Carla A. Harris: An Inspiration for All Women With Big Dreams

Carla Harris speaks about her career and passions and offers advice for those who want to pursue leadership opportunities.
Featured Image Carla Harris Profile

Carla Harris Headshot Photo
Carla A. Harris; photo by Regina Fleming

Does the TED Talk titled “How to find the person who can help you get ahead at work” sound familiar? This video has over 4 million views and the speaker is none other than the phenomenal Carla A. Harris, who is known as an expert in leadership and change. Harris will be the closing keynote speaker at this year’s Indiana Conference for Women, taking place in Indianapolis on Nov. 1.   

Harris is a successful businesswoman, public speaker, author, singer, wife, mother of two — and so much more. 

Let’s do a quick rundown of some of the amazing things Carla Harris has accomplished so far.  

She is currently a senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley. She has been named by Fortune Magazine as one of the “50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America.” U. S. Bankers named her one of the “Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance.” She made Black Enterprise’s list of the “Top 75 Most Powerful Women in Business,” is on Essence magazine’s list of “The 50 Women Who Are Shaping the World,” and in 2013, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council. 

Talk about a trailblazing woman who is making things happen.  

ICFW Logo Carla HarrisThroughout Harris’ career journey she has worked and collaborated with many leaders and has had the chance to understand what outstanding leadership looks like and where there is room for improvement. 

The COVID-19 pandemic caused so much uncertainty, and it was during this time that Harris was being called on to answer questions like, “How do I lead in this moment? How do I speak about things that we haven’t spoken about in our environment, and how do I make sure that I am available and seen as inclusive for all of my people, given the environment that we’re in?” 

It was in that moment that Carla realized that all of her experiences had left her with practical advice that she could use to inspire other leaders. Harris did not aspire to write leadership books, but when she leaned into her talents and experience, she knew that she had information to share that would add value to organizations and leaders.  

Keeping that in mind has not only inspired her but led her to be more intentional about helping others.  

Can you tell us a little bit about your books? Who would you say your target audience is and what do you hope your readers gain?  

The first book is “Expect to Win,” and I like to call it my book of my basic pearls. These are the pearls around how you maximize your success and the seat that you’re sitting in, or the seat that you aspire to sit in. Frankly, these are the things that I didn’t know and they ended up making all the difference in my success.  

The second book, “Strategize to Win,” is all about how do you get to the job that you think you really want. Many of us take a job to get a job when we’re coming out of graduate school or coming out of college, or we take a job that everybody else seems to be going towards. We haven’t taken the time to figure out what we really want. In the first few chapters, there is advice for how you figure out what it is you really want to do. Tips to position yourself for that job, and how you get it. I later talk a little bit about some other pearls that I didn’t include in the first book, like performance currency and relationship currency. In the last part of the book, I talk about how you position yourself for something else.  

This last book, “Lead to Win,” is targeting people who are currently sitting in the leadership seat, but also for those who are ascending to the leadership seat. If you’re an entrepreneur in an early-stage company or building a company, this book tackles how you can lead in that context. Even if you are just starting out in your career, but you want to be seen as a leader, there are some pearls in there for you as well. This book is targeting leadership and how you effectively lead.  

I want my readers to walk away with concrete, prescriptive pearls that they can execute immediately. 

Throughout your career, you have accomplished so much. Is there a piece of advice that you received that stays in the back of your mind or motivates you through different projects? 

When I was a third-year associate, I had another senior woman say to me, “You know, Carla, your problem is you’re so quick to admit if you don’t know something. And that’s not a good thing, because people pay us for our judgment, and they want to know that you know what you’re talking about.” I didn’t think there was any shame in that game, in saying that I didn’t know something. I felt like I knew a lot, but I thought it was a measure of confidence to be able to admit if I didn’t know something. It didn’t sit well with me, and she said, “Let me give you a piece of advice. Do it like the boys do it: frequently wrong, but never in doubt.” 

It didn’t authentically sit well with me, but I did figure out a way to hold that advice. Moving forward, if someone asks me something, I’ll say, “I believe the answer is A, B, and C, but you know what, let me double check that to be sure and I’ll come back to you.” So, I’ve delivered, I’ve delivered with confidence, and I’ve left myself room to go back and research. What I found in deploying that advice is that nobody cared whether you were a hundred percent right the first time, but the fact that I closed the loop with the right answer was all that mattered.  

What advice do you have for women in leadership roles or those who aspire to lead? 

This is a unique time for women to really step into their role as leaders. We all have a blank sheet of paper and opportunity right now, because nobody has the playbook on the other side of a global pandemic. None of us have ever lived on the other side of a global pandemic. So, nobody can tell you what to do or how it goes. Please don’t take this moment for granted. Don’t blow this moment and allow yourself to be dictated to when you have the opportunity to design a path for yourself 

What advice do you have for women of color in leadership roles, or aspiring leaders who feel stuck and unseen? 

Own your power! We unconsciously give away our power, and we don’t even know when we’re doing it. One example of giving away your power is to think that you are stuck. You know, there is always a choice, there is always an alternative. The question is whether or not you have the courage to pull the trigger on a decision. Pulling the trigger might be giving yourself two hours to figure out what you want to do next. It might be going up to someone and saying, I deserve this opportunity, so help me understand why I’m not getting it. It may be leaving the role that you’re in and going for that dream job you want but think you may not get for all the reasons that you have created in your mind. In my case, it was becoming a mother seven years ago. I have a seven-year-old and a two-year-old, but I knew for sure that if I didn’t become a mother before I left this earth, that it would be the one regret I was going to have and I was not willing to have that regret.  

For fun, as a singer, if there were one artist that you could ever collaborate with on a song, who would that be?  

Aretha Franklin and it would be a new song. I also love to sing with my kids and they both have incredible voices. I have always loved singing and I’ve been singing ever since I was about nine years old. Funny enough, it all started with a talent show at school. 

Jalysa King is Indy Maven’s Sales Maven as well as a freelance writer in Indianapolis who loves all things healthcare, education, and storytelling. 

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