Finding–and becoming–great mentors and sponsors with Carla Harris (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
Finding–and becoming–great mentors and sponsors with Carla Harris
January 10, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. Today's guest is Carla Harris, an unusually dynamic leader and provocative thinker.

She's been Vice Chair of Wealth at Morgan Stanley, been named one of the most powerful Black executives in America, and was appointed to chair the National Women's Business Council by President Obama. On tour for her new book, Lead to Win, Carla came to the Authors@Wharton series to talk about mentorship careers and advocating for ourselves, and you are in for a treat.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Carla Harris to Authors@Wharton.


[00:00:48] Carla Harris:
Thank you.

[00:00:55] Adam Grant:
So take us back to that stage. What was it like when you were a business school student? What were your goals, fears, dreams, hopes?

[00:01:02] Carla Harris:
By then I had figured out that I really wanted to be an investment banker. The summer after my sophomore year in college, I was exposed to—my very first time—to Wall Street through the SEO program, which still exists today, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.

And I didn't know anything about Wall Street, but I am negatively motivated. So when you tell me I can't do something, I'm all over it, like a bad smell. And you know, everybody said, “Oh, Wall Street is so difficult.” And I have to tell you, Adam, I was exhilarated by it. One, because I'd never done it before. Two, because I realized that it, it wasn't that difficult.

You needed some analytical skills and some quantitative skills, but the thing that pushed me over the edge is that I did not see a lot of people who looked like me, and I couldn't figure out why. And that made it even more interesting to pursue. The reason I wanted to be a lawyer was because, you know, I thought I could call the shots. I thought I could have a certain lifestyle. I could have a lot of responsibility very early on. And that was the summer that I realized that the lawyers didn't call the shots. The business people did, but the lawyers helped you get it done within the context of the law. ‘Cause there I was at 19 now doing analysis from which people were making decisions to issue, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds based on my work.

And oh, by the way, they give you remuneration that could give you a certain lifestyle. So that really sort of piqued my interest. Didn't do it right out of undergrad. Went back to Harvard Business School and said, “This is what I wanna do.” And by then I had narrowed down the firms; Morgan Stanley was the place I wanted to do it because of all the firms I met during the summer, my SEO summer, it was the place where I felt like I could really be me. And that was important because where you can really be you is where you're going to have an opportunity for long-term success. And I figured that I could be Carla there, and I've made my way.

[00:02:45] Adam Grant:
How did you figure that out? Did you just wear those shoes? You see how people reacted?

[00:02:48] Carla Harris:
No, I'll tell you, the SEO program is just wonderful because it gives you an opportunity to go to each of the banks that are participating in the program. And when I went to the Morgan Stanley cocktail party, it was a real aha moment because everybody I talked to was a little bit different than the last person I talked to. So even in my naive 19-year-old mind, I said, “Hm, there’s a lot of different equations that equal success. Surely there'll be one for me.” That's why I made that choice.

[00:03:19] Adam Grant:
Wow. You're in a situation where, like you said, you don't have a lot of direct role models. What knowledge and skills did you have to pick up that were tacit, that nobody taught you?

[00:03:28] Carla Harris:
I really did buy this whole concept of a meritocracy. Every single company that came to Harvard Business School sold a meritocracy. You can go straight to the top. All you have to do is be smart and work really hard. And I thought, “I got that. I'm, I'm pretty smart.” You can't outwork Carla Harris even today.

You cannot outwork Carla Harris, but that combination did not equal maximizing my success. So the hard part was figuring out, well, what were the other components of the success equation? And that's what I wrote about in the first book, Expect to Win. Your authenticity. The fact that you can't do it alone.

You need a mentor, and you need a sponsor. You also need to have a penchant for taking risks. You need to be able to accelerate and articulate your voice. You can't sit there and just assume people know that you're smart. Those were lessons that nobody told me about, but they make all the difference in maximizing your success.

[00:04:21] Adam Grant:
So I'd love to talk a little bit about mentorship and sponsorship, how to get it.

[00:04:25] Carla Harris:

[00:04:25] Adam Grant:
I imagine you looked up the hierarchy, you saw a lot of people who looked like me. Um, maybe older, but no balder . And how did you, how did you attract mentors? How did you bring sponsors on board?

[00:04:36] Carla Harris:

[00:04:36] Adam Grant:
What did you learn there?

[00:04:36] Carla Harris:
Well, somebody has to be in the room carrying your paper because all of the important decisions about your career are made in a room where you're not present. Your compensation is decided in a room where you're not present, your promotions are decided in a room where you are not present, and new assignments are given out in a room where you are not present.

