In this cover story from July 2018, Nadiah Wan, who is also the executive director of TMC Life Sciences, shares why age and maturity don't necessarily share the same spectrum
“Would you rather be liked or respected?” I pitch, making a mental guess at the latter.
“Respected,” confirms the group chief corporate officer of TMC Life Sciences Bhd, CEO of Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara, and Gen.T lister. “People may or may not like you for any reason. Most of the time it’s personal rather than logical.”
Her expression is insouciant. “Especially with a very strong character, many just won’t jive with you. But respect implies having something decent inside of you, something that others hold in esteem. I’m not going to beat you over the head, but I will always let you know what I stand for,” she underscores.
Recently named one of Forbes Asia's 20 most powerful businesswomen—she's the only Malaysian on the list—Nadiah is a woman of few words. She proffers her autobiography in a soft drawl inflected with a light American accent.
I learn how her 19-year-old self, a graduate of SMK Sri Aman who was torn between her love of History and Biology, had longed to fly the coop, which led to the pursuit of her a liberal arts degree. “Fortunately I managed to get a scholarship to the US,” mentions Nadiah offhandedly.
When I call her out for downplaying this achievement, she titters and shifts her glance. Feeling warmly towards her, I think of the many others who happily brandish their bragging rights if in her shoes. After all, circumstance alone doesn’t make one an alma mater of the Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
You and I might ascribe adolescence to Pepsi-Cola or Scooby-Doo. Nadiah, on the other hand, filled her childhood bedroom with human anatomy drawings. “I had an early fascination for science and biology—that and I found bones easier to draw than people!” she grins. “Another one of my favourite things to do was to flip through the World Book Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Encyclopedia.”
“Healthcare is a wonderfully complex industry,” she sighs. “There are so many moving pieces and variables. The one thing each component has in common, however, is a human-centric approach.”
Although Nadiah doesn’t treat patients personally, she is lent wings by the knowledge that her every executive decision holds weight. “At the back of my mind, I’m always acutely aware that our actions have real life-and-death repercussions. There is a high level of satisfaction in seeing someone who was initially ill, walk out the door healed.”
TMC Life Sciences Berhad has elevated healthcare so remarkably that its rivals keep checking the scoreboard. In 2017, the private listed company saw a turnover in the vicinity of RM152 million plus a market capitalisation of RM1.4 billion. According to Forbes, despite the pandemic lockdown, TMC posted revenue of RM201 million, up 6 per cent, for the year ended in June. Profit after tax was RM20 million, up 86 per cent year on year.
"Our key objective is to help patients manage the cost of medical care by getting them to be accountable for their own health from the start," expresses Nadiah. With this goal at its crux, Thomson Hospital is patronised by individuals, couples and families who also trust that ‘prevention is better than cure.’
When asked to break down the multivalent role of CEO, she rests her chin on her small hands for some seconds. “At this level, it’s about managing people and prioritising their needs. But things can also get really random, especially since we’ve begun building the new hospital,” she says, waving at a nearby window. Perfectly timed, a power crane whizzes past the fifth floor, leaving decibels in its wake.
I wonder aloud if being a woman in STEM sends chauvinistic remarks her way, but the 34-year-old shakes her head. “The issue isn’t so much about being a woman. Healthcare is one of the few industries primarily staffed with women, given our nurturing instincts. Discrimination against age is a much bigger problem,” she deplores. “Trying to assert your youth in a big organisation can be challenging. ‘You’re young.’ ‘You’re inexperienced.’ ‘How much do you know?’” says Nadiah, mimicking her mockers. “I’m trying to turn that around and to show how much I can bring to the table because I’m young. You can learn from anyone, really. It’s not about looking up to people, but whether you’re willing to learn from those younger or under you.”
More often than not, those reporting to Nadiah are years her senior. In fact, she is the youngest CEO that TMC Life Sciences Berhad has ever entrusted with one of their subsidiaries. “There is such a big gap,” she admits, alluding to both age and mindset. “For instance, when I first started working here my then boss asked, ‘Why do we even need a Facebook account for the hospital? All people do is post complaints.’ I had to explain that, for a lot of people, lacking an online presence is akin to non-existence.”
Since assuming her role, Nadiah has been trying to transmit the idea that technology isn’t necessarily a threat, but a tool. “Just take a look at our recent elections! Social media is a very powerful platform for us folk to rally towards a shared goal,” says the young lady, who personally prefers WhatsApp messages over calls, and encourages the use of applications such as Slidoium, which allow her staff to ask questions anonymously. “I answer every question that comes my way,” she promises. “Whether it’s about staff benefits or personal advice.”
Pre-interview, a friend in the medical tourism industry was delighted to hear who our July cover star was going to be. “Nadiah Wan? I’ve met her! She’s very receptive to new ways of doing things,” he gushed, bringing me to Nadiah’s present words: “I always tell my colleagues that the worst thing they can say is, ‘I’m doing this because that’s how we have always done it.’ I don’t relate to that nor do I care,” she says flatly. “Imagine: the first iPhone was only released 11 years ago in June 2007. The world is changing so rapidly that whatever methods were employed in the past—or now, for that matter—might not be relevant in the future. Being stuck in the old, comfortable ways obstructs our means to see this. That’s why it’s so important to hire more youth: they have higher stakes in the future and should have a say in how things will pan out.”
SAYING IT WITH STYLE
“I do believe that fashion can convey a message in the workplace or about the self,” states our interviewee.
So what does today’s CEO look like? Not like Nadiah, according to some! “A nurse once sprung upon me in the lift,” begins Nadiah. “She said, ‘You don’t dress like a CEO. You’re missing the full suit!’ But I like that,” she smiles. “I’m young. I’m not going to pretend to be older by dressing in a suit, which by the way I think is a holdover from the Industrial Revolution; women back then had to dress like men to be taken more seriously.”
She smooths out the fabric of her chic black dress. “My look makes it easier for my colleagues to approach me. Malaysia is such a hierarchal society that some think, ‘You’re management, I’m an employee.’ I want to break down these barriers and to promote the idea that at the end of the day, it all comes down to doing good work. These? Thank you. They’re from the National Gallery of Victoria Museum in Melbourne,” she says, fingering the remarkable jet black, onyx-like earrings on her earlobes, after I pointed out how nice they were.
An affinity for minimalist and architectural jewellery and handbags crafted by independent designers leads Nadiah on treasure hunts around the globe. “I derive pleasure in hunting down indie brands, as they often have unique visions, and are very well-made for the price. It’s cool becoming part of their story just as they start out. And with jewellery or accessories, it doesn’t matter if you put on weight,” she adds slyly.
“I guess you could say I lean towards independent brands, as it totally fits my character,” she smiles.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE