Remarks as given by Carla Harris, the vice chairman, managing director and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, to the Wake Forest graduating class May 21, 2018.
God is good all the time. And all the time, God is good.
Good morning to President and Mrs. Hatch, to Provost Kersh, the deans, my fellow honorary degree recipients, Trustees, esteemed professors, staff, parents, family and invited guests. But most importantly, good morning to the Class of 2018 of Wake Forest University.
It is a distinct honor and a privilege to be here this morning to deliver this Commencement address. It is also quite special to receive this distinction of an honorary doctorate from an institution whose mission is to emphasize exceptional teaching, discovery and student engagement within a dynamic academic community, an institution that seeks to integrate the intimacy of an undergraduate liberal arts college with the academic vitality of a research university and an institution that seeks to become the crossroads of discussion on the important national and international issues of our time. For indeed it is an institution that understands the power of choice, the unpredictability of chance, the certainty of change and the strength of courage. And graduates, that is exactly what I want to talk to you about today: choice, chance, change and courage.
Now, let’s talk about choice. As you no doubt have already learned, choice is a very important, very powerful thing. Every choice that you make has a consequence. As you go forward from this day, I will urge you: When faced with a choice, choose the options that position you to be a leader. Choose the options that create a multiplier effect. And make the choice that will inevitably push you and stretch you the most.
When choosing the option that allows you to lead, you are choosing to make life happen instead of letting life happen to you. Graduates, you must be intentional about being in the driver’s seat of your life. While clearly God is in charge, it is his grace and mercy that will allow you to exercise your free will to drive your dreams, your goals, even your promotions and your career choices. Do not wait for someone to choose you; choose yourself. Do not wait for someone to offer you the promotion; step up and say that you want it. Choose to lead.
If you are making the choice to lead, then you must know something about power and influence. Power is the ability to make things happen by your own efforts or provoking someone else’s efforts to get something done. Having power is part reality and part state of mind. One secret about power is that you grow your power by giving it away. The more that you empower others, the more powerful you will become.
With respect to influence, remember that being influential is about four things: how you show up; what you say; how you act; and what you do.
How you show up is this: Are you leading unapologetically, unabashedly and in a very authentic way? What you say: Are you willing to speak up? Remember, graduates, that when you use your voice, the organization will hear it. And the more they hear it, the more they will want to hear it, and they will solicit your voice. Then you can use silence as power. Are you liberal with giving praise to others in your work environment? Remember that people behaviorally respond much more to praise than they do to criticism.
How do you act? Are you building allies? Are you presenting yourself as constructive and productive? What is your body language communicating? Are you assembling to gather relationship currency? While your performance currency will be important in your life, the relationship currency is far more important.
What you do: Do you empower other people? Graduates, I tell you that leadership is indeed a journey from execution to empowerment. When you are just starting out in your career, yes, you are an individual contributor. But as you move up, you must evolve from someone who is just executing to someone who is developing other leaders or empowering other people.
Choosing to be a leader means to understand that effective leadership in the 21st century will not be based solely on your functional expertise but rather on consensus-building, the ability to collaborate, to build bridges across obvious divides, to tolerate others’ points of view. But you must be able to not only have a vision but to be able to articulate a vision and inspire – not require – other people to line up behind you.
Make choices that have a multiplier effect, not only helping you but helping someone else at the same time. Your choices, your actions, your words, your examples touch other people. They impact others. And as the Bible said, it’s only what you do for others that will really last.
You must take your life from success to significance, and that is all about taking who you are and what you have to help other people. There is a family member or friend in the audience today who now has the courage to pursue their dreams or they’re that much closer to believing that they, too, can go for it simply because you made to come here to Wake Forest University. You made the choice to hang in there and get through it. You made the choice to pursue excellence. And now, you must make the choice to apply what you have learned fervently so that your example and your presence touch as many people as possible.
Finally, with respect to choices, make the choice that stretches you the most, the one that makes you feel like you are reaching way past your comfort zone. Because that will be the choice that will yield the largest returns. Now you all remember I’m a banker, so it’s all about returns.
Don’t worry about the pressure because as the great Billie Jean King said, “Pressure is a privilege.” If you are feeling the pressure, then remember that you now have privilege that has gotten you to that point where you have the choice, the opportunity to make something happen, the opportunity for personal and professional growth. And that is indeed a privilege because many today do not have that privilege.
Now let’s talk about chance. There will be things that will happen in life that you cannot predict. You cannot predict the timing. You cannot predict the severity. You cannot predict how it will transpire. When that happens, graduates, remember that if you have arrived at this moment, then you have everything that you need in order to prevail in that moment. Or as I like to say, if God brings you to it, then he’ll bring you through it. And where he guides, he provides.
Just stop and look around you and note that you already have the answer to how to get through situations. You learned something here at Wake Forest. You have learned that you can have an experience, that you can have access to a relationship and that you have access to an experience that will help you navigate any situation.
Remember that when a crisis comes, you should respond, not react. When you are reacting, you are coming from that human place that responds to stimulus: fight or flight. But when you respond, you are coming from that power that is within you, that power that leverages your strength of discernment, that confident place that says, “No matter what this really is, I know that I know that I know that I will prevail victoriously because I am a winner and I know how the story ends.” That is how you respond when chance happens in your life.
