Secrets of a Successful Business Career

Wall Street veterans tell African Americans how to climb the corporate ladder and overcome discrimination.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

The same challenge applies on Wall Street. According to Shields, “Professionals of color really aren’t getting the plum assignments. You have to get the right assignment and be on the right project team early on in your career because that really will take you and carry you for years to come. This not only positions you in front of the right senior leaders, but once you’re able to prove yourself one time and work on that key assignment, that senior leader will keep requesting that you work on that team. A lot of people get left behind because they’re not on the right project at the beginning.”  

But What About Racism?

When asked about the role of bias in blocking minority advancement, Shields replied, “It does play a part. Let’s be real.” The key, Shields and Harris agreed, is to find strategies for maneuvering around it, or in some cases plowing through it. For instance, when asked about Stan O’Neal’s deposition in which he acknowledged that some white clients might experience discomfort working with minorities, Harris replied, “If you sense that and are very clear [client racism is] the issue, you should move on to the next client because there are a lot of people out there who want to have the best managing their money. That’s where you’re going to get the best yield on your time.”

Shields explained that much of CUP’s leadership-training program is devoted to helping prepare aspiring leaders to overcome some of the unspoken hurdles that can trip up minorities. For instance, minority candidates passed over for leadership opportunities in organizations are occasionally given subjective feedback such as “You lack gravitas.” So Shields says that training focuses on coaching candidates on how to command a room and command respect.

She also acknowledged that some of it comes down to the fact that certain clients and colleagues feel comfortable with those who are more like them — which is a challenge, when so much of Wall Street is white and privileged. That makes the hurdles for a minority from a nonprivileged background even higher. “Diverse professionals have to make more of an effort,” Shields said. “If your uncle is not head of [the] investment-banking division and you didn’t go to [a] certain school, you have to make more of an effort.” She laughed out loud and expressed shock when asked about business writer Andrew Ross Sorkin’s defense of nepotism on Wall Street in the New York Times before adding, “Easy to say when you are part of the inside circle.”

She concluded, “Does everyone have to play the game? Well, not as hard as diverse professionals.”

What the Future Holds

Early versions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act included language empowering the federal government to terminate a contract with any financial firm that was not committed to fair representation of women and minorities in its ranks. It became a point of contention for conservatives who tried to frame it as a battle over quotas. In the end the bill required the creation of an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion at financial regulatory agencies.

But there are solutions that aspiring leaders can undertake themselves.

Shields advised, “Go on social outings with colleagues.” Early in her investment-banking career, she felt that she missed opportunities because as someone who does not drink alcohol, she would rarely join colleagues at bars. She soon discovered that she was missing valuable networking opportunities. “You have to go to drinks with your colleagues, and if you don’t drink, get a Shirley Temple.”

Next she advised, “Do not be afraid to ask a senior colleague for coffee.” But beyond that she said, “When you go to their office, notice what’s on their wall or desk and find some area of interest that’s similar to yours.” That provides a jumping-off point for establishing a relationship, possibly with a sponsor. Last, “Get involved with professional organizations like CUP. If you have broad relationships externally and can turn that into relationships for the firm, you become an asset.”

When asked what advice she would give a young professional who has spent a few years working in finance but has not yet secured a sponsor, Harris said this: “Start right then and there investing in that [sponsor] relationship. If you can’t tell me right now who is [speaking for you behind closed doors], I will tell you to stop working so hard and start investing in that sponsor relationship.”

Harris also explained that for those without a strong social network, wealth management — the side of the industry she is on now — can present a more unusual set of challenges than the investment-banking side, the domain she began her career in.

But ultimately, she said, the third element that determines who makes it to the upper ranks of Wall Street’s leadership has little to do with networking or sponsors or policy; it’s about priorities and sacrifice. “Not everybody wants to come to this business and take the [10- to 15-year] journey to make it [to the top].” Citing the travel and demands on one’s personal life, she concluded that some “people opt out.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Carla Harris’ current title at Morgan Stanley.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.