“Women get so caught up in the ‘performance currency,’” said Carla Harris, vice chairman, managing director and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley. “We over-invest in this because, in many ways, it is safe. It is black and white. It is much grey-er to take some time out and shoot the breeze with someone because the return on that effort is not clear, and yet this shooting the breeze is very valuable.”
Harris is one of the highest ranking African American women on Wall Street, with over 30 years’ experience working in financial services. She is committed to supporting other women to advance in the industry and has published two books, Strategize to Win and Expect to Win, in which she shares the lessons she learnt along the way.
Harris says that one of the keys to her success was refocusing her efforts on building relationships, in addition to achieving strong results. “If I have gone four or five days just executing then that is my red flag. I will ask myself, who have I connected with? If I haven’t connected then I will stop doing what I am doing and make it my business to do it,” she said.
Developing ‘soft skills’ is not only a way to differentiate your performance at work but it can also increase your value with future employers. A 2016 LinkedIn survey, which included 291 hiring managers in the United States, found that 50% believe soft skills are now hard to find.
In this interview, Harris shares why workplaces are not a meritocracy and practical tips for how you can leverage your relationships to advance at work.
Michelle King: What do you mean by the term ‘relationship currency’ as you describe it in your books?
Carla Harris: Relationship currency colors people’s perception of you and it colors people’s perception of your work. But that is not what you hear when you are coming out of college or graduate school. Every company says that if you do really good work, if you keep your head down then you will go right to the top. But nobody ever takes the time to explain the nuances of how that work gets viewed or graded.
King: Why does this matter for women?
Harris: I think women tend to focus on the deliverables and just the deliverables because they are tangible. But in many of these dynamic and intense environments – if you are a woman or if you are a person of color – there are not a lot of people who look like you.
It is very easy to put your head down and focus on the work because everyone says the work is what matters. But for other people (because there are more people who look like them) it is easier for them to chit chat and have informal conversations. And this ends up being very important when people review your work and consider your performance.
King: How can women better leverage their relationships at work?
Harris: It is important not only that you build those relationships but that you use them – by asking someone for something or getting their support. What is the point of having them if you don’t ever use them?
If it is not in your nature to connect, then you can let year after year go by and without connecting. Then suddenly you have an issue but you won’t know who to go to because you have not connected with people. That’s why I am a big fan of being intentional about building relationships because you are going to need them to be successful in any environment. It is better to start building them now so you have them before you need them.
Harris: How do you get that balance right between investing in relationships and delivering the outputs at work?
King: Building relationships at work, really does not require that much time. With very light touches people can get to know you. You can walk to Starbucks together, or go for lunch. I think building those relationships is really about frequency and light touches.
How much time should you spend on this? Well, always execute on the deliverables, but I believe you can do both because at some point you are going to go and get a cup of coffee. If it has been a week and you have not had a light touch with someone where it was not directly assignment related, then that should be a red flag to you. Take a half hour out of your day go out and be intentional about making those connections.
King: What has been the best lesson you have learnt in your career?
Harris: The biggest challenge I faced was not knowing the importance of ‘relationship currency’ when I came in. If I had known it then I could have executed and been more intentional. Instead I had to find out the hard way. So, my advice is take an inventory of where you have invested over the course of a week. If you get to Friday morning and you have not invested then build it into your to do list that day. That’s what I do to ensure I am intentional about building relationships.
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Categories: Money Matters