Charles Mah is currently the Chief Evangelist at iCIMS. He is an advisor, strategist, and senior talent leader with 15 years of leadership experience as VP of Global Talent at large brands such as Workday, SAP, and Databricks. He and his family live and work in San Francisco.
How did you get started in your career?
My first position after university was at an education not-for-profit partner of the government in Hong Kong. I was a political science major, focusing on Asian, US, and German politics and government with a minor in Business Information Science at University, so this was a really interesting step for me. I started as a Program Manager and had the opportunity to develop English language programs for a number of public schools through the government. This position connected me to a great number of people in the HR space because we partnered with a lot of employers.
After a few different roles in Hong Kong, one of the things that my girlfriend (now wife) asked was whether we wanted to be in Hong Kong forever or whether we were ready to explore the next thing. We eventually decided to return to Vancouver as I wanted to try to take what I learned in Hong Kong and translate it into the executive search field. I learned that there were many things that were translatable, while others were not. Ironically, though I am from Vancouver, I didn’t have the local networks that are really important in that field. However, I still took the bold step of returning and thoughtfully creating a new client base.
My leap to the corporate world came from interviewing a candidate in Vancouver who was the head of learning and development of a large software company. At one point, she said to me: “You’ve taken that exploratory step to understand executive search, but you haven’t really figured out what clients want and need from this process.” That inspired a real pivot for me. I unexpectedly took my executive search experience to the technology market, which was brand new. I rebuilt my network again, and eventually had the opportunity to build out an executive search process for a software company and learned all about how a company works from finance to sales to marketing to operations.
Even from the start of your career, it seems that you have been able to make really wise decisions and pivots. What do you think has allowed you to do this?
I’m pretty malleable. I have an opinion about things and am firm and sure of myself, but I always believe that there could be better ideas. It’s almost like a dueling personality at times: one side is sure of the right thing to do, and the other side is constantly trying to seek out new ideas. This has led me to navigate conversations, relationships, and ideas differently than the traditional one-dimensional view. Looking at things from one perspective isn’t necessarily wrong, but the view that I have to be doing a certain thing after three years, and something else five years after that, and reach a specific goal ten years after that was just not for me.
Oftentimes, what holds us back is when we get really idealistic about certain things. Even when we’re trying really hard to change things, we can get frustrated by things moving too slowly. This is when I like to ask how we can change the frame. If we’re going straight, and that direction is too difficult or isn’t working, how do we work around the corners to get to the finish line a little quicker? This is how I viewed and clarified my career path, too. If I wasn’t going to do an MBA, then I had to figure out what I had to do to expand my network very quickly. I also had to learn to be really honest with myself about any moves I was making. I leveraged all of my experiences and networks I developed to get a good understanding of the areas of my career I wanted to continue to grow.
What is a tough career lesson you learned and how did you grow from it?
Being capitalistic with ideas can lead to high growth, but you can also move too quickly. I have definitely made a couple of career moves that I wouldn’t say were the wrong opportunities, but I probably wasn’t honest enough with myself about whether they were the opportunities that would make me happy or allow me to grow versus an opportunity to run away from something or chase the wrong ideals.
One example is the little bit of time I spent in startups. Those opportunities are definitely very attractive to many people; there’s IPO opportunity and a chance to grow as the company grows. The tough decision for me was that I made 2 start up moves at great companies with great opportunities, but I was also looking for more transformation opportunities rather than just growth. After I made a move, I realized after a couple of months that it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. While I wasn’t afraid of trying new opportunities and making more career moves than the norm, I didn’t want to make too many unnecessary moves. Those situations taught me that even though some situations seem attractive and very well could be, you always have to ask yourself about the best combination of what you’re looking for so you continue to grow for the right reasons and not based on outside pressure or expectations.
In addition to thinking hard about the reasons for taking a new role, I’ve also learned that there are always more layers to roles and companies than what you see on the surface. While working in HR transformation, I realized that I could have had more experience before throwing myself into the role. However, I also learned to not be afraid of being vulnerable and expressing what was troubling me. Rather than leaving the role or company when it got really difficult, I learned two critical lessons. The first is to create an open communication line with your manager. The second is to not always have a right or wrong answer in your head. Being communicative, vulnerable, and flexible opens you up for more possibilities. You can then either adjust your role in an attempt to make things better or expand to another area of the company, leveraging the conversations and connections you made through being open with others. I probably didn’t expand enough in the roles I was in. There’s usually an expansion opportunity for someone who really loves the company they’re in, but who is not sure of what the right role is.
I don’t dwell over my decisions and career moves, I would say that I leverage my past decisions. Some were really great, some were not as great, yet I always use them to think about things differently in my next opportunity. We are in a very competitive society, so it’s very easy to always look ahead at the next thing. While advancement is important in some ways, I think that you have to look back at the choices you’ve made and the experiences you gained, the areas that worked well or not well and design your next opportunity. Believe it or not, there are still opportunities to design what that next thing could look like for yourself.
Charles, when we worked together, you experienced a really difficult situation. I was really impressed by your composure, agility, and flexibility in that situation and throughout your career. Tell us about that experience and what you learned.
When my wife and I were moving to California from Canada, the truck that moved our entire household full of goods had an accident and burned into a ball of flames before it arrived at our new home. Here’s the way I thought about that situation and other situations throughout my life: I could freak out, and I would freak out in certain moments in time, but I really wanted to understand the situation. To prevent losing control of my thoughts and emotions at the time, I just wanted to understand what happened first. Similar to one of my important career lessons, I know that nothing is ever what it seems on the surface. Second, there is always a silver lining. In this situation, we did lose a lot of things. Ultimately, the most important things to us – like photos and momentos – happened to be in a different compartment of the truck and were some of the only things that did not burn. So the hardest things to replace were saved, even though everything else was destroyed. Though it was still very difficult, we understood the situation, found the silver lining, and had a plan (which we had in place within 72 hours.)
To me, it’s all about trying to manage the crisis or issue as best as I can. I’m not always great at it, but the way I process things really helps. My composure can give the misperception that vulnerability isn’t there when it really is. Over time I’ve used this situation and others like it as anchors to be more emotionally strong, and to remind myself that it is important at times to be emotionally open as well.
What’s a bit of career advice that has stayed with you throughout your career?
Your network is extremely important. Today we talk a lot about skills, culture, and values of hires we make and how we grow people. One thing we don’t talk enough about is cultivating networks. I think because it’s seen as an expense of time, particularly for the giver who are typically executives, but I tell the people who are searching for connection and advice to not be afraid to reach out for a catch up with leaders. Build your network. Develop your group of sponsors.
I’m definitely not an extrovert myself, but one of the things I did throughout my career was channel what energy I did have to create those networks and connections. I didn’t start off by saying “Hey, I’m interested in that role.” It was more open like, “Do you have time to network?” Then you get coffee and chat and continue to talk. Those are the connections that have been more successful. I recommend thinking about these three things: 1. Expand your network 2. Assess whether the environments you’re in foster opportunities for growth and 3. As you develop your network, build your sponsors from it.