Now sometimes, chance will be a positive thing. And when that happens, you just ride the wave. You also have to be willing to take a chance on making a mistake. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They are a valuable and valid part of your life. Remember that everybody makes mistakes. But what makes you stand out is how and if you get up. The key to making mistakes is to leverage the lesson into the next opportunity. Don’t let it be a career-limiting occurrence and never let anyone else tell your story about the mistake. Own your narrative. Never let anyone else tell your story. It’s your story, your narrative, your spin. Giving away your narrative is akin to giving away your power.
Now change is inevitable. Growth is good. Change is a fact in all of our lives. You are not the same person today than you were yesterday. Despite the fact that change is indeed a constant, most people are afraid of change. People are afraid of change because they fear the unknown. And remember: At the end of the day, you have to be willing to let something go in order to get to your next level. Or as I once read, you cannot get to second base with your foot still on first. You have to be willing to let it go.
Graduates, I’m telling you today that not only should you not fear change, you must embrace it and drive it. You will all be working in dynamic, competitive environments where you will need to innovate in order to capture leadership positions for your department, for your companies and for your other organizations.
In order to get comfortable going into the unknown, I want you to look at your own individual track records. You have a long list of successful firsts and remember that if you did it before, you will be able to do it again.
Now most people don’t like change because it involves taking risks. And taking risks is an essential component of leadership. And the only reason – as I told the graduates of the School of Business yesterday – that we don’t take risks is that we’re scared. We’re just scared. It’s fear. And graduates, her me clearly: Fear has no place in your success equation. Fear has no place in your success equation. Any time you approach anything in your life – personally or professionally – from a position of fear, you will always underpenetrate that opportunity.
And now finally, courage. Graduates, so much of what you will encounter as leaders will not require your intellect. It will not require your experience. It will not require your money. But it will, in fact, require your courage.
As I’ve had the privilege of lots of time with lots of companies in many different industries, they struggle with innovation. They struggle with managing multi-cultural and multi-generational workforces. And then I see leaders struggle with big operational, capital-allocation and human-capital decisions or managing or transforming their company cultures. Or then I see people today struggling to speak to each other, struggling to embrace another’s point of view. And I realize that it all comes down to courage.
If you are going to lead, then I tell you that you must have courage.
It takes courage to be intentional about bringing in people who are different than the traditional professionals in a respective company.
It takes courage to recognize, admit and overcome our propensity to have bias both unconscious and conscious.
It takes courage to say to your organization, “We haven’t found a woman or person of color to fill this position yet, but let’s wait a little longer. Let’s cast a wider net.”
It takes courage to speak truth to power about the microaggressions that might cause a company or an organization to lose its pipeline. It takes courage to call a thing a thing when a thing is a word that no one wants to hear.
It takes courage to convince an organization that diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do but rather the strategic and commercial thing to do. It takes courage for organizations to recognize that there is value in letting people be their authentic selves, their spiritual selves in the workplace – particularly when it fuels success.
It even takes courage to bring your authentic self to work. Yet in order to be a powerful, impactful, even transformational leader, you must be authentic. In my first book, Expect To Win, authenticity is the very first chapter. In it, I write that you are your own competitive advantage. Nobody can be you the way that you can be you. Any time that you attempt to be someone that you are not, then you will create a distinct competitive disadvantage.
Powerful, impactful leaders consistently surround themselves with the best and the brightest, people who are smarter than them. So, in order to have the confidence to do that, you must be confident in yourself. You must have your authentic self present.
If you are in a business where building relationships will be or is a part of your success, the easiest way to build a relationship is to bring your authentic self to the table. When you bring your authentic self to the table, people will trust you. And trust is at the heart of any successful relationship.
Graduates, own this moment. Own this moment. Own the choice, the chance, the change and the courage. All of you have traveled a powerful journey from high school to now. You have endured tests, trials, tribulations, and you have arrived at this day with a testimony of what faith, hard work, perseverance and tenacity can do. You may not yet be all that you want to be, but you are surely not what you used to be. Own that. Seize the power that you have right now and look fearlessly into the future.
When you entered as a college freshman, you had the goal to graduate, but you weren’t exactly sure how you were going to get there. You did not know all the challenges that lay ahead. Yet you put one foot in front of the other. You registered for class semester after semester. You sought out help time and time again. You applied yourself. You trusted. You activated your faith. You kept it moving. And you got here.
Seize the success. You now have the formula to go anywhere you want to go: to graduate school, to start your career, to military or religious service. You know now that you don’t always have to see the path. You can have the goal and you can have the strategic plan, but if you put one foot in front of the other, seek help when you need it, invest the time to learn, execute the assignment, trust in the power within you and keep it moving, you will arrive. Remember: You just did it this time. Therefore, you will be able to do it again.
Sure, challenges, obstacles, people will come to confound you, to block you, to get in your way, but just as you got around it this time, you’ll be able to get around them, you’ll be able to pursue and you will be able to have a triumphant victory.
Before I take my seat, graduates, I just want to leave you with the chorus of one of my favorite songs. The song is called Expect To Win. I had the privilege of recording this song in 2011 after it was written by a group called SWAT: Singers With A Testimony, from Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn. They heard me speak on my first book, Expect To Win, wrote the song, showed up in my office. And I love the chorus so much that I knew I had to record it. And it goes something like this:
(Sings) Expect to win. No matter what you’re up against. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Oh yes, you can. Not fear but faith will win the race. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Expect to win.
Go on, Class of 2018!