Hold on to Your Complexity: Bringing Multiple Identities to Work

Carla Ann Harris has blazed trails through and excelled at institutions like Harvard and Morgan Stanley. But doing so has required her to strike a careful balance between professional image and personal passions. Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan discusses Harris’ success and the importance of managing perceptions to achieve greatness.

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Podcast Transcript

Brian Kenny: That is the beautiful and powerful voice of Carla Ann Harris, whose authenticity and optimism has fueled her success on the stage and in the boardroom at one of the largest investment firms in the world. Today we’ll hear from Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan about her case entitled “Carla Ann Harris at Morgan Stanley.” I’m your host Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call.

Professor Ramarajan is an expert in organizational behavior whose research examines the management and consequences of identities in organizations, including how people can work fruitfully across social divides. Lakshmi, welcome.

Lakshmi Ramarajan: Thank you.

BK: So, I really enjoyed this case. I think people will really benefit from hearing about her path and the kinds of things that she learned along the way. Can you start, though, just by setting up the case?

LR: It opens up with Carla facing an intense career moment. She’s reflecting back on a very long and successful career and is at this fork in the road, essentially, trying to make a decision about how best to integrate her professional demands and desires along with these really passionate ideas she has about how she wants to help people in the world and how to put them together.

BK: What prompted you to write the case? Did you know Carla, or did you learn about her along the way?

LR: The backstory is actually quite funny. I study multiple identities, as you said—the many ways that people define themselves based on the different social roles and groups that they belong to, both inside and outside of work. And we were discussing the tension between managing people’s perceptions of you in career terms and professional success and being authentic. You know, who are you, what’s your identity, and how do you live this authentically? And one of my students, Alex Radu, who’s the coauthor on the case, said, “Well, a mentor of mine, Carla Harris, says perception is the copilot of reality.” And I just sort of stopped. I was completely intrigued by the sentence. I was like, “what on Earth does it mean? It sounds profound, but who does it and how do you do it?”

So we started talking and I learned more about Carla, and the more I learned, the more intrigued I was. You talk about the fact that she’s a singer; she’s a senior African-American woman on Wall Street, but in addition to having the identity of an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, and race and gender, the singing—she thinks of herself as an observant Catholic, she’s a philanthropist, now she’s public speaking and writing, she works in government—multiplicity is so all over the place here. And I thought, she sounds like such a fabulous case for the benefits and challenges of bringing these identities to work.

BK: Did you get to spend much time with her?

LR: I did, and I’ve talked to her on and off over the years, and she’s been extremely supportive. As a rookie, obviously this is one of the first cases that I wrote myself without another senior faculty member, and so this was actually a pretty—I would have to say somewhat trepidatious and experimental experience for both of us. She stuck with it, and so did I, and it’s been a lot of fun.

BK: I’d like to hear about the early influences in Carla’s life. What shaped her early on to become the woman that she is today?

LR: I think that’s a great question. It’s actually a question we talk about in class. And I think obviously her early family, her origin experiences are a huge influence. She’s underestimated at school, her parents and her grandparents are huge role models and shape a lot of who she becomes, and in fact this notion of her grandmother being an entrepreneur and being that kind of a force in her life is a huge thing.

BK: And her mother had a great line that you quote in the case of, “if you really want to get an A-plus, go for the A.” So they were setting her up to deal with obstacles from a little girl?

LR: From a very early age, definitely, is the sense that I got from talking to her.

BK: What were some of the obstacles that she did encounter? There’s a couple in the case that you talk about having to do with her singing and then later on in college.

LR: The singing example is a fabulous one. I don’t know so much if that’s an example, if that’s an obstacle as it is a sort of “she will not let anything stand in her way to do what she wants to do” kind of thing. But in the singing example, she goes to this Baptist church, and she is fundamentally identified as a Catholic and very observant, but she loves to sing, and she goes and starts singing in this Baptist choir. And she has a great interaction with the minister, who basically says, “Well, I hear that you’re in my choir, and you’re singing, and you’re not Baptist. And what are you going to do about that?” And she basically says, “Well, I’m not going to do anything, really.” And the reverend says, “Well, what am I supposed to tell these people that I’m accountable to in this church?” And she was like, “I can’t help you.”

BK: Not my problem.

LR: Exactly. And I love his answer; he goes, “Well, you know what? I’m going to tell them that you just try to enjoy Jesus any way you can,” and I just think it’s such a fabulous sort of, “I’m not going to change who I am. This is who I am.” And somehow, I think what for me always comes out in that example is this complete trust in the fact that the integration is possible. You don’t actually have to be in this either/or position, even when someone in a position of authority is really asking you to choose.

