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The pandemic taught women this crucial lesson about change

In this week’s “Women In Charge” series, Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris chats with Mika Brzezinski about risk-taking, building trust, bringing greater diversity into the financial industry and more.
Carla Harris is a Vice Chairman, Managing Director and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley.
Carla Harris is a Vice Chairman, Managing Director and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley.Courtesy of Morgan Stanley.

Women in the workplace have often struggled with taking risks and embracing change.

But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are actually quite good at it.

“I believe it’s not that people don't like change, it's that they fear uncertainty,” Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, recently told Know Your Value’s Mika Brzezinski.

She added, “…But I think the beauty of what we have gone through… each of us now have evidence, hard evidence that you can do it, that you can pivot, that you can create, that you can ideate. So, we shouldn’t worry about taking risks and whether or not we can learn something for the first time or whether or not we can do things in a different way. We did it … And if you did it before, you'll be able to do it again …

Brzezinski chatted with Harris about a number of topics, including risk-taking, building trust, bringing greater diversity into the financial industry and more.

Below is their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Mika Brzezinski: I’ve been thinking about the time I’ve spent with you and hearing your incredible, booming voice, giving the most amazing advice to women at our Know Your Value events.

Since then, I’ve really been focusing on our 50 Over 50 initiative, which celebrates women over the age of 50 who have achieved significant success later in life, often by overcoming formidable odds or barriers.

So, I’m curious. When you were younger, in your teens, 20s and 30s, did you imagine your career after the age of 50?

Carla Harris: No, I did not.

It wasn't that life didn't exist, but what you could have said about life after 50, and I certainly would have said yes to this, was that I would be successful at that point. But the beauty of how life has turned out, and I think the opportunity for everybody, is to understand, there are so many opportunities that you will be exposed to and accomplishments that you can make that you cannot even define at 20, 30, 40 and not even at 50.

Given the rate of innovation, there are companies and opportunities that will present themselves that literally do not exist today. [For example], you couldn't have said 20 years ago, “I want to be the chief people officer at Instagram” because those companies didn't even exist.

Brzezinski: I think the innovation, growth, opportunity, efforts of diversifying, has now allowed for such a long runway for women from all walks of life. They don't have to go, "Oh my God. I got this job. I've got to stay in it forever. I have to work as hard as I can right now because it's going to be over soon."

Harris: That's exactly right.

… I was having this discussion with another senior woman this morning and I said, along with my career path, and certainly as I got more senior, I used to cringe every time I would see a high profile woman in a position of power say, "you can't have it all." I would cringe because I grew up with a mother who … had it all. She was a mom, she was a professional, she was a wife, she was involved in her community. So I grew up with the model that there weren't any sacrifices to be made to pursue what one wanted to do …

Carla Harris with her mom and dad.Courtesy of Carla Harris.

Brzezinski: When you're working and growing in an organization, you talk a lot about trust. How do you build trust? My advice to women is not to be Chatty Cathy and friends with everybody. That's not what trust is. Trust is not always friendly. Trust is respectful. What do you think?

Harris: …Trust is key to getting people to follow you into unknown territory. And we're all going into unknown territory because none of us have ever lived on the other side of a pandemic.

And in order to build trust, you have to have transparency. It is a key ingredient to building trust. And the way that you build trust is simply deliver over and over and over again. So, what's my evidence? Think about the people in your personal life that you trust. Maybe it's the one person you let get near your hair with a pair of scissors. Maybe it's the people taking care of your kids or the people looking after your parents. Maybe it's that one restaurant that you go to every time there’s an important event because you know the food is excellent and the service is impeccable. Why do you trust them? Because over and over and over again, they have delivered.

… I say to people who are covering clients, I say, “people will always tell you what they value.” …. Then you can strategize on how you deliver on that value over and over and over again. That's how you build trust.

Brzezinski: I'd like to apply this to some of the realities that you might be dealing with in your own office. How are you all doing with remote versus in person? Are there any differences you're seeing? Do women like it remote at home better? I did a speech to the Mortgage Bankers Association a couple of weeks ago. I asked a show of hands of who loves remote work. It was all women. I thought it would be half, but I got the whole room. They wanted to be home.

Harris: You know what I believe? It's not that they want to stay at home forever, but they want the opportunity to be able to be at home sometimes. I do think that there are people who really like being in the office. They like being in the context of being able to ideate with other people right there in the moment.

But I think if you say you can never be home again, you're going to have a real problem because what we proved last year is that you can produce in an extraordinary way from home -- and without any guidance … There was no one that told you, you have to work between these hours and those hours … That’s what I think companies need to get their heads around is trust that people will continue to deliver…

Brzezinski: I'm curious on the issue of diversity. Is there anything that you feel executives across all industries, but perhaps the financial industry since that's what you're in, need to learn so that we're at a different place where these numbers aren't so low at the top?

Harris: Yeah. I'll tell you, there are two things that I think we need to focus on.

… One, I think is fear. And the second one, I would say is looking at diversity through the wrong lens. I'll start with the second one. In the beginning, when this conversation started circa 1990, there was so much conversation. We spent a decade basically saying, "cool, it's the right thing to do" or "it's the moral thing to do." Well, the fact of the matter is you and I, as people, we may never agree on the right thing to do because we're from different backgrounds, we're from different geographies. We've had different exposures. But as business animals, we are highly likely to agree on it’s the commercial thing to do.

So if you had started looking at it as a strategic imperative, something that was really going to impact your top and your bottom line, I think we would be farther along because any other piece of a strategy that impacts a commercial outcome, it gets done in a year … So, the lens has been wrong.

The second thing is the fear. So many leaders who had an opportunity to make cultural change, kept saying it's difficult. You can't just legislate this kind of change … So there was fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of not looking smart, fear of a litigious reaction. Fear, fear, fear.

… But you approach anything in your life personally or professionally from a position of fear, you're going to under penetrate that. So it's so easy to say, “Well, listen, …all the CEOs before me, they didn't really deal with this thing. And if I get it wrong, it could really impact my legacy. So you know what? I'm going to just put the lid on it and make sure that it doesn't blow up while I'm in the seat. And then we'll pass it along to the next guy, the next gal challenged.”

Well, the problem is, the top blew off the can last year. And so now people had to figure out how to manage and deal with it. And our imperative as a society is to keep our foot on the gas …