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Navigos Search’s Managing Director: “The near-death moment wasn’t my worst experience”


Posted by Ngoc Thuy Nguyen

over 1 year ago

Having built the ACCA brand in Vietnam, Nguyen Phuong Mai is a well-known name is the accounting and audit industry. Unfortunately, in 2000, she was diagnosed with Lupus SLE – a rare disease – and went through 8 years of intensive treatment. There were times when she was so weak that she had to use a ventilator, her eyes went almost blind and heart nearly stopped.

Before becoming the head of Vietnam’s leading recruitment agency, Nguyen Phuong Mai – Managing Director of Navigos Search – was an inspiration when she was a patient who...

After overcoming illness, Nguyen Phuong Mai joined Metro Cash & Carry Vietnam, and then Navigos Search in 2014 as South Regional Director. She turned her company into the leader of the market. In January 2017, Phuong Mai was officially appointed Managing Director of Navigos Search.

You went through a very difficult disease-fighting few years. You talked of “danger breeds opportunity”, what opportunities did you have then?

At that time, I shut down my company and couldn’t spend any energy on doing business. That was the danger.

However, the “opportunity” here was having to give up being my own boss and go back to being an employee. Fortunately, my old business partners and coworkers introduced me to many jobs.

I accepted the management trainee position at Metro Cash & Carry Vietnam. It was a good opportunity for me to learn more about finance and the art of leadership.

During the treatment period of my disease, I once again returned to the audit sector. I was lucky to have been given a job really loved, which was to promote and bring international qualifications into Vietnam and assist the Department of Finance in setting up Vietnam’s auditing standards.

At that time, I felt useful to the community. That happiness helped me overcome my illness.

When was your near-death moment?

When my condition worsened, the hospital hadn’t found out that it was Lupus and therefore there wasn’t a treatment plan. I had to use a ventilator and heart support. My family was even thinking of the worst-case scenario. At that time, I had only one desire which was to live and I believed that I had to live by all means.

After treatments, I saw myself looking ugly and weak. That was the worst 3 months of my life when my self-esteem plummeted. After a lot of internal struggle, I decided to accept the job at Metro Cash & Carry Vietnam to go back out there, facing all glances and comments on my appearance or words of sympathy. I only had one goal – to continue living and be useful.

Illness was the greatest challenge but also helped me to overcome myself.

After overcoming such an experience, what was your view of life and work?

Nothing is more difficult than beating death. Once you’ve beaten death, you’ll start to appreciate everything that happens in your life.

However, neither those things nor the near-death moment was the worst experience of my life. Looking back, I have to say the post-treatment period was truly horrifying. All my hair was gone, I was weak and ugly. The disease made my body all swollen it was scary (laughs). I also had to stay away from the sun and couldn’t go outside. If my husband had been an impatient or vain kind of person, things would have turned out quite badly (laughs).

Luckily, my husband was very dedicated and supportive. Knowing that working makes me happy, he quit his job in the tourism industry to avoid having to travel to often, opened a small factory with his friends in order to have more time for me and our kids. As the result, I was felt at ease taking care of my illness and pursuing my dream career.

Without his sacrifice, I wouldn’t be here today.

You used to say that your happiness was to watch movies with your husband, go out with your kids, cook and read books during weekends. Those don’t seem to relate much with your work, do they?

For busy people, it’s difficult to separate between professional and personal time. Very often, something unexpected might come up during the weekend such as meeting with students or a high-level candidate.

Therefore, family – friends, work and personal hobbies are like a triangle that changes all the time. It might be right triangle or an isosceles triangle.

I’m very greedy. I want to succeed in both work and life, therefore I’ll have to be very flexible. I always try to make my family understand and empathize with my job and be flexible with me. The most important thing is sharing so that my family can see that I’m doing my best to make time for them.

You can never have enough time for everything, but there’s always enough time for the truly important things.

Maintaining connection between family members means not waiting until you have free time to be with each other. Don’t wait until you have a whole week off to go on a vacation. There might be nothing to say when you set a fixed time to sit with each other, while spontaneous moments might bring unexpected joy.

If we cannot go out for coffee, I still text or talk to my husband and two kids. It could be when I’m on a cab or between meetings. Even though my kids are grown up, they still send me cute animal pictures. Those little things do not affect my work (laughs).

The happiest thing is knowing that you are missed.

How is a normal day for you?

I get up early, exercise and then go to work. I spend time talking to my staff, read the papers and take care of my to-do list. However, there are always unexpected things happening in between, such as supporting employees, crisis management or an interview request (laughs).

Navigos “hunts” employees for other companies, so who “hunts” employees for Navigos?

In Navigos Search’s internal recruitment procedure, I use three factors: Attitude – Skills – Knowledge. Of which, skills and knowledge can be improved upon, while attitude is hard to change.

Therefore, we favor those who are hard-working and tenacious, beside a sharp sense for human resource. Sometimes, I jokingly ask a candidate to evaluate other applicants to see how much she gets right. This is because a consultant’s job depends greatly on their ability to understand people they meet.

In your opinion, what kind of candidate is the most ideal and must be “hunted” by all means?

Whether a candidate is ideal or not depends on a recruiter’s judgement.

Navigos’s philosophy is to look for not the best people but the most suitable ones for clients. Therefore, in order to find the best match, we must truly understand the client’s business, culture, vision as well as challenges so that we can act as their agents.

We always have ready a list of people who excel in a certain industry (experience, contribution to their current employers) and build a list of clients’ favorite candidates.

On the other hand, we also understand what candidates want and what they are good at, whether they can stick with a job for a long time, so that we can find ways to connect them to employers. Only when a candidate want to change their job, their objective and find a new opportunity will we approach them.

In some big corporations such as Viettel, senior executives must come from inside instead of employing the service of headhunters. What is your thought on that?

Every company that wishes to build a Vietnamese-only leadership often combines internal training with external recruitment. External candidates are often chosen when internal ones are not yet ready for the job.

Internal training is preferred as it is one way to keep talents and benefit businesses. More than anyone else, internal candidates understand very well the industry, the market, and the company’s philosophy.

However, even Viettel or other big corporations still have to recruit from the outside despite having a proper internal training and promotion procedure.

Do you have any advice for people who want to change jobs or to quit and start up?

Think about the end before the beginning. One thing you always have to consider: who do you want to become and what do you want to achieve before accepting a new job. That job will become the start of your new road.

Don’t choose a job where you have to sacrifice yourself or to become someone else, because, in the long run, that will become a mental burden that prevent you from becoming successful.

Source: Café Biz (