Unstoppable: Carla Harris' Leadership Tools for Unprecedented Times

Unstoppable: Carla Harris’ Leadership Tools for Unprecedented Times

Carla Harris (Photo courtesy of Morgan Stanley)

It’s been said that crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Carla Harris, Vice Chair, Wealth Management and a senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, takes it a step further. In an exclusive interview with Black Enterprise, she notes that crisis creates openings for everyone to tap into the leader within.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented time when “everyone should step up to lead, no matter your title or seat,” she said.

Leadership is not about telling people what to do or being in charge. It’s not about being “The Boss.”

“It’s about getting things done and driving an effort,” Harris says. You can have “chief” as a title, but you can also lead when you haven’t been given the title. “Do it anyway,” Harris continues. Use this time to build those muscles and skills, aware that given how quickly things are changing in business right now, you may find yourself in an unexpected seat of power.

“Folks of color and women in particular often get their opportunities to lead during crisis,” she notes.

Leadership in this uncertain time, demands certain tenets more than ever. Harris, who is working on a third book of her pearls of wisdom while she shelters in place (her first two are “Strategize to Win” and “Expect to Win”), offers this advice on leading now, when it matters so much:

Be Visible. It sounds obvious. Leadership is typically synonymous with heightened visibility. But being visible is easy when everyone’s winning and cheering and fine. In times of crisis, there’s an initial natural tendency—even within seasoned leaders—to want to shrink, hang back, or even cut and run. But there is no more critical time for leaders to step up than when there’s great challenge and uncertainty. The more acute the difficulty, the more acute the need is for an ever present steadiness at the top. “Leaders must step forward to be seen and heard,” Harris says. “People are looking for a voice that will give them some type of assuredness, they have to see you in order to feel that.”

Be Transparent. “You don’t have to have all the answers,” Harris says. No one expects you to, but they do expect to understand your process for arriving at answers and a direction in which to go forward. So be forthright about what you know and what you don’t, what you need help with, and who you’re inviting to the table to offer it. Own your doubts, but overlay them with optimism. Invite questions and honest feedback. “We’ve not seen this [kind of crisis] before, but if you are in a position of leadership, you do have access to info that not a lot of people know.” Sharing what you can helps empower others.

Be Empathetic There are some whose lives have not been directly impacted by the virus itself, but having a heart for those who have is critical. “Now is not the time to say I’m superwoman and that’s not my kryptonite,” Harris says. “Now is the time to say, I know what you’re feeling and I feel it too.” It’s a time to offer all the comfort and support you can. Leadership is not just about what you say, you must also listen to others and be prepared to step up to be helpful in innovative ways.

Above all, it’s critical that leaders offer reassurance, no matter how unsettling the times. There’s a lot we don’t know, Harris acknowledges, but “I know this will pass,” she said. Recalling the numerous hits she’s seen the stock market take during her three decades on Wall Street, she recalled that every devastation to the market was followed by a rebound that led to new market highs.

“The market is resilient,” Harris says, and we must be too. Whether you’re a senior graduating from school, or a senior citizen, whether you’ve been furloughed or you’re working the frontlines of this pandemic, putting yourself at risk every day, “Hope and change are two very sure things that are on the other side of this,” Harris says, and the opening exists for every one to reimagine both an individual and collective future in which leadership is redefined and more broadly distributed and acknowledged.

“Whenever the rule books are being rewritten, there’s the time for you to put your personal imprimatur on it,” Harris says. “Set out the goals that you want to achieve and set out your own timelines that would exist if this framework wasn’t in place. Do not spend time on the thing that you cannot see and you cannot predict.”

Watch Carla Harris share her leadership tips on “On The Clock With Caroline Clarke” below.