C-suite career advice: Christa Quarles, Corel

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? “Adaptability is key. As we’ve seen over recent years, circumstances can change unexpectedly in a matter of hours…”

Headshot of Christa Quarles, CEO at Corel

Name: Christa Quarles

Company: Corel

Job Title: CEO

Location: California, US

Christa Quarles serves as Corel's CEO and sits on the company's Board of Directors. Joining Corel in 2020, Quarles is a seasoned executive with over two decades of experience leading companies and spearheading financial and operational initiatives. Quarles also currently serves on the Boards of Directors of Affirm and Kimberly-Clark. She received a BS in Economics and German from Carnegie Mellon University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? My first boss told me to always be sure to “Manage my own personal P&L” (profit and loss document). What he was really saying was find an objective way to measure your performance, so you won’t need to rely as much on someone’s opinion. Make sure you have real data to declare your ability. When you have undeniable evidence of what you have achieved, it makes it a lot easier to prove your worth as a business asset.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Definitely, the worst advice was, “Don’t go to a startup.” Go to the right startup, in the right environment, and you’ll get ten times the responsibility that you would have in a large corporate setting. Startup experiences can be a pure accelerant on anyone’s capabilities and set them up for an exciting and well-rounded career. It was unlikely I would have gotten a CFO role at a highly established company.

 What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? As you come into a company, make sure the environment around you is one that is conducive for your growth. Choose a workplace where the people will make you a better version of yourself. Ensure it is somewhere that will enable you to do your best work and to lean in and get the types of experiences from people who care about your personal and professional development.

The beauty of today’s work, life, and economy is that you can always go somewhere else. Employees are volunteers who decide whether they want to work for one company or the next. As an entrant to the working world, use that to your advantage. Go to where you feel valued, and where you will be able to have a true impact.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not at all. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, my dad worked at a steel company and my mom was a teacher. I didn’t have the exposure to the tech and IT worlds. My attention was captured the summer of 1999 working at Morgan Stanley during an internship while at Harvard Business School. I saw a tech company go public every week during dotcom 1.0 and I was hooked. Some of those companies succeeded, many more failed, but it was an incredible learning experience.

What was your first job in IT? Equity research gave me the opportunity to sit on the side lines and watch the tech companies in Silicon Valley. I worked at an investment bank where we were taking growth companies public. We had separated research and banking, so I was going out and interacting with company after company to figure out which one was going to IPO one day. This required me to look at business models and leadership profiles to determine which tech company was going to make it.

Eventually, I got tired of sitting on the side lines and wanted to get involved and play the game. The only way to do that in Silicon Valley is to go to a start-up. So, I went to a small gaming company called Playdom which was the real foundation to my career in tech.

 What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? I suppose my first thought is “what isn’t IT these days?” In today’s environment, practically every company has become an IT company. No matter what business you’re in, data is essential to delivering the best customer experiences. IT and technology have become the oxygen we breathe, infiltrating every aspect of the working world.

Within companies, I think it’s a common misconception that IT is isolated to a specific department. Today, virtually everyone works in IT to some capacity.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? First, you can’t do it all by yourself. Surround yourself with passionate experts with a real drive to deliver change. Listen to their advice and experience and align with company values to ensure buy-in across the entire organisation.

Second, it’s important to lean on people’s individual strengths rather than trying to shape attributes and habits they don’t necessarily have. As CEO you need to be the orchestra conductor and determine who is the right person for that chair who can perform the right music to deliver success.

Third, members of the c-suite should never underestimate how little your board retains. Board members show up to meetings a few times per year and simply don’t have the same context as the internal team. They aren’t looking at the business and thinking about it in the same day-in-day-out way. This understanding really helped me improve how I present to my board and how I separate my roles as an operator and a board member. As a board member, you don’t have access to the data that CEOs and other c-suite executives have to make the decisions that you need to make. A board member, I can provide maximum value by being a provocateur and coming up with questions that management may not have expected or thought of themselves.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? Corel is an underdog story that's re-writing its future and rebuilding from the inside out. I want people to look at me and our wider organisation and think how they did that. We are 100 percent focused on building a people-first culture here at Corel and these internal changes will help the entire organisation to make better business decisions, improve how we serve our large customer base and ensure our employees feel heard. So, for me, writing this remarkable story is currently my biggest career ambition.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? One of the things we say at Corel is when you work better, you live better. Today’s hybrid working world, where people have their dog or their kids running around in the background, has really provided us with a new, shared sense of humanity. Of course, that humanity has always been there, but we’ve not always brought it into the office. I want to lead by example and show our employees, customers, and other c-suite leaders that a good work life balance allows you to bring your best self to work and therefore enjoy and maximise your time outside of work to the fullest. Being a CEO is obviously a demanding job. But I also prioritise being a focused mom, making time for my yoga practice, and devoting energy to the relationships and causes that mean most to me. The key to all of this is prioritisation, flexibility, and perhaps in my case, more bulletproof coffee than I’m likely to admit.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? There was a period in my career that I wasn’t succeeding. I felt like I was holding on for dear life to avoid falling and now, I realise that I got stuck. Over time, I’ve learned that if you’re in a situation like this, what’s on the other side is always better. You just have to believe it’s there. In retrospect, if I could go back and speed up that realisation a little quicker, I definitely would.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? If you can go to a great school like Carnegie Mellon (my alma mater) for computer science, you should go there! But in all seriousness, practicality rules the day. There are many paths to success. Find the one that’s right for you.

How important are specific certifications? There aren’t enough colleges or universities to certify people with high demand certifications such as coding or computer science. If businesses expect those certifications from current and prospective employees, they should consider many sources, including apprenticeships and training courses to meet those requirements.

If you look at where technology is going over the next 3-5 years, organisations are going to continue to struggle to find people who have the ability to fill those technical roles. Companies will need to step up and provide their people with opportunities to gain key skills. This is the future of the successful workplace.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Adaptability is key. As we’ve seen over recent years, circumstances can change unexpectedly in a matter of hours. I need people who can adapt to those sudden changes and continue to deliver for the business. I also want employees to be curious and ask questions. Dig deeper into what we are doing, discover why we work in a certain way, and propose ideas to do things differently. And ultimately, ambition is crucial. I hope all our employees to continue chasing their dreams and find new ways to define excellence on their way to achieving them.

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who isn’t joyful. Corel prides itself on being a happy workplace with people who are genuinely excited to contribute to our long-term success. It’s a key element that allows our employees to collaborate, innovate and have a positive impact on our customers.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? For me, enthusiasm is the number one characteristic I hope to see in a job candidate. I want to see your eyes light up when talking about the opportunity you’re applying for. But I also want to know what parts of the job aren’t your favorite. Candidates often want to steer away from negativity, but it’s more about having the self-awareness to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. I want to know what you love doing as well as what you avoid doing so, we can lean on your strengths and support you. Ultimately, our business, not to mention your personal happiness at work, will be all the better for it.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? A combination of  technical skills and business skills is obviously important, but in many ways, I think the most important set of skills a business leader can have today are people skills. In a world where remote and hybrid work are increasing becoming the norm for so many, it’s even more important that leaders take proactive steps to build a lasting connection and engagement with their teams. 

It’s critical to let people bring their whole selves to the workplace. Be deliberate with your relationship building and take the time to understand how your employees do their best work. Enable them with the technology they need in order to collaborate and stay connected with their colleagues across time zones and even countries. Knowing your employees as people as well as putting processes in place to ensure their wellbeing, are all vital  skills that have become even more pressing in the modern world of working.