Four Secrets to Success from Two of the most Powerful Women on Wall Street

Young determined businesswoman breaking glass with karate punchLast week I was honored to be the moderator at the NYSSA Women on Wall Street panel. The two panelists, Linda Descano of Citibank and Carla Harris of Morgan Stanley, combined have over 50 years of experience on Wall Street and many great awards and accomplishments such as being nominated by President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council (Carla Harris) and winning the award “10 Women Who Run the World” at the 2013 More Magazine/Fitness Magazine (Linda Descano). Our panel discussion focused on how professional women on Wall Street can reach greater success. I hope to have a video of the event soon but in the meantime here are the seven major pieces of advice they shared that stuck with me.


Agree on the definition of success or set yourself up to fail:

When you are taking on a new job/project establish the definition of success upfront. What exactly does your manager want you to accomplish? Don’t make assumptions. Sit down with your manager and ask the question at the beginning of a project. If he/she doesn’t answer your questions be wary and suggest your own ideas of how success will look. Be specific and make sure that the two of you have agreed on the goals ahead.


Learn from criticism – you can change people’s perspective if you are consistent:

Even Linda and Carla, these highly accomplished women faced criticism throughout their careers. How did they deal with it? They didn’t crumble from the negative feedback, they didn’t fall into pity and self-doubt. Instead, they paid attention to the criticism and identified an area of improvement, usually a perception that had to be changed. Hard to believe this but Carla was once told that she isn’t tough enough for this business. What did she do? She acted tough consistently, told people she was tough consistently until finally the not-tough enough perception was gone.


Women over invest in performance early in their career but need to focus on relationships after the first two years:

When you first start in the workplace out of college you need to show that you are a good worker, capable, smart and dependable. That will take a year or two. However, after about two years, you should start investing your time into building relationships that can help propel your career forward. As women, many of us continue to spend extra time producing exceptional work yet we do this at the expense of taking a 3pm coffee break with a coworker or an evening at the bar with co-workers and clients. Without a strong network that will promote you forward your career will not grow as quickly and as far as it could with a strong and deep network.


Dress for the job you want not the job you have:

I could write a book about this one! I understand that most of us are not making seven figure salaries, yet all of us want to. High fashion costs a fortune, but nowadays stores such as Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, and J.Crew are producing affordable and trendy professional wear.  Like it or not, image is a big part of your success so try to make sure you are doing the following four things on a daily basis:

  • Wear a professional work bag and high heels (make sure the heels aren’t tattered and they are properly shined)
  • Style your hair (No greasy or frizzy hair no matter how tired you are)
  • Wear statement jewelry – a powerful necklace or a strong earring. Don’t go overboard but when your outfit is all black you need to pop and show your personality somehow.
  • Wear makeup – Your makeup should be part of your uniform. Avoid glitter and bright colors. Go for a natural look for day time. Whatever your makeup routine is, keep it consistent.


There were so many more topics that I wish I could have touched on with Linda and Carla. I would have loved to hear their definition of work/life balance and how they find the right balance for them. Furthermore, I would have loved to find out which organizations they believe are more effective for networking at different stages of a woman’s career.


As I reflect on this event and my conversations following the panel, I realize one very important point that all of us need to keep in mind. If you aren’t passionate and invigorated by your work – if you can’t envision your successful career in your current role than networking, managing up and dressing the part will feel laborious. Make sure you are in the right seat – ask yourself if you want your bosses job and if the answer is no than you need to start digging and search for the career you will truly feel excited about.


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