So somebody has to carry your paper and use their currency on your behalf. Now, let's talk about how you get one. Here's what I tell people as they're entering into their jobs. Study your organization for two weeks, and you want to note the people who have a seat at the decision-making table. And if you can't figure that out, ask someone.

It's just that easy. Number two, so that person needs to have some visibility into your work. You also need to make sure that you note the toxic people in your environment because you need to learn how to manage them as well. Now, once you've figured out who has a seat at the table, who has visibility in your work, pick two or three of those people from that list and start to build a relationship with them.

And building a relationship is just frequency of touch. In a professional environment, people start to build relationships, and they think they know you. Now I'll think about ways that I can interact with them. Well, I make sure that I'm in at 7:15, so when she comes in, she has no choice but to say good morning.

And maybe I strike up a conversation in the elevator. I'm going down to get a Starbucks at 2:30. I say, “Hey, I got to have one right here. Can I get you one how you like it?” And the next week I do it again. Right? So it's just those light touches and you'd be surprised how quickly, uh, an impression is formed. So when you are not in the room and somebody says, “Carla Harris, who?” I say, “Yeah, yeah, good gal. I talk to her all the time.” Right? That's how it happens.

[00:06:17] Adam Grant:
You make it sound so easy.

[00:06:18] Carla Harris:
It’s much easier than you think. I used to think it was difficult as well, but I started realizing even as a sponsor of people in the room, that when someone's name would come up, if nobody else would say anything, and I knew that person, even just a little, I would say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Good guy. See, he's really smart. Carries himself well.” And if there's no other data in the room, my data carries.

[00:06:42] Adam Grant:
Oftentimes though, when you're a junior at the bottom of an organization, you don't have access to the people in power. And so what are you doing? Are you working your way up through levels of management, or are you finding a backdoor?

[00:06:52] Carla Harris:
So here's the deal. In most organizations, you hear senior people say, “Oh, I have an open-door policy.” Take 'em up on it. Senior people want access to junior people, but they are just as afraid of you as you are of them. They don't know how to interact with the junior folks, so make it easy for them by saying something.

I used to work for Vikram Pandit. Was he… He was at Morgan Stanley and he would come up to you all the time and say, “What’s going on? What are you doing?” And, and the first couple times I was like, “Uh, alright.” But every time after that, I knew. I was always prepared with an answer and I used to play the game with myself.

Suppose I'd get stuck in the elevator with John Mack. What am I gonna say? So it doesn't take that much to be ready. Here's the other thing, don't forget the great gatekeepers in any organization: the executive assistants. I can't tell you Adam, how many times I've wanted access to a senior person, and I would say to the assistant, “Oh, you know, I really need to see him.”

And because I had been respectful and we had built a relationship, she said, “Well, I got the calendar. He's going to the bathroom at 10:23, be in the hall.” Right? But you'd be surprised. You have more access than you think, and don't overlook those, you know, town halls. They're dying to get questions. Raise your hand. “I am so-and-so. I work in so-and-so department. My question is x”. She's gonna remember. It's much easier than you think to have access.

[00:08:19] Adam Grant:
One of the things that a lot of people feel pressure to have the answers, and giving an answer makes you look smart. But one of our alums, Alison Wood Brooks, published some fascinating research showing that if you ask a thoughtful question, you come across as both smart and likable.

And so you don't have to have the expertise, right? You just have to ask something that makes the senior person feel like, “Oh, well that person just made me have a brilliant thought. I really like that person now.” And they were smart in setting it up. What kinds of questions do you recommend asking?

[00:08:46] Carla Harris:
Yes. It depends on the context, right? And one of the things that I say to people when you're going into a conference room, and it's gonna be a group meeting, think like an owner. If I were running the meeting, what would I be thinking about? Do I understand what was just said? Can you repeat that again? So those kinds of things show that you're listening and that you're engaged, and those things also ascribe value to your person in that room. So she's absolutely right. The perception that you are engaged and you care about what's happening, that's what a question in the room will do for you.

[00:09:20] Adam Grant:
So on the flip side of this, you spend a lot of time trying to get people to be sponsors and mentors, and I feel like I see a lot of senior executives who are on board with mentoring; they know they have to develop their junior people, build a pipeline of leaders.

Sponsorship seems to be much rarer, and I'm always puzzled by this. What I, what I constantly find myself saying to CEOs is this is, this is actually a lot less work. All you have to do is be an advocate for this person when they're not in the room. Um, surely you have some ways of closing that gap. Tell us that.

