numbers.  On Wall Street you get a lot of responsibility at a very early age, and I always wanted to do something big as early and young as possible.

Then, I started looking into the multiplier effect I would have as a banker. People think of bankers as selfish and competitive people that only care about money.  But if you think about it, when you’re working with companies, especially taking companies public, you are affecting the lives of so many people you will never meet. If that company goes public and becomes successful, it will hire people and expand; so you provide life opportunities for countless people. It’s a ripple effect. That’s why I was so excited to do this interview, because hopefully some young lady will read this, and I don’t know who she is and it won’t matter, but if what I say this morning helps her, then that’s a good thing!

What were your experiences as a woman of color working in an industry dominated by white males?

Generally, if I encountered someone who had never met someone like me, then they came with baggage. There is weight in the situation based on what they think I will be like, and their preconceptions may be nothing like who I actually am. But if I come into that situation wary of what they’re thinking, then I’m just picking up their baggage, and will spend the rest of the time combating their image of me.

I’ve learned to use it as an educating experience. If I can create a situation where people have a positive encounter with me, then they will approach the next person they encounter that looks like me with a new lens, and they may benefit from my halo. 

In your book, you talk about the different relationships necessary for women in business to succeed. Can you expand on these roles? And, in particular, what advice would you give to women looking for mentors?

In my book “Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success from a Wall Street Vet”, I talk about three different relationships: the mentor, the advisor, and the sponsor.  I define the mentor as someone you can talk with about your strategy, goals, fears, and triumphs. The mentor is the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It is someone who knows you very well, and who is willing to invest time into your success. The advisor is the person you can ask discrete questions from, such as how to succeed or make introductions. The sponsor is someone you tell the good. This person must be in your organization, unlike your mentor, because he/she must have the power and the juice to get what you need done, whether it’s a promotion or a new opportunity. You cannot ascend in any organization without a sponsor.

Your mentor does not need to look like you or be in your business industry. But, he/she does need to understand your context, which means it is likely that your mentors will change or you will have more mentors over time. A mentor can only be helpful if you are willing to be honest with him/her and with yourself.

I think the way that you identify a mentor is through the natural course of how you build relationships.  Many of my mentors happen to be my peers.  They were friends of mine who always cheered me on, who always wanted me to do well, but who would also always tell me when I was doing something wrong.  You should use the same tools when trying to find a mentor as you use when identifying a really good friend whom you trust.  However, the difference between the two is the mentor needs to understand the context in which you’re working.  He/she has to be cognizant of what you’re dealing with in your environment.  So you might have one person who knows your content well and can help you with what exactly you’re doing; and there might be another person who is sort of your kick-in-the-butt person, who keeps you motivated and working hard.

Sometimes, some of the women I work with ask me, “what if I can’t do anything for my sponsor or mentor right now?”  I tell them that a relationship does not always have to be reciprocal and a win-win for both parties at all times.  Right now, maybe you are just on the taking end, but there will come a time when you’ll be able to give back to that person, or you’ll be able to give back to someone else.  Either way, the balance is created in that relationship.  Even if you’re not giving back directly to your mentor, that’s Ok!  What I say to some of my mentees is, “you don’t have to help me or give back to me, but be there to help someone else when they need you, just as I was there for you when you needed me.”

As a leader, how do you build motivated teams?

Good leaders are efficient, and great leaders are decisive, engaging, responsive and responsible. Your people need to know what they are playing for. They need to know how they can be successful in the seat they are in, working for you. For example, as a leader I can give clear directions, but I also give my team a couple of kernels on how to take an A to an A plus. I am also willing to be wrong in front of the people I am working with, because I want them to see that it is okay to be wrong.  I want them to know it’s okay to contribute that half-baked or crazy idea, because that might be the one that leads us to the best idea, or maybe the one we end up going with. Fear is not a part of my culture, and I don’t want people to be afraid of me.

How do you go about building and maintaining a culture of values within your team? 

First of all, in terms of maintaining culture, you have to live it every day.  I think you have to think about the kind of organization you want.  For example, you must ask yourself, “Do I want it to be an open organization?  Do I want people to feel comfortable taking risks?  How do I want to underscore that it’s okay to take a risk and be wrong?”  Whatever it is you want to define as the culture of your team, you have to think about that up front, you have to articulate it, and then you have to reinforce it through your behavior.  How do you keep it from eroding?  When you see something counter to what you would like to see, you have to arrest it right there.  You can’t let it go the first or second time, because by the time it happens the third time, it is now a part of the culture; it has definitely impaired the original vision.

I think you can also have a culture within a culture.  What I mean by that is, for example, the Morgan Stanley that I started with was a much different Morgan Stanley than it is today.  Obviously, whenever you have leadership changes, you’re going to generally have some impact in the culture unless the leaders have all come from the inside and have been indoctrinated in the same thoughts.  In our case, the leadership kept changing through mergers with other countries, so clearly, there was some change in culture.  However, you can still have a culture within a culture, because if there are still enough people who were carrying the old culture, their mode of behavior towards people who are junior to them will still be prevalent.  You can mentor people the same way, and you can teach them some of the same old values, as long as there is a mix.  But once there starts to be more people from the outside coming in, who don’t necessarily share the same values as the original creators of culture, that’s when you’re going to have a shift.

Finance is an extremely demanding industry. How do you integrate your work and personal life?

Part of transparency is also authenticity. Part of being authentic is choosing a working environment or a job that lets you be you. It may not be the natural part of you, but you need to pick a seat where you can bring all of who you are to the table. I chose a firm that lets me do that. For example, I can come in to Morgan Stanley one day as ‘Carla the singer,’ and when it’s time to be social, I become ‘Carla the party person, and same for  ‘Carla the spiritual warrior’ when necessary. When there is a deal that is not going well, I will skip lunch and tell my team that I am going to Mass to pray about it. I think you enhance yourself in any environment by bringing all of yourself to the table. You can’t suppress all the unique things that make you, because that is your competitive advantage. Being you is something you do best; better than anyone else, as much as they might try. 

