C-suite career advice: Phil Ahad, Toluna

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? “The first thing you look for in a candidate is whether they have the technical ability to do the job. Then for me it’s all about personality, work ethic and cultural fit.”


Name: Phil Ahad

Company: Toluna

Job Title: Chief Digital Officer

Location: USA

Phil Ahad is responsible for leading the vision, development and strategy for Toluna’s suite of digital market research products. He is passionate about identifying first look technology and trends that innovate companies, industries and business concepts. Ahad has a broad range of experience in digital product leadership and marketing focusing on automation and disruption across all industry types. He has held senior leadership roles from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? It’s tough to pin it to one thing. I’d say the most valuable piece of advice I received very early in my career is to not be afraid of making mistakes. It’s going to happen: own them, learn from them and move on. It’s impossible to be perfect and learning from failure is as valuable as immediate success. 

Entering the workplace can be very intimidating especially for an early 20 something individual. Having mentors is key. I’ve been lucky to have great mentors from all different backgrounds and skill sets at every stage of my career, individuals who were generous with their time and had the patience to deal with a sometimes-annoying individual like myself. 

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I myself hate this type of advice, but I will admit that I use it often:

Stay positive… 

I do believe a positive mindset and attitude is healthy for you and for the individuals around you. I am an optimist and I always believe that when you apply the right effort and focus, things will work out in the long run. Even failed projects will have a positive outcome when you realise that once you make it through that ‘disaster’ - it will get better. That said - sometimes it’s also healthy to vent (in a productive way). As my career has progressed, I’ve recognised the need to vent to others and to let others vent. Get it out, say how you feel and move on. 

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Be open to change and be open to trying something that makes you uncomfortable. Anyone just starting their career should be open to learning about other areas of the business. Just because you have a degree in IT or you believe you are destined to be an IT professional doesn’t mean you couldn’t be great or passionate for other business areas. At Toluna, we do a great job at exposing new employees to many areas of the business. Who knows what else you could be great at if you don’t actually try. 

The world of IT has changed beyond recognition since I started my career. It is a far more diverse industry, both in terms of the types of businesses that now exist and the types of jobs and skills that are needed. IT is no longer just the person in charge of the internet.  Due to that, employers are looking for more than just the right skills. In many ways, they are prioritising energy and cultural fit over skills. I try to look outside the box when I’m hiring to help create an unconventional workforce. This includes looking outside the traditional IT industry to find people who can offer new and different ways of doing things.

To anyone starting their career, I would say don’t pigeon-hole yourself or underestimate the importance of different experiences and backgrounds.

Did you always want to work in IT? I’ve always had a passion for finding new solutions and solving new and old problems. At its core that’s what IT does, whether it’s product management/development or systems management. Working with technology grants me limitless opportunities to think outside the box and create solutions that improve efficiency and drive value. I can’t think of a better way to work than one where the boundaries are only limited to your creativity. 

What was your first job in IT? I live in the Washington D.C. area which is a hotbed for government consulting agencies. My first job was with the Department of Defense as a Data Analyst. The experience was amazing working with U.S. Army Colonels, intelligence experts and amazing engineers focused on data collection and analysis. I learned a great deal about database management and people management as I was working directly with a massive range of technical experts and skillsets, but ultimately the role was too much project management and too little product development and creativity for me. 

I then took a role at AOL, which at the time was a dream job. A college-like culture with the flexibility to be as creative as I could be. That experience made me realise I wanted to focus on creating new digital products that disrupted traditional industries.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? A common misconception about IT is that IT is the person who makes sure that the internet connection works or staffs the help desk and closes tickets. Those are all important functions - but it’s not all that IT does. IT is often instrumental in driving corporate innovation, productivity and collaboration and is integral to creating seamless employee and business operations.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? The best tip I can offer is to know that it won’t be given to you. Most successful executives and/or founders have invested and continue to invest a ton of time and energy in their day-to-day jobs. It’s comical that there is this misconception that once you have hundreds or thousands of employees, things get easier and suddenly you have the time to golf four hours a day, make quick decisions and everything miraculously works out for the best. In most cases, that’s not how it works. 

One thing that I love about my current company and team is that everyone – from the CEO to a new hire – works so hard and is extremely passionate about what they do. It’s easy for me to put in maximum effort when I am surrounded by individuals who are so smart, dedicated and enjoy what they do. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Tough to recommend one over the other. I think when discussing degrees, continued education programs or just good old job experience, it’s not a one or the other option. It depends on the person and their goals. Any form of education, training or on the job experience is valuable and can be utilised to accelerate a person’s career or open new opportunities. Obviously, a degree has become a pretty basic qualification for any employer and it’s an important one - but it should not be the main reason a person is hired or promoted. If a role requires a special skill and the opportunity in your current job function does not allow you to gain that experience, then a boot camp or a continued education course is a great way to earn that experience to set yourself up for a successful transition. 