BK: Right, right. And that certainly comes back later in life as she gets into her professional career. She received scholarships from multiple colleges, yet she chose to go to Harvard without a scholarship. So she’s made some interesting choices in life that are very deliberate, I think.

LR: Definitely. And I think some of the stuff that comes through both in the interviews and the times that I’ve talked to her is the consciousness and the self-awareness around the choices that she’s making. So for example, when she’s talking about her professional career, she’s very deliberate about, “Well, I will choose to tell you about going to church. That’s completely out there; I am not apologetic. I’m not trying to downplay or anything. I’m gone Sunday mornings; don’t expect me around.” And a very different style and approach to her singing, “I am gone for two hours on Wednesday evenings, and I’m just going to hope nobody’s going to notice because I don’t want to have a conversation about that.” Two very, very different strategies. I think there’s a lot of thought that goes into it.

BK: Now, she was a student at Harvard Business School in the 1980s. What was the landscape for a) women like at that time, and b) African-Americans?

LR: Boris Groysberg has done a ton of work on what the climate and the culture was around issues around gender in particular through different periods at HBS, and I think by and large, nothing I’ve read suggests that it was an easy place.

BK: No, and she was really in the minority on both counts.

LR: Both counts, exactly.

BK: Yet that didn’t deter her one bit. So talk about her years at HBS and how those helped to shape her.

LR: One of the things that she talks about is how in some sense she felt like she fit in on so many different dimensions. And you have to say, you know, sort of coming as an undergrad from Harvard College, you could see why there would be this sense of natural fit and affinity. It’s an institution that had worked for her; she knew how it worked, and obviously HBS was a little bit different, but by and large there were other Harvard College graduates here, people that were her peers. And so the dimension that she felt most different on was age. And I always found that very intriguing. There are people around her who are many years older, who have many more years of work experience— from a conceptual standpoint, thinking about which identities are most salient to you versus the ones that other people pick up on in a context, I think, is a really fascinating problem that we all face. But for her, age was definitely a very salient dimension.

BK: She was 23, I think you say in the case, and the average age of a student at that time, and still today actually, is closer to 27. So, she finishes up successfully at Harvard Business School; she has a great tenure here as a student. And then she’s got some choices to make about where she’s going to go from here. Why did she move in the direction of financial services, which at that time was not a career that a lot of African-Americans chose?

LR: Right. She talks about this quite a bit—if you looked around at the kinds of professions that people from her race and class background were going into, being a lawyer, being a doctor, like these were professions you could rely on. And coming from an immigrant family myself, I identified with that kind of narrative that was in her family of origin. If you were going to go for a profession, go for something that you can basically take with you, right? You’re not institutionally dependent on people recognizing your skills and talents, at least as much as you would be in a much more organizational setting. And so she chooses to go to banking instead, and she actually considered law for a while, she says, until she realized that it was the bankers making all the decisions.

BK: As she starts to get into her career in Morgan Stanley, she encounters some obstacles there too. And so the one word that sticks with me from this case is tough. She talks a lot about toughness.

LR: She does talk about toughness. What I love about the tough example is it goes back to this notion of perception is the copilot of reality. How can you manage perceptions or image and still be authentic? The way you manage the tension, at least for her in this example, is people are going around saying that you’re not tough enough. And then one way to do it is, “Okay, well, I need to manage their perception of the fact that I’m not tough enough. I don’t actually believe inside that I’m tough at all, but I’m going to go around and say this.” Another way to do it is to find a piece of yourself where you actually are like, “Wait a second, how can they say that about me? That’s so not true about me, because I know I’m tough, because I have all these other experiences that have proven that I’m tough.” And you access that portion of yourself, and then when you go around telling everybody that you’re really tough, you actually believe it when you say it, and then they believe it. There’s a real interaction and dynamic going on there that suddenly opened up what that statement meant. Perception is the copilot of reality. If you’re not actively changing reality while you’re trying to change perception, you’re still stuck in that in-between spot.

BK: I thought the punch line to the whole thing was that not only did she find her inner toughness, everybody thought she’s like the toughest person in the company now.

LR: Exactly. It was very, very—it’s a fun story, and I think she enjoys telling it, and we enjoy hearing about her when she does.

BK: And then that had positive ramifications for her stature in the company, because not only was she looked at as tough, but the authenticity part mattered a lot in her dealings with clients.