[00:09:48] Carla Harris:
Absolutely. Well, here's the real reason that you see so much reticence is that they are afraid. What happens if they don't get it done? How will the sponsoree look at them? So what I say to them is, the sponsoree is not holding you personally accountable for getting it done, because they know that a lot happens in that room.

But what they care about is that you're going into that room with your best effort to try to get it done for them. If it is not done, here's what we are going to do over the next 12 months to make sure that that does not happen next year. Will they be disappointed? Absolutely. But I think we got a shot next year, so let's go back in the ring. Especially if it's somebody that you want to retain.

[00:10:33] Adam Grant:
So compelling. The other, the other fear I hear regularly is “What if sponsoring you makes me look bad?” I tell everyone Carla Harris is a genius, and then they come to believe that you're a moron. And it ruins, it ruins my reputation.

[00:10:48] Carla Harris:

[00:10:49] Adam Grant:
How do you debug that one?

[00:10:49] Carla Harris:
But here's the deal. When you’re taking on sponsoring someone, you need to feel comfortable that you know that person. So if you've made the decision to sponsor somebody, they're not gonna make you look like a moron. And here's the other issue: everybody makes a mistake. So if you have sponsored someone and a year later they turned out to be that moron, that can't scare you off of using your currency to help another leader.

If you wanna have an organization that's going to have a legacy of leadership when you leave the leadership seat, you must invest, and you must invest now because it's the future of the organization.

[00:11:26] Adam Grant:
I, it’s funny because when I hear that, one of the ways I wanna push back is to say, “Well, that, that actually is a sign to me you're not sponsoring enough people.” Right? But if you think that one is gonna ruin your reputation, then you're not doing a lot of sponsorship in the first place.

[00:11:36] Carla Harris:
Yeah. Well, it's hard to sponsor 20 or 30 people. Usually, in any given year, you can sponsor two or three. Now you can mentor more than that. The mentor is the person you tell the good, the bad, and the ugly to. This is the person that you can share the intimate details of your career with: your fears, your concerns, your mistakes, your triumphs. The sponsor, as I said, is the person that's carrying your paper. You want them focused on the good, the good, and the good.

So it's very different. I mentor more people than I sponsor in any given year. Now after 35 years, I have a lot more currency, and I will spend it because here's the other thing that I've learned. The way to grow your power is to give it away. So the more I spend it, and the more I can position myself as a kingmaker or a queenmaker, the more powerful I will become.

If you don't buy my intellectual arguments for sponsoring, then take the selfish one, and the selfish one is think of yourself as the kingmaker or the queenmaker.

[00:12:33] Adam Grant:
Good. There are a few that I wanna unpack a little bit. Let's start with the idea that you mentioned of, of giving your power away. What does that look like?

[00:12:39] Carla Harris:
Yes. That means not always controlling exactly the way things ought to happen, or in fact what, what should happen. You should also make sure that you are empowering people on your team to say, “You handle this.” Or, “This is a room full of senior people, they need to see how smart you are. Why don't you give the presentation, or why don't you call the client and set up the meeting?” So it's putting your people in the right light so that people can see how smart they are or how great they are in terms of execution and really giving them that constant feedback. And if you wanna retain your best people, it's gonna be one-on-one combat.

No longer can you go in the corner office in the ivory tower and not engage. You have to be intentional, and you must be intentional around authenticity. You must be intentional around building trust, and people need to trust you in order to follow you into that uncertain environment. And then finally, you must be willing to call a thing a thing.

[00:13:34] Adam Grant:
Authenticity. I see a lot of people misunderstand authenticity as being unfiltered.

[00:13:39] Carla Harris:

[00:13:39] Adam Grant:
Uh, they take it as an excuse to just say whatever is on their mind. That's not what you're talking about.

[00:13:44] Carla Harris:
Not at all. And in fact, I see more younger professionals making that mistake. Here's what it means to bring all of you into a room. Number one, know who you are. And if you haven't done that recently, You must do it because there's not a person on the planet that wasn't impacted in some way by the COVID-19 crisis or by witnessing the social unrest on the streets of the United States and frankly around the world on the back of racial inequities. So who are you today?

Number two, understand that we're all multifaceted. Embrace that and embrace all the facets. Now, the third key to bringing all of you into the room: now, you relax. Now you can relax and meet people where they are. You are free to feel the energy in the room and decide which facet of you will connect authentically with the person on the other side of the conversation.