The world of technology is advancing every day and new methods are being created and adopted at a rapid rate. It’s critical to remain on top of your game and ahead of the curve. A relevant degree from a top university is incredibly valuable, but it’s useless if you are behind the technology curve.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications are important and show you are committed to improving your skills and staying on top of emerging technologies. The world of technology is constantly evolving, and certifications are an easy way to represent that you are on top of this constantly changing environment.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? I don’t think I will ever say that I have reached my career ambitions. I am always interested in looking for the next challenge to meet, project to complete and problem to solve. I am happy and thoroughly enjoy my current work, and am proud that we are working on several very exciting products and solutions that will improve how the largest companies in the world collect and use consumer insights to help them make better decisions.  Who wouldn’t be excited to be working on stuff like that?!

Toluna is a technology company in the marketing research industry. One quarter of our workforce (approximately 350 employees) focus on R&D and product development, which makes my role so exciting. We help major agencies, organisations and brands make informed decisions, uncover new opportunities and speed products to market.

Toluna is a hybrid. We build our own products and we use our own products. For example, we developed a consumer insights platform and a research process to automate data collection. Brand tracking and new product development processes that once took months, now take days. That’s how you change an industry and that’s what excites me. And because we use our own products, when we receive feedback from clients, we’re already ahead of the game because our own researchers have also told us what they like and don’t like.

Our success is a testament to Toluna and Toluna CEO Frederic Petit’s passion to innovate and try new things. Frederic ensures that Toluna has the DNA of a start-up. That’s what has kept me here, and what I look for in my career. There is always something new that I want to do here and I’m excited to see what we will do in the future.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I believe I do, although my family may not agree. It’s never been harder to manage work and life. I have two young daughters (ages nine and six) and a very determined and successful wife who also puts in long hours. Time management is key to the right balance and while I am not the most organised person, I have been very diligent in scheduling my time accordingly between family and work. It doesn’t always work out as planned, but the point is you keep trying. 

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I don’t know if I would change anything. My successes and my mistakes have brought me to where I am today. I’ve had the opportunity to work at starts-ups and Fortune 500s across all types of industries. I am happy to be where I am today, but that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied. 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? The first thing you look for in a candidate is whether they have the technical ability to do the job. Then for me it’s all about personality, work ethic and cultural fit. We spend so much time together at work that the team/company dynamic is paramount to the success of our group. I also look for diversity in backgrounds and ways of thinking. Our focus is on developing new products and solutions. If the group all thinks the same way, then new and creative ideas will be limited. Challenging each other and disrupting the norm only comes from diversity in creativity and ways of working. 

Toluna is based on a foundation of six values: be bold and embrace change; meritocracy; teamwork; integrity and respect; embracing change and being bold; and informed decision making and delighting clients. These values don’t just hang on the wall. They unite the employees and help people excel in good times, and during difficult periods, when things may not be going in the right direction, values help our team regroup and course correct.

I look for people who thrive in an environment that values:

Be Bold and Embrace Change. Be a person who makes bold, brave moves. Think big and embrace change. People who take calculated risks will do better than those who are too safe.

Meritocracy. Regardless of an employee’s background, it’s critical to give people the opportunity to grow and build a career, irrespective of location or skill set. Recognising and rewarding talent is one of the most important things that we do. 

Act as a team. Work together as a team, which delivers results through common goals and shared values.  It’s not just about being one team, but one team that succeeds. 

Integrity & Respect. Treat colleagues, clients, partners and customers with respect.

Rapid, informed decisions executed without delay. Make sure that your team is well informed to make the right decisions quickly.

Delight your clients. In our industry, it’s all about exceeding client expectations so you need to ensure that your team is on the same page. That is why, at Toluna, we aspire to always be available for our clients – answering the phone, going to see them and understanding their businesses. We take it to heart that we are in a service industry.

What would put you off a candidate? It’s easy to hire people who are just like you. Don’t do that. I try not to hire anyone just like me because I think that would be a disaster for me, mentally. I look for people who have an opinion and know how to express it in a productive way.

Ten people should not come together and build a solution that any one of us could have built individually. If there are ten different people, there should be ten different concepts. That is the best way to get to something truly new and innovative.

We’ve had roles where we have interviewed over 250 people to find the right candidate. It comes down to personality fit with the team. Diverse backgrounds and experiences help us with creativity and innovation.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Based on my experience, hiring is no longer just about skills. You must feel that the candidate is going to fit into the company and share its values. Having a shared set of values and culture is vital for success, particularly during challenging periods. If during an interview I didn’t feel the candidate really grasped the importance of this, or didn’t connect with this approach, then I wouldn’t consider them for the role, regardless of their skillset. This would be as much for them as for the company; they wouldn’t thrive in an environment that wasn’t right for them, and we want our employees to thrive. Candidates should try to learn as much about a company’s culture as they do about job specifications.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Some people excel at the technical aspect of the job and others excel at the business side and in some rare cases, people can excel at both. The trick is to give them opportunities that will help them enhance and advance their areas of expertise but also empower them to grow other skills.  If you have a very skilled technical person but never give them any client exposure or business opportunities, how will you - or they - ever know if they have a desire, affinity or ability to expand that skill?