LR: Definitely. It’s another source of power for her. If you think about it as, “I could either conform to these expectations of what I’m supposed to do, and let people say what they need to say, and I’m just going to keep quiet. Or I can actually say what I think and this is the authenticity piece, but I’m going to do it in a way that draws on a source of power, which is—this is actually in the client’s best interest. And so I’m going to use that greater purpose in order to say what I think in a way that is actually helpful for everybody.” When do we speak up and when do we shut up? It’s a huge tension for all of us. When do you exercise voice versus not, especially if you’re a low-status or low-power person in the system? And again, what I love about that example is being invested in some greater purpose than yourself and using that as a source of power in order to motivate your authenticity might actually be a useful strategy.

BK: And so Carla became this mentor and this guide, and she saw herself as that. This is now her role in some ways, to help the next generation.

LR: One of the things that surprised me were how many people knew her. Once I said that I was writing the case, suddenly every year there’d be at least like three or four students, “Oh, I heard you were writing about Carla. Carla was a mentor of mine when I was at X, when I was at Y; well, I was at Morgan Stanley for a summer ten years ago, and now she’s still a mentor.” I was like, “Who are these people coming out of the woodwork?” And what was fascinating about it, too, was that they were not of a particular stripe. The ability to connect and mentor people across a lot of different lines—it’s very important to her, and a lot of her writing and her speaking is really about how to help the next generation.

BK: So if there’s a young person out there who’s listening to this conversation, is there one piece of knowledge that you would like them to take away from your interactions with Carla?

LR: Carla is always in these contexts where she’s trying to fulfill who she is, her values, her passions, her needs, in places where she’s not always an obvious fit. There are so many places where, you know, the Baptist church; singing—she’s an insider, except she’s Catholic. High school—grades, she’s an insider, but race? Maybe not so much. HBS, pedigree and coming from the college, but then her experience and her age makes her an outsider. And at Morgan Stanley, she wants to be a banker. She’s got this total banker drive to succeed—her work ethic, her willingness to put it in, her willingness to put clients first—all of that’s insider. But then she’s a female, a minority, singing in church, all these other things that make her totally not someone who’s an obvious fit. And so what I love about it is that she’s not just trying to survive in these high-pressure, high-demanding contexts. She’s actually trying to put all these pieces together all the time, and so she figures out that she has to have a different strategy for different kinds of identities. She has to go in and figure out how to learn and adapt to her context. If I had to boil all that down to one thing, it would be hold onto your complexity.

BK: That’s great. Lakshmi, thanks for joining us.

LR: Thank you.

BK: You can find this case along with thousands of others in the Harvard Business School case collection at HBR.org. I’m Brian Kenny. Thanks for listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

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Podcast Transcript

Brian Kenny: That is the beautiful and powerful voice of Carla Ann Harris, whose authenticity and optimism has fueled her success on the stage and in the boardroom at one of the largest investment firms in the world. Today we’ll hear from Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan about her case entitled “Carla Ann Harris at Morgan Stanley.” I’m your host Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call.

Professor Ramarajan is an expert in organizational behavior whose research examines the management and consequences of identities in organizations, including how people can work fruitfully across social divides. Lakshmi, welcome.

Lakshmi Ramarajan: Thank you.

BK: So, I really enjoyed this case. I think people will really benefit from hearing about her path and the kinds of things that she learned along the way. Can you start, though, just by setting up the case?

LR: It opens up with Carla facing an intense career moment. She’s reflecting back on a very long and successful career and is at this fork in the road, essentially, trying to make a decision about how best to integrate her professional demands and desires along with these really passionate ideas she has about how she wants to help people in the world and how to put them together.

BK: What prompted you to write the case? Did you know Carla, or did you learn about her along the way?

LR: The backstory is actually quite funny. I study multiple identities, as you said—the many ways that people define themselves based on the different social roles and groups that they belong to, both inside and outside of work. And we were discussing the tension between managing people’s perceptions of you in career terms and professional success and being authentic. You know, who are you, what’s your identity, and how do you live this authentically? And one of my students, Alex Radu, who’s the coauthor on the case, said, “Well, a mentor of mine, Carla Harris, says perception is the copilot of reality.” And I just sort of stopped. I was completely intrigued by the sentence. I was like, “what on Earth does it mean? It sounds profound, but who does it and how do you do it?”

So we started talking and I learned more about Carla, and the more I learned, the more intrigued I was. You talk about the fact that she’s a singer; she’s a senior African-American woman on Wall Street, but in addition to having the identity of an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, and race and gender, the singing—she thinks of herself as an observant Catholic, she’s a philanthropist, now she’s public speaking and writing, she works in government—multiplicity is so all over the place here. And I thought, she sounds like such a fabulous case for the benefits and challenges of bringing these identities to work.

BK: Did you get to spend much time with her?