You can feel it, but if you are standing there trying to think, “What do I need to do? What do I need to show? How do I need to show up so they will see that I'm impressive and that I'm smart, or worse, that I'm in charge?” ‘Cause then you gotta tell somebody you're in charge. You're not in charge, right? So you're, you're preoccupied with that, and you are not free to meet people where they are. So that's what being authentic is all about, and that's how you do it.

[00:14:58] Adam Grant:
It sounds like when you help people think about their identity and who they are, you're not interested in necessarily releasing all their thoughts or all their emotions. You want them to be clear about their values.

[00:15:08] Carla Harris:
That’s exactly right.

[00:15:09] Adam Grant:
One of the things we've seen that I think is incredibly unfortunate, empirically, is that it is much easier for me as a white man to call out bias, uh, because I'm not perceived as having skin in the game. Whereas if you do it, people will wonder, are you being nepotistic? Is it self-serving? Are you trying to advantage your group?

Which is absurd. Right? And I, I wish, I wish that evidence didn't. It does. Um, and I know you've lived it. How have you called out bias without getting backlash?

[00:15:37] Carla Harris:
Well, because sometimes I just ask the question in the room, so let me give you an example. Uh, you're sitting around, uh, a conference table and you're talking about summer candidates, and somebody says, “Oh, I don't think Maria ought to get an offer today because, um, you know, I, I'm not sure she has the analytical and quantitative chops for the job.”

Now you say, “Oh really? Tell me more. What did we test that makes you think that she doesn't have the analytical or quantitative chops?” Silence, ‘cause there was no data behind that. It turns out we didn't give her anything to do that summer that showed whether or not she had analytical or quantitative skills.

Now you say, “We didn't test it. Oh well, then we gotta give Maria an offer. We can't just not give her an offer, and we failed to test.” Next, you got an offer, let's go. You have to be willing to use your voice. That's why I said call a thing a thing. Right? Because those feelings come out in a room, and when nobody questions or can debate them, they live and they stand and that's how decisions get made.

[00:16:49] Adam Grant:
Carla, what I find so interesting about that approach is you didn't say, “Hey, I think you're being sexist.”

[00:16:54] Carla Harris:
No, I didn’t. I didn't have to. All I had to do was ask the question. Tell me more, and let's talk about the facts, because that's what bias is all about. It's your feelings, not your facts. Now there's obviously more to bias than that, but I, I've been testing and challenging leaders to say, when you're making a people decision, check yourself and say, “Oh, am I making that decision on fact or feeling?” And sometimes you get in an argument with people about it, but at least you've gotten the argument in the room. And if you are a group of partners and a group of senior people having that conversation, you should be able to challenge each other around that, right? Or there's something else wrong in that culture.

[00:17:34] Adam Grant:
All right. That is a good segue to our lightning round.

[00:17:36] Carla Harris:

[00:17:36] Adam Grant:
Before we go to audience questions. You ready for this?

[00:17:38] Carla Harris:
I’m ready.

[00:17:39] Adam Grant:
Uh, first question.

[00:17:40] Carla Harris:

[00:17:40] Adam Grant:
If you couldn't work at Morgan Stanley, what company would you be most drawn to as a place where you could be you?

[00:17:46] Carla Harris:
Oh, well I'm gonna pick Walmart. Why? ‘Cause I'm on the board of Walmart. I've been there for five years, and I've seen some incredible things about that culture that make me feel I could just walk in there and be Carla and do well.

[00:18:01] Adam Grant:
What was the worst career advice you got early on?

[00:18:04] Carla Harris:
Mm, yeah, I got a lot of that. Um…

[00:18:07] Adam Grant:
We’ll take them all.

[00:18:08] Carla Harris:
The, the worst was, um, I went to talk to somebody about a situation that was going on, and I really needed a script, right? I really needed somebody to tell me what to say, ‘cause I had never had that conversation before. And someone said, “Oh, just go talk to your boss.” That was it. And I was sitting there saying, “Well, what should I say?”

I need something. And to me it was just the worst. And it takes a lot of courage to reach out and say, “I need some help on this one,” and then you got nothing. Right? So I remember thinking to myself, when I'm in the position to give advice, there's nobody that's going to leave my presence without prescriptive advice.

Now, you may choose not to take it, but you're not gonna walk away without a solution, and anybody that I've mentored will tell you that if they come in and say, “I'm gonna have a conversation with so-and-so”, I say, “Okay, here's how he is. He likes it in bullet points, not paragraphs. Here are the four sentences that you need to use.” Boom, boom, boom, boom.

[00:19:05] Adam Grant:
You just anticipated my next question, which is what's your favorite piece of advice to give to undergrads or MBA students?