What are you passionate about?

I am still trying and working towards one day being a Grammy award-winning singer. I did not anticipate the way my voice would be used. I thought it would be as a singer, but I think over the past 5 years, it has been mostly used as a speaker, and I love it. I love passing down the things I have learned to other people, to give them the tools to get through the barriers, and give them the confidence that there is no obstacle out there that you can’t get around. I want to be that person who has credibility, so that when I tell people they can do it, they will believe me.

I want to help people acquire the tools that I have developed, and the tools that I wish I had when I started.  Sometimes you just need to know that you’re not the only one that this is happening to.  You’re not the only one who has gone through this.  If someone else has gone through it, you have to think, “Ok, I’m not crazy! This is the way it goes. I’ll be able to manage, because I saw someone else manage.”  I’m also passionate about the different boards I sit on.

You sit on eight boards. Why was it important for you to be a part of these organizations?

I am very aware of the fact that I am standing on somebody else’s shoulders. There are people that I knew, and people that I don’t know, that helped me get to where I am, and I need to be able to pay it forward. As a banker, I also have a number of assets, not just financial, but also experience in managing, recruiting, making a good business plan, writing, speaking etc., and I can bring all these assets to the table to help these non-profits. I am passionate about children’s education, and SEO helped me get to where I am, so I sit on the board of A Better Chance. The Apollo Theater Foundation board appeals to my love for singing and the arts. When my mom passed away, and as I get older, I have gotten nutty about healthcare. Then, there are also hunger issues. When I first encountered someone from the board for hunger, I was told that they wanted to work themselves out of a job in the next 5 years, so that New York wouldn’t need a food bank anymore. Of course, we failed. Last year alone, New York handed out 70 million pounds of food to hungry New Yorkers. I just think being able to eat is an inalienable right.

What would you tell the twenty-two-year-old Carla graduating Harvard today?

Knowing what I know now about taking risks and about how long life’s runway really is, if I could do it all over again, I would have probably taken a year or two off after college before thinking about graduate school or a career. I would have used that time to do something in musical theater.  But in my generation, having the type-A personality that I do, I realized that once I had momentum and was on a roll, I just kept going.  I didn’t think there was a high probability that I was going to become a touring concert artist, so it really never was an either/or decision.  But, if someone gave me the offer now to tour for a year and see if I could blow up my album, it wouldn’t be an either/or decision again – I would take that risk.

How would your husband describe you as a leader?

I think he would say I’m driven, fair, thoughtful, and that I care about my people – almost to a fault.



Carla Harris is Vice Chairman, Global Wealth Management, Managing Director and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley.  She is responsible for increasing client connectivity and penetration to enhance revenue generation across the firm. She formerly headed the Emerging Manager Platform, the equity capital markets effort for the consumer and retail industries and was responsible for Equity Private Placements.  Harris has extensive industry experiences in the technology, media, retail, telecommunications, transportation, industrial, and healthcare sectors. In  August 2013, Carla Harris was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council.

For more than a decade, Harris was a senior member of the equity syndicate desk and executed such transactions as initial public offerings for UPS, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Ariba, Redback, the General Motors sub-IPO of Delphi Automotive, and the $3.2 Billion common stock transaction for Immunex Corporation, one of the largest biotechnology common stock transaction in U.S. history.  Harris was recently named to Fortune Magazine’s list of “The 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America”, U. S. Bankers Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance (2009, 2010, 2011), Black Enterprise’s Top 75 Most Powerful Women in Business (2010), to Black Enterprise Magazine’s “Top 75 African Americans on Wall Street” (2006 – 2011), and to Essence Magazine’s list of “The 50 Women Who are Shaping the World”, Ebony’s list of “15 Corporate Women at the Top” and was named “Woman of the Year 2004” by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.

Harris began her career with Morgan Stanley in the Mergers & Acquisitions department in 1987.  Prior to joining Morgan Stanley, Carla received from Harvard Business School an MBA, Second Year Honors and an AB in economics from Harvard University, Magna Cum Laude.  Carla has also received Honorary Doctorates of laws, humanities and business from Marymount Manhattan College, Bloomfield College, Jacksonville University, Simmons College and the College of New Rochelle respectively. Carla Harris is actively involved in her community and heartily believes that “we are blessed so that we can be a blessing to someone else.”

She is the Chair of the Board of the Morgan Stanley Foundation and sits on the boards of the Food Bank for NYC, The Executive Leadership Council, The Toigo Foundation, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), A Better Chance, Inc., The Apollo Theatre Foundation, Mt. Sinai Hospital, Xavier University, and is an active member of the St. Charles Gospelites of the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and the Mark Howell Singers.  Harris is co-chair of the National Social Action Commission of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated and was a member of the Board of Overseers’ Committee on University Resources, Harvard University. She has received the Bert King Award from the Harvard Business School African American Alumni Association, the 2005 Women’s Professional Achievement Award from Harvard University, the Pierre Toussaint Medallion from the Office of Black Ministry of the Archdiocese of New York, the Women of Power Award given by the National Urban League, the Women of Influence Award from The Links, Incorporated and many other awards.  In her other life, Carla is a singer, and has released her third gospel CD “Unceasing Praise” (2011) , her second CD, a gospel album entitled, “Joy Is Waiting”, was featured on BET Nightly News while her first CD entitled, “Carla’s First Christmas”, was a bestseller on in New York and in record stores, and was featured on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather in his “American Dream” segment.  She is also the author of the newly released book, Expect to Win (Hudson Press).


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