LR: I did, and I’ve talked to her on and off over the years, and she’s been extremely supportive. As a rookie, obviously this is one of the first cases that I wrote myself without another senior faculty member, and so this was actually a pretty—I would have to say somewhat trepidatious and experimental experience for both of us. She stuck with it, and so did I, and it’s been a lot of fun.

BK: I’d like to hear about the early influences in Carla’s life. What shaped her early on to become the woman that she is today?

LR: I think that’s a great question. It’s actually a question we talk about in class. And I think obviously her early family, her origin experiences are a huge influence. She’s underestimated at school, her parents and her grandparents are huge role models and shape a lot of who she becomes, and in fact this notion of her grandmother being an entrepreneur and being that kind of a force in her life is a huge thing.

BK: And her mother had a great line that you quote in the case of, “if you really want to get an A-plus, go for the A.” So they were setting her up to deal with obstacles from a little girl?

LR: From a very early age, definitely, is the sense that I got from talking to her.

BK: What were some of the obstacles that she did encounter? There’s a couple in the case that you talk about having to do with her singing and then later on in college.

LR: The singing example is a fabulous one. I don’t know so much if that’s an example, if that’s an obstacle as it is a sort of “she will not let anything stand in her way to do what she wants to do” kind of thing. But in the singing example, she goes to this Baptist church, and she is fundamentally identified as a Catholic and very observant, but she loves to sing, and she goes and starts singing in this Baptist choir. And she has a great interaction with the minister, who basically says, “Well, I hear that you’re in my choir, and you’re singing, and you’re not Baptist. And what are you going to do about that?” And she basically says, “Well, I’m not going to do anything, really.” And the reverend says, “Well, what am I supposed to tell these people that I’m accountable to in this church?” And she was like, “I can’t help you.”

BK: Not my problem.

LR: Exactly. And I love his answer; he goes, “Well, you know what? I’m going to tell them that you just try to enjoy Jesus any way you can,” and I just think it’s such a fabulous sort of, “I’m not going to change who I am. This is who I am.” And somehow, I think what for me always comes out in that example is this complete trust in the fact that the integration is possible. You don’t actually have to be in this either/or position, even when someone in a position of authority is really asking you to choose.

BK: Right, right. And that certainly comes back later in life as she gets into her professional career. She received scholarships from multiple colleges, yet she chose to go to Harvard without a scholarship. So she’s made some interesting choices in life that are very deliberate, I think.

LR: Definitely. And I think some of the stuff that comes through both in the interviews and the times that I’ve talked to her is the consciousness and the self-awareness around the choices that she’s making. So for example, when she’s talking about her professional career, she’s very deliberate about, “Well, I will choose to tell you about going to church. That’s completely out there; I am not apologetic. I’m not trying to downplay or anything. I’m gone Sunday mornings; don’t expect me around.” And a very different style and approach to her singing, “I am gone for two hours on Wednesday evenings, and I’m just going to hope nobody’s going to notice because I don’t want to have a conversation about that.” Two very, very different strategies. I think there’s a lot of thought that goes into it.

BK: Now, she was a student at Harvard Business School in the 1980s. What was the landscape for a) women like at that time, and b) African-Americans?

LR: Boris Groysberg has done a ton of work on what the climate and the culture was around issues around gender in particular through different periods at HBS, and I think by and large, nothing I’ve read suggests that it was an easy place.

BK: No, and she was really in the minority on both counts.

LR: Both counts, exactly.

BK: Yet that didn’t deter her one bit. So talk about her years at HBS and how those helped to shape her.

LR: One of the things that she talks about is how in some sense she felt like she fit in on so many different dimensions. And you have to say, you know, sort of coming as an undergrad from Harvard College, you could see why there would be this sense of natural fit and affinity. It’s an institution that had worked for her; she knew how it worked, and obviously HBS was a little bit different, but by and large there were other Harvard College graduates here, people that were her peers. And so the dimension that she felt most different on was age. And I always found that very intriguing. There are people around her who are many years older, who have many more years of work experience— from a conceptual standpoint, thinking about which identities are most salient to you versus the ones that other people pick up on in a context, I think, is a really fascinating problem that we all face. But for her, age was definitely a very salient dimension.

BK: She was 23, I think you say in the case, and the average age of a student at that time, and still today actually, is closer to 27. So, she finishes up successfully at Harvard Business School; she has a great tenure here as a student. And then she’s got some choices to make about where she’s going to go from here. Why did she move in the direction of financial services, which at that time was not a career that a lot of African-Americans chose?