[00:19:11] Carla Harris:
Yeah, own your power. So often when you're an undergrad or you're, you're graduating MBA, you think, “I’m new. I'm coming in there and I don't know anything.” You know something. That's why they hired you. Don't abdicate your, your energy, your work ethic, your innovation, uh, your creativity, you bringing something to the table. Just because you don't know a particular thing or because you have a really rough experience in that first deal, don’t walk away and think, “Oh, right, it's, it's over and start losing your confidence.” Own your power.

[00:19:43] Adam Grant:
Okay. To potentially contradict that, do you ever worry that our 20-somethings are owning their power too much?

[00:19:50] Carla Harris:
No. I don't worry. And I try to also tell the 20-somethings, know the difference between arrogance and confidence, ‘cause arrogance will take you down.

[00:19:59] Adam Grant:
How would you describe the difference?

[00:20:01] Carla Harris:
Oh, confidence is—not to directly quote the book, but—knowing things that you do not know and that you are confident that you can learn quickly. You're confident that you have a commitment to excellence and you're going to get it right. Arrogance is thinking that you know everything and that nobody can tell you anything. You know, there's not even a fine line between those two, in my view. Yeah.

[00:20:23] Adam Grant:
Great. What is something that you wish Wall Street leaders would understand that they don’t?

[00:20:28] Carla Harris:
Yeah, that, uh, they should leverage their people more. In my opinion, this is across all industries. Many women and people of color leave organizations because they're poorly leveraged.

They have so much more to give, but nobody's ever asked them to give it. Nobody takes advantage of their intellect or their previous experience or their perspective, and it dies on the vine. So I would say to leaders, you know, make sure you take an inventory of all the talent that's in your organization. Before you start thinking about running out and hiring externally, check the folks that are in your house, right?

Because I might have hired you for one specific job, and I never go back and look at your resume and think about all the other four, four or five things that you did, that you came to the table with that I didn't need because I hired you for this one job, but now there are other opportunities and how might I be able to use you?

I've been able to see firms do that. We tried at one point to sort of take that inventory to figure out how to move people around laterally, but I haven't found an organization that's mastered that yet.

[00:21:28] Adam Grant:
Hopefully, one of you will build that organization. Uh, to close out the lightning round. What does the Vice-Chair of Wealth at Morgan Stanley have to say about an impending recession?

[00:21:37] Carla Harris:
I'm a glass-half-full kind of girl, and while I won't debate that we will have a recession of sorts, I don't think that it will be a hard one like I've seen in the past. I think that it'll be a softer one. Now, the thing that can blow my argument up is if we have another big surprise on the geopolitical front that we didn't anticipate, you know, if these midterm elections cause more division and derision than what we've already seen, then it, you know, it certainly could spill over into the economy in a bad way.

[00:22:07] Adam Grant:
Fingers crossed. Okay. We got some amazing audience questions submitted. First one, uh, let's, uh, let's start with how did your friendships change as your career advanced?

[00:22:20] Carla Harris:
I'm very proud of the fact that many of my friendships stayed intact. That was really important to me. I come from Jacksonville, Florida, and I remember going off to Harvard and they, I could see those looks. They thought I wasn't going to come back the same Carla, or that I was, I was going to be removed from them. And it was really important to me, Adam, that that did not happen.

So my network of friends have expanded, but it's still a very tight-knit group of people that, you know, I sort of call my ride-or-die people. Um, so I haven't lost that many friendships from grade school, believe it or not.

[00:22:51] Adam Grant:
That speaks to something that multiple people are curious about. Uh, what was it like to get the call from President Obama? And what did you learn from that experience?

[00:23:00] Carla Harris:
Yes. Well, I'll tell you that the call actually came from Karen Mills, who at that time was the head of the SBA. So she was also an Oba—Obama appointee. And she literally, and this speaks to the power of relationships, we would see each other at women in finance, women leadership conferences all the time.

Remember? Light touches, you build relationships. And she literally called me one afternoon in my office and said, “How would you like to work for this administration?” And I said, “Oh, wow. That could be exciting.” She said, “How would you like my job?” I said, “Ooh, it's missing a zero.” No, but, [laughter] I was like, “I don't think I'm gonna do that.” Right?

And, and, and I said, but I would love to work with this administration. And, and she said, “Well, here’s a role that actually fits everything that you've been about for the last, you know, 25 years.” And she said it's about women. It's about women business owners, about women business leaders. It's a National Women's Business Council.

And it was my first time actually ever doing anything like that in public service. I learned three important lessons. The first one is your ability to get anything done in Washington is directly correlated with how many hands you shake. They talk about Wall Street being a relationship business, nothing like Washington DC and politics.

