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The Power of Authenticity in Leadership

Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris on what makes a good advisory team leader.

Many advisors are solo practitioners, running their own business with no other employees. But as advisory teams become more common and advisory firms continue to merge together to build scale, many advisors are finding themselves at the top of a hierarchy, with a number of employees reporting to them. Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management, managing director and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, had some practical advice for advisors who find themselves in leadership positions.

“Your job is defining what success looks like,” said Harris, author of Expect to Win, during the CFA Institute’s annual conference in Philadelphia last week. People in the ranks need to know what they’re playing for, she said.

Successful leaders also need to bring their authentic selves to the table. This is the easiest way to build relationships, because people inherently trust a leader who is relatable over one who hides behind a mask. Most people aren’t comfortable in their own skin, but when they see someone who is, they gravitate towards that person.  

For example, in addition to being a senior exec at a large firm, Harris is also an accomplished gospel singer. She didn’t want to be known for her singing when she started her career on Wall Street. But she realized that her singing differentiated her as an investment banker, so she decided to bring that to the table as well as her other traits when she was building relationships.

Bringing your authentic self to the table will inspire others to do the same, and this leads to outperformance, she said.

A successful leader must also be decisive, she said. The price of inaction is greater than the cost of making a mistake. If that decision turns out to be wrong, “fail fast.” In other words, take the lesson, and move on. Failure always brings you a gift—experience.

Harris also recommends advisors build diverse teams that come with different perspectives, born from different experiences. Potentially transformative ideas are often found outside the "group think" that comes from a homogenous team, and a variety of perspectives can widen the pool of prospective team members and clients. For instance, you must engage with millennials to bring them into your team, she added.

A powerful leader should also be comfortable taking risks. Today, information is a commodity; everyone has access to the same intellectual capital, and so the conventional ways of doing business increasingly do not guarantee success. “Keeping your head down will not keep you from getting shot,” she said. Chaos brings opportunity, she added, so take that on; don’t be afraid to make changes. “Fear has no place in your success equation.”

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