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The listener

Published on Friday, 16 May 2014
Chaly Mah
Photo: Lau Wai

Deloitte’s APAC CEO Chaly Mah found success by seeing his employees’ points of view

In 2006, Chaly Mah, then CEO of Deloitte in Singapore, was trying to get the company’s independently run Southeast Asian practices to merge into one firm. He found the different cultures made convincing them quite challenging.

“That threw me off a little bit,” he says. “I thought I understood my partners in the region well, but I underestimated that they come from different cultural backgrounds and could at times be very nationalistic in their views.” By communicating with the different parties, however, Mah gained a better understanding of their perspective. He succeeded in connecting with them, building trust and eventually winning them over to the idea of the merger.

Throughout his career, Mah has repeatedly shown a skill for communicating and building relationships with employees and clients. This has helped him to rise up through Deloitte to his current role of CEO and regional MD of Deloitte Asia-Pacific.

Mah gained his first experience of the business world – and his first lessons in how to build business relationships – as a child growing up in Malaysia. “My dad had a family business,” he says. “In my younger days at school, he used to get me to accompany him on business meetings.”

While this gave him some interest in business, upon finishing school he initially wanted to do medicine – like many high achievers in Malaysia at the time. He says it was something of an accident that he instead ended up studying a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Melbourne. This course sparked his interest in accounting and finance.

Studying abroad gave him useful experience in working with people from different backgrounds. “You look at people differently,” he says. “You start to understand that there are many different cultures in the world,” he says.

After graduating, Mah interviewed with several accountancy firms before choosing to work for Deloitte in Melbourne, because he liked the people there. From the outset, he was determined to prove himself and climb quickly. “When I joined on day one, I had one thing on my mind: I wanted to be partner,” he says. “I realised if that’s what I wanted to achieve, I had to work harder than anybody else.”

As an audit assistant, he recalls that one of his first jobs was doing a bank reconciliation, using long rolls of tape to do calculations. Projects like this gave him the general skills needed to be an effective auditor and accountant. “It teaches you the discipline of being very patient and meticulous with numbers, and making sure that you tie up the number properly,” he says.

At the same time, he studied to be a chartered accountant and quickly moved up to become an audit manager. Overseeing small teams, he gained experience of handling employees. On one occasion, for example, he had to decide how to balance the pressing need to meet a deadline with employees’ desire to finish work early.

After five years in Melbourne, Mah wanted new challenges and moved to work with Deloitte in Singapore. There, he was given the task of establishing a new IT audit team, which saw him hire, train and lead around 25 employees. This role’s biggest challenge, he says, was finding and retaining skilled people. Asian economies were booming and there was high employee turnover and lots of competition for talent.

Tackling this allowed Mah to further hone his people skills. “It helped me learn a lot about talent management and dealing with people,” he says. He effectively led the team by relating to his employees. “If you want to be a good leader, you need to be able to engage and communicate well with your team. You have to put yourself in their shoes and understand how they feel.”

Mah’s success as a leader led to him being made a partner in 1987. Recognising his particular talent for dealing with people, the company also made him the partner in charge of handling all the company’s talent-related matters.

In the following decade, Mah continued to successfully establish new teams. With the Singapore IPO market starting to take off, he started an IPO group which handled a high proportion of local listings. A few years later, he also set up a corporate finance group. “I always like to do new things,” he says. “If you want to be a good leader, you can’t stand still.”

In 2002, Mah was appointed CEO of Deloitte in Singapore. He saw that in the long run Singapore offered slower growth compared to extensive opportunities in other regional countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The best way to capitalise on these opportunities was for Deloitte’s practices in each country to unite. “With the combined resources, we could better serve our clients and provide better opportunity for our people in a bigger market”, he says.

This meant getting the leader of each practice to agree to merge. “We had CEOs in each of these countries. To create one bigger firm required them appointing one CEO and giving up powers and authority. You can imagine how difficult that was. There’s personality and there’s ego involved. I engaged, I communicated, and I tried to understand why they were saying different things.” He eventually persuaded them to proceed with the merger.

Following this success, he was asked to become Asia-Pacific CEO. In this role, he is now seeking to ensure the company continues delivering the highest level of professional services across the region.

He says effectively managing people – clients and employees – is vital. “The key is in being very focused on continuing to build client relationships,” he says. “The only two big parts of our business are around clients and getting good talent. It’s no good having good clients if you don’t have the talent to serve them.”


Chaly Mah details the most important things that good leaders do.
Maintain dialogue “Communicate, communicate, communicate. That’s very important. Because if you don’t communicate what’s on your mind, it’s very hard to lead people.”
Hire the best “I like to surround myself with good people. Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you. I like to hire good people and people who are better than me, because I think they will help me to be successful and to do my job better.”
Don’t always play safe “Leaders need to be bold and to take some risks – as long as they are calculated risks and not at the far end of the risk pendulum. Leaders must also allow their people to take some risks. Nowadays there’s this saying: ‘If you’re going to fail, fail cheap and fail quick.’”


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