Vafa Akhavan: A Courageous, Purpose-Driven Leader Facilitating Access to Tertiary Pediatric Care

Top 10 Most Influential Canadian Professionals in 2023

As CEO of the World Pediatric Project (WPP), a non-profit working in tertiary pediatric surgery, Vafa Akhavan believes that a leader’s greatest achievement is to elevate the human condition. He seeks to purposefully and meaningfully address what he deems to be the greatest strategic imperative – transforming the lives of children who will become tomorrow’s decision-makers.

“Children will grow up to become future attorneys, partners, spouses, politicians, plumbers, doctors, mothers, fathers, electricians, bridge builders, poets, painters, etc. It is the aggregate outcomes of their thoughts, words, deeds, and decisions that ultimately reflects the society we have and aspire to become,” Vafa maintains.

Children Are Our Future

Children are 30 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future. 1.7 billion under-19s, including 450 million under five, lack safe surgery. 17 million die annually from that lack of access, five times more than from HIV, TB, and Malaria. WPP cares for and empowers today’s children who are tomorrow’s adults. For example, Claudia lived in a remote mountainous region in Honduras and suffered from multiple issues including scoliosis and deformed legs and hands. It was through WPP’s work that she was able to undergo open heart surgery, scoliosis surgery, and receive prothetic legs. It was through WPP’s efforts that she went back to school, which caused her to finally smile again.

Vafa’s current role allows him to leverage the resources he’s acquired over his career to have the greatest impact on the lives of children in the shortest amount of time possible. He is leading a whole-system organizational realigning to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children. He’s transforming a mission-driven organization into one that improves the human condition through sustainable tertiary pediatric care. Capacity building is being accelerated for a segment that’s often overlooked and neglected because caring for extreme cases is typically the most complicated task.

Children Are the Channel to Elevate the Human Condition

Vafa’s life pre-WPP was a journey of exploration, discovery, and learning, which he considers a great blessing. He’s worked with startups, mid-caps, large-caps, young entrepreneurs, and the C-suite of conglomerates. “Half of my career was in the consulting space, and half in corporate operating roles. The blessing is in a great treasury of learning, which continues to grow. The common thread and narrative are a passion for curiosity, learning new things, solving different problems, and creating change for the good,” he remarks.

Vafa has worked in seven industries and 15 countries with 10 companies, some sister or acquired. His leadership roles included retail auto, film finance (where he led clearing one of the first Canadian film industry IPOs), consulting, notably at J.D. Power, then at McGraw Hill’s Information & Media segment after it acquired J.D. Power, back to consulting as CEO of Forum (now Achieve Forum, acquired by Korn Ferry), Executive Board member at SwissVBS (now part of BTS), L&D, and others. Most recently, he led NueBridge, a boutique and innovative consulting firm that worked at the crossroads of management consulting and an operating executive expert network.

Ten years ago, Vafa began to reflect on and articulate his core competencies and capabilities, which included being versatile and resilient in change management, seeing patterns and connections that others didn’t or couldn’t, and exercising discernment enabled by the diversity and complexity of his experiences. “When you converge these capacities, you can access a powerful tool to see the essence of the issue, the path, and the end, typically before anyone else. If it’s wrong, you can decide to change sooner than anyone. If it’s right, you can fuel to accelerate before anyone. There is no end to the journey.  I’m still on this journey and working to get better,” he clarifies.

Four years ago, Vafa contemplated the next phase of his career. He had worked in the for-profit world for decades, watching the emergence of social impact. He considered how much runway he had left and where to focus for maximum impact. “I remembered the love and passion bred in me for children by my Baha’i Faith and solidified by the example of my father. I realized that the cause of children must become the strategic imperative of every generation. That’s the channel through which we can sustain the transformation of the world we live in and elevate and ever advancing human condition,” he observes.

“O Son of Man! Bestow my wealth upon my poor, that in Heaven thou mayest draw from stores of unfading splendor and treasures of imperishable glory.”  – Baha’u’llah, from the Baha’i Writings

How WPP is Enabling Access to Specialized Pediatric Care

The core values of WPP are Agility, Commitment to quality, Collaboration, Critical thinking, and Trustworthiness. WPP has developed diverse collaborations and program interventions throughout the Caribbean and Latin America with different approaches to closing the gap in pediatric surgical access. They facilitate surgical teams to deliver much-needed immediate pediatric surgical care; work alongside and train local surgeons, sponsor treatments in collaboration with skilled local providers to treat low-income patients in well-equipped facilities; procure and donate high-cost surgical supplies; and promote and facilitate mentorship relationships between surgeons from the US with Latin America and the Caribbean. Between 2002 and 2019, WPP added 5,800 DALYs (disability-adjusted life years) to St. Vincent alone, according to a British Medical Journal published research paper by the College of William & Mary.

