CIO Leadership: Morgan Stanley Vice Chairman Carla Harris Stands Up for Trust, Diversity and Character to Lead Powerfully in Turbulent Times

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Racial injustice, political unrest, socioeconomic imbalance, global pandemic — the past seven months have been met by a series of massive disruptions to industries and communities throughout the country and around the world. Hands have joined together to march through the streets advocating that Black Lives Matter, over 85 million Americans have acted on their right to vote early in the presidential election, healthcare and technology have been accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The world is reacting with vigor to the adversity whose effects are being brought to the surface like never before.

It is no stretch to say these are turbulent times. Staying ahead of the changing world and managing to carry forward with transformation means expecting and strategizing to win, according to Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Global Wealth Management and Senior Client Advisor, Morgan Stanley

Harris was the closing keynote speaker at the 2020 HMG Live! Greenwich CIO Executive Leadership Summit on October 22. She defined her winning strategies by their foundations in authentic leadership, trust, diversity and more.

Harris emphasized the need to lead with these powerful goals as the world wrestles with this wave of uncertainty right now. People are craving signs of stability, power and certainty as they navigate the unknown, she said. The true core of today’s culture of change, however, goes beyond the effects of these last seven months.

“It’s not the global pandemic or the social unrest on the back of racial inequity that’s driving the need for change,” Harris said. “What’s really driving the need for change is the fact that Millennials and Gen Z are quickly becoming the dominant population in the workforce, and they demand transparency, inclusivity and feedback.”

Harris explained that many Gen X or Baby Boomers in the workforce were trained early to believe in keeping their heads down and working hard. The old way of leadership meant simply holding onto a job defined success, she said, but a powerful, impactful and influential leader today needs to walk the extra mile.

“What kind of leader do you need to be in order to be seen as somebody who can lead during turbulent times?” Harris asked.

Her key is fostering intentionality with regard to a set of specific leadership goals. She referred to these as her “pearls of wisdom.”


First and foremost, Harris urged that individual authenticity is the most organic and most powerful competitive edge a leader can leverage.

“The last thing any of us should ever do is to subvert that which is uniquely you,” Harris said.

In these recent times since the global pandemic has accelerated the work from home environment, Harris said personal and professional lives have melded together. Being genuine as a leader and fostering a culture of candidness can keep teams motivated and inspired to deliver. This authenticity relies on three components.

“At a minimum, you must be transparent, you must be visible, and you must be empathetic,” she said.

Building Trust

“Trust and authenticity go hand-in-hand,” Harris said. “The easiest way to penetrate a relationship is to bring your authentic self and bring trust.”

Building on the authenticity element, establishing trust requires more than empathy. Trust requires intentional effort and courage. For example, Harris spoke about encouraging the fail fast, fail often model. Reassuring the positive benefits of such growth takes serious leadership mettle, considering the negative connotations of failure.

“It takes courage to teach people how to fail, when they are deathly afraid of failure,” Harris said. “It takes courage to build trust and engage enough with people.”

Creating Leaders

“If you choose to sit in the leadership seat today, you must be disproportionately focused on creating other leaders,” Harris said. “That is how you amplify your impact in your organization.”

Executing on this mantra is mutually beneficial to the leader and their team, she said. It establishes the workforce of the future but also relinquishes control and combats micromanagement, fostering better thought and productivity in the middle-leadership range.

“You may have been an outstanding individual leader, but leadership is a journey from execution to empowerment,” Harris said.

For example, she credits her CEO with only personally pursuing goals that are specific to his role. In order to build and develop tomorrow’s leaders, leave the unique responsibilities of each team up to that team. This frees up a leader to look ahead with their own career trajectory.

“You can’t get to second base with one foot still on first.”

Creating Clarity

Failing to define success as a leader creates frustration across the entire ecosystem. Harris said this lack of standards leaves leaders wishing for more from their teams and leaves their teams uncertain on how to achieve and deliver.

“If you can define what success looks like, you can maximize productivity in any environment,” she said.

This becomes especially important in today’s world, where the path to innovation changes so quickly, technologists can find themselves headed in the wrong direction. Use this opportunity to teach teams how to fail fast and take the learnings from each project to improve going forward.

“As a powerful leader, it is your job to be intentional about creating clarity, even when you cannot see.”


Another priority that members of the C-suite should focus on is assigning intentionality to diversity, said Harris. Everyone is vulnerable to unconscious bias, she argued, so diversity does not just happen naturally.

“If you don’t have diverse thinking, you will have gaps in your go-to-market strategy, and it will expose you unnecessarily to competitive threats,” Harris said.

Obtaining and retaining a leadership position requires a strong commitment to innovation, she said, and innovation is born from ideas.

“If you need a lot of ideas in the room, you need a lot of perspectives and experiences in the room. Experiences are born from people. Start by having a lot of different people to achieve that one innovative idea.”

What’s more, diversity is quickly becoming the bedrock for future talent acquisition and new definition of corporate excellence. Gone are the days where opportunity, career trajectory and compensation are the sole motivators for new hires. Harris said lack of diversity compromises an organization’s ability to be the employer of choice.

“Millennials care if the organization they are joining align with their values,” she said. “If they don’t see their definition of excellence, they’re not coming.”

Listen to more of the cutting-edge leadership strategies Harris shared by watching the On-Demand version of the 2020 HMG Live! Greenwich CIO Executive Leadership Summit on the HMG Strategy YouTube page.

To learn more about HMG Live! CIO and CISO Summits and to register for upcoming events, click here.

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