The second thing that I learned is that the place is a sieve. Every time I went into a meeting, they already knew what had happened in the meeting before and the meeting before.

And then the third thing is that the way you get things done is that you think about the second and third year of an administration because the first year, all the deck chairs are shifting. New appointees, you know, people are coming in and out of the seat. Not a whole lot gets done. The fourth year, people know that you're gonna leave the seat, especially if the incumbent is going to lose. So they're like, “I'm not doing anything ‘cause you'll be gone in a few months.” So the time to get it done is in year two and year three.

[00:24:57] Adam Grant:
Excellent. All right. Next question is, have you found ways to use your identity as a strength, as a woman of color?

[00:25:07] Carla Harris:
Ah, absolutely. If you are the only one that looks like you in the room, you’re the only one that looks like you in the room. It is an asset because if you're the only one in the room, you don't have to vie for attention because everybody's looking at you. That's true. You have an audience and all you have to do is to deliver your excellence right into that opportunity. Here's the thing that I really like: if I even remotely smell that you have low expectations of me because who I am, I like that even more, because the lower your expectations, the more I'm gonna blow you away.

[00:25:44] Adam Grant:
There are a couple questions revolving around the challenges that are, I think upon us right now. So one, one has to do with how do you keep people motivated when they may be burned out? They may be languishing, the pandemic is dragging on, it's sort of becoming endemic, but nobody really knows.

[00:25:59] Carla Harris:
This is what I meant when I said leadership is going to have to be far more engaging. You're gonna have to go person by person with your people to kind of understand where they are and what it's going to take to keep them inspired. And for some people, it may be a rest. Other people, they might need a new challenge or they might need other resources, but you're gonna have to find out what it is because when your people know that you're being responsive, it says you are listening and everybody values being heard, and that draws them in even more to you.

So if your people are tired then you need to understand: what’s the source of the fatigue? Do they have too much to do? Do you need to argue for some greater resources? Or maybe you need to redesign the way you all are doing things so that all of this is not on one person, but it calls for you as the leader to be far more creative and innovative.

And oh, by the way, don't do it in your ivory tower. Put it on the table with the team. “Here's the issue. All of you are tired, but we still need to deliver. I'm at my wit's end to figure out how to do it. Can I get some help? Give me some ideas. How can we deliver what we are responsible for delivering as a department in a way that doesn't wipe everybody out?”

[00:27:13] Adam Grant:
Uh, I'm not gonna name the particular bank, but a few months ago I heard from a former student who said, “We were told that we're required to come back to the office by a senior person who then did not show up at the office, and it turned out he was on a ski trip.” We just went through two and a half years of figuring out that even during a global pandemic, we could make remote and hybrid work work. Why are so many leaders so slow to embrace it, and can you help me get through to them?

[00:27:39] Carla Harris:
Yeah. I gotta tell you, I've been trying to make the same case. Adam and I keep saying we had record years in these last two years, so it's hard to say that everybody needs to be in in order to produce. So we know that. That’s a fact.

And I think that some people have been reticent to just be creative because the answer is not so obvious. They're gonna have to think about how to innovate and how to do it differently. And I think the thing that is really holding a lot of people back was the way that they learned. The way that they were taught.

And so they just cannot see that you can learn at the, at a faster rate or at the same rate if you don't learn like me. I think that is what has been imprisoning if I can use that word. You know a lot of leaders that are sitting in the seat right now and they really have to unlock and say, “Okay, new day, let's try to do it a little bit differently.”

I hear leaders say all the time “You can't learn unless you're in here,” but that's the way we learned. But these folks are learning differently. You know, I used the World Book Encyclopedia. Y'all don't even know what that is, right? Okay. It took me hours and hours and hours to look up, up something and they can do it in seconds.

[00:28:47] Adam Grant:
It's a more expensive Wikipedia.

[00:28:49] Carla Harris:
Yeah. That’s exactly right. They can do it in seconds. So we have to really force ourselves to break out of that mode and think differently. Now, how can I help you get through to leaders? Well, the marketplace is speaking, right? That is what the great resignation is all about. That's what quiet quitting is all about.

And I don't call it the great resignation. I call it the great contemplation because people had two and a half years to sit at home and say, “Do I like my job? Do I like the career trajectory?” And for many people, the answer was no. And they had the courage to make a different decision.