LR: Right. She talks about this quite a bit—if you looked around at the kinds of professions that people from her race and class background were going into, being a lawyer, being a doctor, like these were professions you could rely on. And coming from an immigrant family myself, I identified with that kind of narrative that was in her family of origin. If you were going to go for a profession, go for something that you can basically take with you, right? You’re not institutionally dependent on people recognizing your skills and talents, at least as much as you would be in a much more organizational setting. And so she chooses to go to banking instead, and she actually considered law for a while, she says, until she realized that it was the bankers making all the decisions.

BK: As she starts to get into her career in Morgan Stanley, she encounters some obstacles there too. And so the one word that sticks with me from this case is tough. She talks a lot about toughness.

LR: She does talk about toughness. What I love about the tough example is it goes back to this notion of perception is the copilot of reality. How can you manage perceptions or image and still be authentic? The way you manage the tension, at least for her in this example, is people are going around saying that you’re not tough enough. And then one way to do it is, “Okay, well, I need to manage their perception of the fact that I’m not tough enough. I don’t actually believe inside that I’m tough at all, but I’m going to go around and say this.” Another way to do it is to find a piece of yourself where you actually are like, “Wait a second, how can they say that about me? That’s so not true about me, because I know I’m tough, because I have all these other experiences that have proven that I’m tough.” And you access that portion of yourself, and then when you go around telling everybody that you’re really tough, you actually believe it when you say it, and then they believe it. There’s a real interaction and dynamic going on there that suddenly opened up what that statement meant. Perception is the copilot of reality. If you’re not actively changing reality while you’re trying to change perception, you’re still stuck in that in-between spot.

BK: I thought the punch line to the whole thing was that not only did she find her inner toughness, everybody thought she’s like the toughest person in the company now.

LR: Exactly. It was very, very—it’s a fun story, and I think she enjoys telling it, and we enjoy hearing about her when she does.

BK: And then that had positive ramifications for her stature in the company, because not only was she looked at as tough, but the authenticity part mattered a lot in her dealings with clients.

LR: Definitely. It’s another source of power for her. If you think about it as, “I could either conform to these expectations of what I’m supposed to do, and let people say what they need to say, and I’m just going to keep quiet. Or I can actually say what I think and this is the authenticity piece, but I’m going to do it in a way that draws on a source of power, which is—this is actually in the client’s best interest. And so I’m going to use that greater purpose in order to say what I think in a way that is actually helpful for everybody.” When do we speak up and when do we shut up? It’s a huge tension for all of us. When do you exercise voice versus not, especially if you’re a low-status or low-power person in the system? And again, what I love about that example is being invested in some greater purpose than yourself and using that as a source of power in order to motivate your authenticity might actually be a useful strategy.

BK: And so Carla became this mentor and this guide, and she saw herself as that. This is now her role in some ways, to help the next generation.

LR: One of the things that surprised me were how many people knew her. Once I said that I was writing the case, suddenly every year there’d be at least like three or four students, “Oh, I heard you were writing about Carla. Carla was a mentor of mine when I was at X, when I was at Y; well, I was at Morgan Stanley for a summer ten years ago, and now she’s still a mentor.” I was like, “Who are these people coming out of the woodwork?” And what was fascinating about it, too, was that they were not of a particular stripe. The ability to connect and mentor people across a lot of different lines—it’s very important to her, and a lot of her writing and her speaking is really about how to help the next generation.

BK: So if there’s a young person out there who’s listening to this conversation, is there one piece of knowledge that you would like them to take away from your interactions with Carla?

LR: Carla is always in these contexts where she’s trying to fulfill who she is, her values, her passions, her needs, in places where she’s not always an obvious fit. There are so many places where, you know, the Baptist church; singing—she’s an insider, except she’s Catholic. High school—grades, she’s an insider, but race? Maybe not so much. HBS, pedigree and coming from the college, but then her experience and her age makes her an outsider. And at Morgan Stanley, she wants to be a banker. She’s got this total banker drive to succeed—her work ethic, her willingness to put it in, her willingness to put clients first—all of that’s insider. But then she’s a female, a minority, singing in church, all these other things that make her totally not someone who’s an obvious fit. And so what I love about it is that she’s not just trying to survive in these high-pressure, high-demanding contexts. She’s actually trying to put all these pieces together all the time, and so she figures out that she has to have a different strategy for different kinds of identities. She has to go in and figure out how to learn and adapt to her context. If I had to boil all that down to one thing, it would be hold onto your complexity.

BK: That’s great. Lakshmi, thanks for joining us.

LR: Thank you.

BK: You can find this case along with thousands of others in the Harvard Business School case collection at HBR.org. I’m Brian Kenny. Thanks for listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

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