There is a joke that Wan Nadiah often tells thanks to her husband; one that revolves around how she is a triple minority – a young, female, Malay CEO serving in a non-GLC company. “I have come to embrace being different,” she states as a matter of fact. More often than not, the CEO of Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara and group CEO of TMC Life Sciences finds herself the youngest in the boardroom and rather unconventional as compared to the rest. “People usually focus on that the first time they see me in the boardroom. But with that difference sometimes comes the power to be heard and then the question becomes, are you using that opportunity wisely to put the attention on the right things?” Nadiah asserts.
For a young leader, Nadiah’s resume reads like a dream. The CEO names Harvard University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as her alma mater. Prior to completing her master’s degree in public health nutrition, she had a two-year stint in Boston Consulting Group where she was constantly working on projects related to life sciences. Her first foray into the corporate world proved to be an eye-opening experience after spending four years in the lab researching on rotavirus and molecular biology.
Instead of opting for the conventional choice to pursue an MBA, public health called out to her. “It is a discipline that is underappreciated and is a subject close to my heart, in particular with rising obesity and diabetes. Nutrition is an area that would definitely be a focus in the future,” Nadiah reasons, citing how people often make the mistake of making decisions on things based on the experience they have had as individuals rather than looking at a system or population level. “Studying public health really made me appreciate the difference in deciding matters of policy for a population versus interventions at an individual level.”
When she left the multinational Boston Consulting Group to join Sunway Group as manager, strategy and corporate development in 2010, she was called out for making such a crazy decision. “I was motivated by the challenge of learning the nuts and bolts of managing a company, something you don’t get in consulting,” she explains. During her tenure at Sunway Group, she climbed up the ranks and was promoted to chief operating officer before taking on a new role and responsibility at Thomson Hospital.
According to Nadiah, healthcare is by nature very risk averse because consequences of mistakes can be deadly. “At the same time, it is a field that is ripe for transformation. Modern concepts in business like design thinking, performance marketing and even CRM/ERP (customer relationship management/enterprise resource planning) integration are still underdeveloped in Malaysia’s healthcare industry.” As group CEO of TMC Life Sciences, Nadiah asserts that she is confident in leading the group to face disruptions including climate change, digital banking and geopolitical issues, among others.
Value-based care including enhancing the overall value of the healthcare experience for patients is also one aspect Nadiah aims to improve. “We are not just interested in having one-off transactions with our customers when they are admitted to our hospital. Rather, we are looking at the value of a lifelong relationship with our customers as they journey from starting a family, perhaps with TMC Fertility, to preventive lifestyle changes, with our health screening centre of Thomson TCM and if they fall ill, Thomson Hospital will provide all the comprehensive services they need.” She has also led the launch of several programmes such as the Positive Outlook Programme (POP) to train staff on the frontlines to embody the values they represent. Like many businesses, technology is also another aspect they are looking at to enhance the patient’s experience.
We are not just interested in having one-off transactions with our customers when they are admitted to our hospital. Rather, we are looking at the value of a lifelong relationship with our customers as they journey from starting a familyWan Nadiah
She names her proudest moment when staff come up to her and say how much they appreciate working with her and how they have come to see the different possibilities in how they can implement positive change in healthcare. “Fundamentally, I’m passionate about people and that translates to a passion for coaching a team to achieve things we never thought we could achieve. I am constantly amazed at what a team of people can do if they put their minds to it. I have had nurses innovate an IT system to reduce stock variance. I have had pharmacists set up a marketplace for employees to purchase drugs and a MedEx system to provide drive- through prescriptions for patients. Innovation can happen anywhere by anyone and I feel proud to be part of a culture that allows that to happen, especially in healthcare,” Nadiah remarks.
Her innate curiosity and fascination with how things worked – cause and effect, are traits that first cultivated her interest in science. Young Nadiah’s pride and joy includes a home library with her encyclopaedia set among other books which she would often read on her bed after coming home from school. “Biology in particular was even more fascinating because it seemed like it was also written in an entirely different language. It made something so mundane – like the human cell – appear almost like a magical, complex tool filled with mysterious signs and symbols. I drew anatomical figures and plastered them on my wall. I had a toy microscope with sufficient amplification to examine all sorts of things. I also had a model skull on my desk called Yorick which I liked to disassemble while trying to name the appropriate parts. Looking back, I think it’s precious to have that amount of curiosity and verve for something,” reminisces Nadiah, the eldest of three siblings.
Though the majority of the workforce in healthcare comprises predominantly females, the young CEO points out that the situation changes at the board level. There are far fewer female directors in listed healthcare companies and according to Nadiah, this should change as the employees and customers of these hospitals are mostly females and the board should rightly reflect this diversity. Another issue she frequently faces revolves around her age as the challenge is to get people to take her seriously.
The question is, how are we as a society willing to change our attitudes in terms of power distance relationships with young women?Wan Nadiah
For Nadiah, the world is changing and disruptive innovations today open up opportunities for women in other specialties to cross over and lead companies in traditionally male-dominated arenas. “Just as in the past, young, black women were the engine behind computing maths in NASA, tomorrow, young, Asian women could be driving the development of entirely new parts of the economy. There is no dearth of opportunity but there may be challenges in terms of supporting women, especially young women. And people like ex-NASA scientist Dr Amani Salim have spoken out on the subject. The question is, how are we as a society willing to change our attitudes in terms of power distance relationships with young women?”