Cathie Anderson

Successful investment banker offers scripts, advice on how to win in the workplace

After meeting some unexpected setbacks in her first three years at Morgan Stanley, Carla Harris began to wonder whether she was cut out for a long-term career in the world of investment banking.

Harris, then 27, didn’t give up. She took some time to think deeply about what she wanted out of her job, why she had chosen this storied Wall Street firm and why the executives there had hired her straight out of Harvard Business School.

Now in her 50s, Harris gives speeches around the world, offering practical tips, game-changing strategies and detailed scripts that she wished someone had given to her when she had sought advice early in her career. She spoke to a capacity crowd here in Sacramento this week, but in case you didn’t get a seat, Harris now has authored two books, “Expect to Win” ($16, Penguin, 223 pages) and “Strategize to Win” ($25.95, Penguin, 243 pages) where she shares her pearls of wisdom.

“You don’t necessarily plan out what you want to get out of your work experience,” Harris told me. “You’re so focused on fitting in and doing a good job that you’re not asking the question, ‘Well, what am I doing for me? Why do I want this experience?’…You have to look at the macro and the micro. The macro is you want to go in and do a great job, but the micro is what you’re getting out of the experience, what you want out of this seat.”

The seat, Harris said, is whatever role you took in the company. There’s a reason why you sought the job, and Harris calls that your agenda. She talks in both her books about the importance of defining your agenda and writing it down.

“If you have an agenda, it will keep you from making emotional decisions about your career if things don’t go well,” Harris said. “Let’s say you don’t get promoted. Your knee-jerk reaction might be, ‘Oh, I need to leave.’ But go back to your agenda and say, ‘Why did I take this seat? … What skill did I want to get? What kind of experience did I want to get? What kind of people did I want to meet when I made the decision to go into this role?”

In her book, Harris described a number of scenarios that led her to question her confidence and keep quiet even in instances when she knew she had something to contribute. In one instance, Harris worked with a supervisor who didn’t know how to structure certain kinds of deals. Rather than tell her that, he would tell her that she should already know how to do it, say he didn’t have time to show her and send her off to ask one of their co-workers.

In another situation, a difficult project leader always requested that Harris work on her team. The young trader had no idea that the only reason she was being requested so often was that her peers had made it known to supervisors that they never wanted to work with that person.

Sometimes, Harris said, you just need to change your seat, but studies show that most people will leave an organization because of problematic encounters they have with just one person. Then they have to build a network somewhere else, she said, when they already had a support system in place. They just didn’t know how to have the conversation.

“You have to remind yourself that there’s no person born that you can’t get around,” Harris said, “and you know what the strategy should be and that is to start building a network around that person, so that one individual can become an outlier in your experience, not the central driver of your experience.”

Harris said that, as she was crafting her agenda, she also spent some time thinking back to her interview and what she felt got her hired. She knew she had to be her authentic self, and she writes about this in her book, “Expect to Win.” That section of the book, published in 2009, now resonates deeply with millennials and Generation Xers, she said, because they aren’t as willing as baby boomers have been to morph into something else in order to advance in their careers.

Generally, though, audiences respond to three pieces of advice: Know your agenda, write it down and refer back to it regularly. Understand that perception is the co-pilot to reality, and you can train people to think about you in the way that you want. And, finally, go ahead and take the risk because, in the end, more people regret not taking a risk.

“The worst that can happen is you’ll fail,” Harris wrote in her book. “So what? Failure gives us the gift of experience.”

Harris lays out the network of advisers who give general career advice, mentors who offer advice tailored to fit the person and sponsors who can represent the employee’s career aspirations in key meetings. Employees need all three to navigate the work environment successfully, Harris said, and she also provides scripts that employees can use when they make a mistake or must work with someone who isn’t a big fan of their work.

“When I talk about the concept of the adviser, the mentor and the sponsor,” Harris told me, “every single time, it was like watching camera lights go off over the whole auditorium. People would say, ‘I knew I needed a mentor, but I didn’t know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor, and I never heard anybody talk about it the way you talked about it.’ ”

She said that new hires should understand the limitations of assigned mentors and that she hopes companies will change the vocabulary for these types of relationships. Calling someone a mentor, she said, creates a set of expectations that can’t be delivered.

“If I don’t know you, I cannot give you tailored advice,” Harris said. “That’s why I think the formal sort of programs are very difficult to execute. The mentee is expecting tailored advice from the mentor, but the mentor doesn’t know that person, so they’re not going to take a risk and say something like, ‘Well, the way you dress is not giving the picture of a vice president,’ or ‘You might want to deal with Dan in these three ways because he’s really a curmudgeon.’ I’m not going to tell you that Dan is a curmudgeon if I don’t know you.”