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It was both a blunt message and a defining moment on the career path of Mike Nader.
Fresh off completion of an undergraduate biology degree at the University of British Columbia, Mike was applying to its medical school. Faced with long odds – thousands of students for barely 100 spots – he reached out to the Dean to see how he might set himself apart from the competition.
"He said: 'Do you want to know the truth?'" UHN's newly minted Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer recalls with a laugh. "'Well, you're boring. There's nothing unique about you.
"'Do something interesting. Go to Africa. Do some volunteer work. Do something that we would see on your resume that would make us want to talk to you.'"
Having been told where to go, Mike went. To Zimbabwe. Over the next eight months, he taught biology, math and chemistry to high school-aged boys and girls at a 1000-student boarding school in a rural part of the country. Along the way, he also arranged for a few dozen used computers donated by Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) – where he'd worked the summers in IT to help pay for his undergraduate studies – to be shipped to the school, using them to create what at the time was believed to be the first computer lab in rural southern Africa, a building which now bears his name.
By the time Mike returned from Africa, the deadline to apply for medical school had passed. So, his original plan of becoming a physician, and then completing his MBA, was reversed.
"Well, as soon as you do your MBA, you start learning about finances and return on investment," he says. "So, I calculated what the payback period would be for me to earn back the money I would be losing after I completed my MBA and it worked out I'd be 62. I said: 'I'm not going to medical school.'"
MBA in hand and eyes set on a career in international development, Mike's career path took another turn. A former colleague at VGH, where Mike had begun working at age 17 installing computer software, called and said he was looking for someone to lead their Y2K project.
Mike took the job. After leading the team that beat back the threat of impending computer chaos and supply chain mayhem, he became a manager of strategic planning and then served in a variety of senior management positions as the British Columbia health system amalgamated, giving rise to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), the most-populous of the province's six regional health authorities.
'I see myself as a change agent'
"Really, my career has just evolved," says Mike, who before leaving for UHN had risen to become Chief Operating Officer – Coastal at VCH, a system which serves about one-quarter of B.C.'s four million people with staff of more than 20,000 and an annual budget in excess of $3 billion. "I see myself as a change agent who's really focused on making the system better and more sustainable."
Mike, who was born in Lebanon and fled the civil war with his family as a pre-schooler in the mid-1970s to settle in Calgary before they moved to Vancouver when he was about 12, admits he "was quite happy where I was" and had no plans to leave the West Coast when the job at UHN came up.
But Mike says the lure of the destination – "University Health Network is world renowned" – as well as the vision and commitment of UHN President and CEO, Dr. Peter Pisters, and the chance to work in the unique healthcare setting of Ontario, all proved very attractive. So too, he says, is the chance to delve deeply into the area of clinical operations after years of working across the breadth system.
"It's really an opportunity to work and grow in a different setting," Mike says.
Barely a month into his role at UHN, Mike says he's well aware of many "pockets of brilliance" across the organization in how we do things. But, he adds, "we have duplication of work" in some areas, and to continue to be able to innovate, we have to eliminate some of the inefficiency that we have.
Seeing even greater things for UHN
"It's an opportunity to be able to show the teams, through the use of data, business analytics, information that we're going to acquire, the areas where we can be more efficient," he says. "And, in being more efficient, we can serve more patients, and we can find more money that allows us to buy the latest and greatest technology, that allows us to then innovate through our research and education, and stay ahead of everyone else as the leading centre in the country."
But Mike Nader sees even bigger things in store for UHN.
"I've heard a number of times that we have no comparator in Canada," he says. "Well, wouldn't it be great for us to say we have no comparator in the world, that we are the best in the world?
"I would love to be able to say that, and for us to be out there saying that with all sincerity."