Now some people say, “Oh, they, they had the courage ‘cause they had stimulus money, and they had this, and they had that. All we need is a good recession. Now you'll see.” But I don't think it's going to change the behavior of the folks that are sitting in this room right now. Because they're looking for more out of their careers than what those of us who are boomers walking out 35 years…

We wanted meaning too. We wanted to be able to contribute as well, but I would argue that the money, the position, the power were higher up in the hierarchy of needs than for these folks. And it's not that they don't want money. It's not that they don't want power. It's not that they don't want the ability to influence and contribute to society, but they want it in a certain way and I think we have to be prepared to offer it that way.

[00:30:07] Adam Grant:
You, you touch on quiet quitting, and I'm hearing a lot of discussions about this right now among leaders who are saying, these employees are lazy. They’re not committed. Um, they, they want work-life balance, which to them means just not working enough.

Yeah, and I think about all the evidence on this dating back decades showing that quiet quitting is not new. It's been happening for a long time. It had different names like nailing it in or phoning it in. But what seems to drive it is being stuck in a dead-end job with an abusive boss and being underpaid.

[00:30:37] Carla Harris:

[00:30:38] Adam Grant:
And that's another message that I think a lot of leaders are slow to embrace.

[00:30:41] Carla Harris:

[00:30:41] Adam Grant:
What would you say to those leaders?

[00:30:42] Carla Harris:
Yeah, I, I would say you, you better get on board. And because there isn't a company or an organization that I know that doesn't wanna be considered the employer of choice, and if your people are not willing to stay, it is gonna be so expensive for you to keep bringing people in and training them.

That's gonna impact your bottom line, your profitability. And don't forget this, when people leave your organization, they talk about it. So it's gonna impair your franchise at some point. And, and these folks, unlike us, they actually have a different tool. They have social media, right? So they can also start to impair your brand by their voices and what they say and then saying it online. So you gotta be cognizant of these things that, that are happening.

[00:31:25] Adam Grant:
You mentioned social media. We got some questions about that. Um, I think I talk with a lot of leaders who are afraid. They suddenly realize, “Wow, like I don't have control over what's said about me and my company.” Uh, what are your thoughts on navigating this new world from a leadership perspective?

[00:31:42] Carla Harris:
What I say to leaders is the fact of the matter is people can say anything they wanna say about you anytime anyway that doesn't necessarily have to be true. But you should have exemplary behavior and be consistent in that behavior. So if somebody does say something about you that is not true, it truly is an outlier.

But when you are choosing to wear that leadership jersey, you are making some decisions about how you are going to show up. It is a responsibility that you've said I'm gonna take on. I want this seat, I want this power, I want this money, and everything else that comes with it. Well, guess what? That means you are making a commitment around your behavior. That's real.

[00:32:21] Adam Grant:
It is. Well, speaking of real, okay, so I have to ask you this. Um, one of the things that I think we all can see is one of your superpowers is your ability to deliver a hard truth in a way that makes it sound fun.

[00:32:33] Carla Harris:

[00:32:33] Adam Grant:
And pleasant.

[00:32:34] Carla Harris:
Well, thank you.

[00:32:34] Adam Grant:
So I wondered if, if we could run by you a few kind of common dilemmas and get the Carla Harris response to them. Uh, one is in a job interview, how do you like to answer the greatest weakness question?

[00:32:45] Carla Harris:
Oh, uh, the greatest weakness, I think, think of something that doesn't necessarily have to do with the job. So, for example, if you are interviewing for an investment bank, don't say that your weakness are your analytical skills. If you are interviewing for the New York Times, don't say that your weakness is writing. Right? And you know, definitely don't say that you're a perfectionist ‘cause everybody likes to think of themselves in that way.

So things that, that might be true. Public speaking, I can do it. I'm not as good at it as I'd like to do it. Or you know, I've been trying to learn how to ski for five years, I'm terrible, or I'm terrible at having a little bit of patience. And I'm very inspired when people are working as hard as I am. But when they're not, you know, I have to really get myself together around that. All of that is acceptable.

[00:33:30] Adam Grant:
So you wanna hear a weakness that's real, but not disqualifying?

[00:33:32] Carla Harris:

[00:33:32] Adam Grant:
Another one that, uh, that I think I know multiple people in this room have dealt with personally is the abusive boss question. And let's say you either don't want to leave or don't have the luxury of leaving, how do you raise that?

[00:33:43] Carla Harris:
Yes. Well, if you are feeling stuck under one person, that should be your red flag, that you haven't built your network around that person. Immediately, you should start saying, “Well, I, let me make sure that I start building other relationships.” Because in a perfect world, you want demand-pull. You want people in other departments to say, “Hey, I want you to come work for me.”