Using approaches tailored to the unique needs of the region and its regional partners, WPP seeks to increase immediate access to specialized pediatric care and create capacity building opportunities for local providers. A recent team to St. Lucia had 12 surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses participating from across the Caribbean.

WPP has changed its organizational structure, decentralizing programs, financials, and human and financial resource management to the regions. A core component of WPP’s future proofing is to be community-driven, so planning, monitoring, reporting, KPIs, and benchmarks have all been transformed to support the new purpose, organizational structure, and operating model. It is evolving from the steppingstone of success to the foundations of significance for increasing impact that encompasses a two-track approach. 

WPP will continue with its core activities while growing its commitment to a second track focusing on capacity building. Every activity has a training, learning, and development component. WPP has added new lines of action and established a global health function, such as NICU training and development to reduce neonatal mortality.  Every year 2.5 million babies die during the neonatal period. This translates to 180 million years of life being lost each year. A new department was created for Emerging Opportunities, its innovation lab supporting pilot programs in St. Lucia and Honduras for using technology to scale surgical training. 

WPP is partnering with regional resources and institutions for design and delivery. It partners with hospitals in a consultative role to improve capacity building and utilization, works with government entities to provide thought leadership around policy, and through its Observer status will contribute to pan-Caribbean NGO initiatives focused on a united approach to a Caribbean model, as compared to a disparate model of resource allocation. 

Another line of action addresses preventative strategies, such as coordinating the cross-stakeholder approach to introduce folic acid into the diet of Belize to prevent spina bifida at the root.

Vafa’s plans for the future of WPP are driven by its clearly-defined purpose, which encompasses everything it will do in the first three-year phase of the second cycle of 10 years, from expanding their role in direct care, capacity building, and sustainability, to pediatric health system transformation, growing the ecosystem, partnerships, and working towards developing a knowledge center. 

A Courageous Leader Who Puts Purpose Front and Center

Vafa’s primary responsibility at WPP is to be a conductor and an effective situational leader. He spends much of his day orchestrating and providing input for team-making decisions with strategy, operations, and financial management. With the accelerating pace of change and quickly changing situations, he knows that different situations require different leadership approaches and that his responsibility is to use the right approach in each situation.

 “I must be thoughtful about how the team plays together, and that the relationship between team members ends up with an outcome that impacts the lives of children, families, and communities,” he reflects. Vafa insists that a leader must put purpose front and center, that it is clearly articulated, and show how everyone’s actions link directly to outcomes, and purpose.

A significant portion of WPP’s communications tell the stories of how the children’s lives change, which brings to life what they do, and are expressions of their purpose. Vafa regularly links the discussion to WPP’s three primary goals: Ensuring more children have access to safe tertiary surgical care; reducing the time it takes to get that care; and increasing the impact on the lives of children, families, and communities. 

“Everything has to lead here, to impact these KPIs,” he insists. “I travel to the regions regularly to meet with the children and their families at their homes and go to the hospitals and clinics to listen to stories and learn about the needs. This work must be personal. It must hit you in your gut and move your heart and soul. It doesn’t debilitate you. It fuels you.  It motivates you.  It inspires you.”

Turning Challenges into Leadership Lessons

Vafa points out that challenges do not make you stronger, it’s how you approach the challenge, what you learn, and how you apply those lessons to your life that make you stronger. Regardless of the outcome, incorporating lessons into your life will strengthen you to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.

“I met the CEO of Atomic Energy Canada early in my career. When I entered his office, his face was unforgettable. It read, who is this kid and why is he here? He probably expected someone older. He was rather dismissive.  Being unprepared didn’t help. I felt awkward and humiliated. A few years later, in 1989, I cold-called Ron Osborne, CEO of McLean Hunter (for those in Canada old enough to remember), one of the largest communications companies in Canada at the time, to discuss opportunities in China, the mother of all markets. We met twice. He told me that he was intrigued by my approach and the content of the pitch,” Vafa recalls.

He explains that the former incident taught him about homework, preparation, and anticipating questions and issues, while the latter taught him the value of patience and timing. “I learned patience and preparation early in my career. Patience took longer than preparation and improved more due to age and wisdom than design.  The right amount of impatience is good. It creates a sense of urgency and can boost morale if managed well.

Vafa notes that different situations require different leaders, and being too far ahead or behind is not ideal. The best leader is just ahead of the curve. As an example, when he was at J.D. Power, he knew what T-Mobile needed to improve customer experience, but had to wait a year to present the case to the COO, who liked it and hired J. D. Power for the work.

