How to Find the Person Who Can Help You Get Ahead at Work: Carla Harris (Transcript)

Carla Harris is a Wall Street veteran and author of the book “Expect to Win“.

Here is the full text of Carla’s talk titled “How to Find the Person Who Can Help You Get Ahead at Work.”

Carla Harris – TRANSCRIPT

It was the spring of 1988 when I had the aha moment.

I was at my first roundtable, and for those of you who don’t know, the roundtable was a very commonly used phrase on Wall Street to describe the year-end evaluative process for analysts, associates, vice presidents, all the way up to managing directors.

That was the process where they were discussed behind closed doors around a table, i.e. the round table, and everyone was put into a category — the top bucket, the middle bucket, the lower bucket — and then that was translated into a bonus range that would be assigned to each professional.

This was my first time there, and as I observed, I saw that there was one person that was responsible for recording the outcome of a conversation. There were other people in the room that had the responsibility of presenting the cases of all the candidates.

And there were other invited guests who were supposed to comment as a candidate’s position was presented.

It was interesting to me that those other people were folks who were more senior than the folks that were being discussed and they theoretically had had some interaction with those candidates.

Now, I was really excited to be at this roundtable for the first time, because I knew that my own process would go through this same way, and that my bonus would be decided in the same way. So I wanted to know how it worked, but more importantly, I wanted to understand how this concept of a meritocracy that every company that I talked to walking out of business school was selling.

Every time I talked to a company, they would say, “Our culture, our process, is a meritocracy. The way you get ahead in this organization is that you’re smart, you put your head down and you work really hard, and you’ll go right to the top.”

So here was my opportunity to see exactly how that worked.

So as the process began, I heard the recorder call the first person’s name “Joe Smith.” The person responsible for presenting Joe’s case did just that. Three quarters of the way through, someone interrupted and said, “This is a great candidate, outstanding, has great analytical and quantitative skills. This is a superstar.”

The recorder then said, “Sounds like Joe should go in the top bucket.”

Second person, Mary Smith. Halfway through that presentation, someone said, “Solid candidate. Nothing really special, but a good pair of hands.”

The recorder said, “Sounds like Mary should go in the middle bucket.”

And then someone said, “Arnold Smith.” Before the person could present Arnold’s case, somebody said, “Disaster. Disaster. This kid doesn’t have a clue. Can’t do a model.”

And before the case was presented, the recorder said, “Sounds like Arnold should go in the bottom bucket.”

It was at that moment that I clutched my pearls —  and said, “Who is going to speak for me?” Who is going to speak for me?

It was that moment that I realized that this idea of a meritocracy that every organization sells is really just a myth. You cannot have a 100% meritocratic environment when there is a human element involved in the evaluative equation, because by definition, that makes it subjective.

I knew at that moment that somebody would have to be behind closed doors arguing on my behalf, presenting content in such a way that other decision makers around that table would answer in my best favor.

That was a really interesting lesson, and then I said to myself, “Well, who is that person? What do you call this person?”

And as I thought about the popular business terms at the time, I said, wow, this person can’t be a mentor, because a mentor’s job is to give you tailored advice, tailored specifically to you and to your career aspirations. They’re the ones who give you the good, the bad and the ugly in a no-holds-barred way.

OK. Person can’t be a champion or an advocate, because you don’t necessarily have to spend any currency to be someone’s champion. You don’t necessarily get invited to the room behind closed doors if you’re an advocate.

It was almost two years later when I realized what this person should be called. I was speaking at the University of Michigan to the MBA candidates, talking about the lessons that I had learned after my three short years on Wall Street.

And then it came to me. I said, “Oh, this person that is carrying your interest, or as I like to say, carrying your paper into the room, this person who is spending their valuable political and social capital on you, this person who is going to pound the table on your behalf, this is a sponsor. This is a sponsor.”

And then I said to myself, “Well, how do you get a sponsor? And frankly, why do you need one?” Well, you need a sponsor, frankly, because as you can see, there’s not one evaluative process that I can think of, whether it’s in academia, health care, financial services, not one that does not have a human element.

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