In an imperfect world, you wanna be able to go to somebody and say, “It's time for change. Can I join your team?” And if you've built your relationships, there's a higher probability that that can happen. Sometimes you might speak truth to power and say, “Hey, listen, Adam, you are just tough to work for. I'm giving you my all, but here's what you've done. You've done A, B, C, and D. You know, I don't know if I can do this.” And if Adam says, “Well, you know, let the door hit you”, duly noted, because I know that I'm good and I'm smart, so maybe it's time for me to find something else to do. And then you go and talk to Adam's boss and say, “Listen, I just wanna let you know what I did because can't do it anymore.”

[00:34:37] Adam Grant:
Can we play that one out for a second?

[00:34:38] Carla Harris:

[00:34:39] Adam Grant:
Come in and give me that feedback that I'm tough to work for.

[00:34:41] Carla Harris:
Okay. So I'd say… Adam, listen, it's been really difficult working with you because every time I bring you something, you spend so much time trying to find the smallest mistake. And I've stayed up all night, and I've done a great job. And the, the, the work is right. It's perfectly aligned. It's in line with what the client has said, and then I bring it to you and then you wanna change it again. And then you tell me I've done something wrong when you didn't give me the right ex—you didn't give me the right direction in the first place. How am I supposed to do well and make you look good, which is what my job is, if you're doing this all the time?

[00:35:12] Adam Grant:
Well, Carla, I really, I really appreciate that, that you want to make me look good. I also want you to make me look good, so we're aligned on that. This is not the first time I've gotten feedback that I'm tough to work with, but I've noticed a pattern that it only comes from people who just can't handle my high standards.

[00:35:27] Carla Harris:
Oh, okay. Well maybe your standards are misaligned because I've worked for A, I've worked for B, I've worked for C, and all of them say that I've given them exemplary work. So that's the market speaking. You're the outlier.


[00:35:43] Adam Grant:
Would you actually say that in that discussion?
[00:35:44] Carla Harris:
Absolutely, and I have, because if the market is speaking and everybody else is saying that you're great, and one person is giving you a hard time, then it's gotta be that person. And the easiest way to take a bully out is to call a thing a thing and to say, “You’re being a bully, and I see you.”

[00:36:02] Adam Grant:
Okay. In closing, is there any advice that you'd love to offer to our audience that we haven't covered?

[00:36:08] Carla Harris:
To the students, I say, you know, do not fear as you go out and you start your careers. Own your power. There's a lot to learn and there are great experiences that are out there. Be flexible. Don't be so rigid with your goals around what it is you wanna do, because sometimes opportunities will come that you did not anticipate, and they may even be lateral, but those lateral moves may actually give you the chance to accelerate vertically later. So don't be afraid of those things. Number one.

Number two, march to the beat of your own drum. And I know that sounds cliches, but it's so easy when you're in business schools like this to start looking to your left and looking to your right and evaluating yourself against somebody else's report card.

Take the time to define your own report card and what's important to you, and maybe a slower pace, maybe a different job, maybe less money is gonna be fine with you, but don't feel less than about yourself because somebody else is doing something differently, right? And then I'd say finally, and you're gonna hear this from everybody that comes to Wharton Business School to give you guys advice, do try to enjoy yourself. Life is indeed short.

[00:37:16] Adam Grant:
So Carla, uh, I can't thank you enough for coming to join us today.

[00:37:19] Carla Harris:
Adam, this been Adam, thank you.

[00:37:21] Adam Grant:
This has been so, so insightful and of course entertaining. And I don't think we've met before.

[00:37:26] Carla Harris:
No, we hadn't.

[00:37:27] Adam Grant:
But I will tell you, I, I don't know if this is something you're aware of, but, um, one of the reasons I became a professor was I had one of those abusive bosses who screamed at me for doing something I thought was in the best interest in my company, and I made a deci—a decision in that moment and I said, “I will never work for another human being.” I don't want someone else…I don't want someone else to have control over my destiny. If I had met you, I would've been thrilled to work for you.

[00:37:52] Carla Harris:
Ah, well thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

[00:38:00] Adam Grant:
Thanks, everyone!

[00:38:01] Carla Harris:
Thank you.

[00:38:08] Adam Grant:
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant. Our team includes Colin Helms, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by JoAnn De Luna. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.


[00:38:30] Adam Grant:
I love that you just gave us a real-world example of the George Costanza advice on Seinfeld. To quit on a high note and just walk outta the meeting. You actually did it in a performance.

[00:38:37] Carla Harris:
I sure did. 2005 Carnegie Hall. Goodnight everybody.