His greatest leadership lesson though was from his father, which was an insight gained from observing the kind of life his father led. While his father did not have direct reports, or hold fancy titles, rank or position in marquee brands, the outcomes of his work serve as a repository of impact. He was an expert in Middle East affairs and the energy sector. 

Vafa notes that this lesson lies at the heart of leadership and is the cornerstone of that never-ending journey, filled with trials and tribulations, to becoming a great leader. “Leadership is a state of being, a condition that has no boundaries of time or space,” he states. “Continuous curiosity, learning and improvement should be a priority for leaders.”

“Don’t ask a fish to climb a ladder. You’ll be disappointed.” – Albert Einstein

Leadership Success is Measured by Your Impact

Vafa insists that none of his success would have been possible without the support, wise counsel, tolerance, embrace, understanding, challenge, encouragement, and caution of his loving family. “Without my family, especially my wife, I could not have had the impact I’ve been able to generate, helping the lives of the most vulnerable children to transform families and communities,” he reflects.

Vafa focuses more on setting priorities than practicing a hard line in work-life balance. His personal life revolves around his family and he chooses to be accessible and responsive in his personal life. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in Singapore and my wife calls me from Toronto at two a.m. I need to be accessible and responsive notably to my immediate family, even if I’m sitting in a C-suite meeting. If my daughters text me with a 911, I’ll walk out and call. If I get a simple text message that I can’t respond, I’ll call them back when I’m out of the meeting. If my mother calls, I’ll take the call no matter what, because she’s over 90, and ask if it’s important or if it can wait,” he elaborates.

Vafa notes that in leadership positions, it’s increasingly difficult to carve hard lines between work and life, especially with the convergence of personal and professional lives in the hybrid work model. The guiding principles for finding balance in the new world of hybrid and unanticipated change are common understanding, deciding consciously and intentionally to behave in a certain way in the context of work-life balance, and being open to change in one’s life instead of a dogmatic definition of what life should always be.

Vafa notes that success in the general society is usually defined by one’s rank, revenues, employees, etc. How big is your company, compensation, car, home, second home, plane? Did you publish any books or contribute to major publications? Do you speak often, and have tens of thousands of social media followers, likes, comments, and reposts? These are the commonly accepted indicators of success.

“Throughout my career, these were the accepted success standards. I always thought these were more superficial than substantive for future leaders. It wasn’t until I heard Clayton Christenson from HBS talk about the true value of a person, that I recognized his definition as my ideal of success as a leader – the extent to which you impact the lives of others with the resources you’ve been given,” Vafa states.

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community.”  – Cesar Chavez

He believes that while leaders must evaluate their achievements, including innovative strategies, inventive operating models, world-class teams, and other key performance indicators that lead to outcome metrics like sales growth, profitability, EPS, first-to-market, or free cash, they must also foster excellence in all areas, ensure the ideal environment, the right talent and influence transformation by facilitating a change in belief-systems, values, and mindset.

Be Authentic & Live Your Life with Purpose

Vafa shares some profound advice for aspiring leaders, namely that leadership is not a function of hierarchy. It is not defined by rank or position and does not depend on your titles or responsibilities. It doesn’t have boundaries.

“Your leadership legacy is the aggregate of the outcomes from all your professional decisions. Successful leaders have a belief and value system that guides their every action. Leaders succeed when their values, beliefs, and actions are consistent and and their coherence maps to their impact on others with the resources they have.

“At a practical level, leadership is about creating the environment for excellence to emerge, through facilitating purpose, strategy, culture, operations, gathering the right team, and then engineering design and execution, bolstered by engagement and inclusivity of stakeholders and the ecosystem. The leader is not the one who ‘does’, but rather enables, empowers, and facilitates the emergence of excellence. 

“Develop the capacity to be situational, as the pace of change is accelerating faster than the capacity of most organizations to anticipate or respond. This requires agility and constructive resilience. Be clear about how you need to lead in that situation.  Learn what combination of experiences will best help you develop those capacities.”

“Know who you want to be as a person, a human being, and leader. Know your core beliefs and values, like integrity, trustworthiness, and empathy. Be who you are and express your viewpoint, recognize when you don’t know, be humble and vulnerable, own your mistakes, apologize sincerely, try new and different things, shed preconceived notions, and pursue excellence.”

“Live every aspect and dimension of your life with purpose, in a way that reflects your beliefs and values. Manifest it with your thoughts, words, and deeds. Demonstrate through personal behavior. Be genuine and authentic. Show true reverence and vulnerability in what you do and how you do it. Share knowledge, insight, and foresight. Make things relevant and link them to outcomes.” 

“Shed all forms of prejudice, all preconceived notions. Live your convictions. Always be curious, dare to be bold. Have the courage to fail. Be the source of unity and the cause for elevating the human condition.”

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