An Interview with Qamar Wan Noor, an ICDM board-ready talent. She recounts her experience helping her companies recover from a cyclone, water contamination, and human stampede, and reveals what helps her stay calm when a crisis strikes.
Could you tell us more about you? Have you always wanted to be a chemical engineer? How did your transition from being an engineer to being in management come about? My late father, an ex-serviceman, always encouraged and insisted that all four of his daughters do well in our education so that we can have a better life. He was bucking the trend then! And my mother had also instilled in us the values of hard work and not giving up. Armed with these, I accepted the offer to attend a fully residential college, MRSM Kulim, for my secondary education. I then received a MARA scholarship to study engineering in the United States (US) after my SPM, in which I scored 8A1s. The US tertiary education system gives the first two years a general engineering background and I decided to do chemical engineering because I enjoyed Chemistry very much. There were only seven women in the class of 50! I graduated magna cum laude from Rensselaer, Troy, New York. Then, I joined Shell as a refinery technologist at the Shell Refining Company in Port Dickson and from there, I started to carve my career in Shell spanning 27 years. The transition to management was gradual as in Shell, opportunities were there to those who deliver results and were willing to take up challenges. I was also at times at the right place and time when the opportunities came knocking.
In your 20-odd years of experience working in the oil and gas sector and more recently in the public transport sector, you had to deal with quite a fair bit of crisis management, with some involving injuries, fire and fatality. Can you share with us some of these experiences and how did you stay level-headed in crises? I had my fair share of responding to emergency situations and crisis management. Once when I was based in Muscat, Oman as the Distribution Manager for Shell Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the nation was hit by the tropical cyclone Gonu. Oman as a desert country was not equipped, infrastructure-wise, to deal with such an onslaught of heavy rain for two full days. After the cyclone had passed, my staff and I drove around Muscat to assess the impact of Gonu. It was like the aftermath of an earthquake as the wadi (shallow riverbed) could not cope with the volume of water and many highways were damaged, falling like dominoes. We immediately initiated our Business Continuity Plan (BCP) and worked hand-in-hand with my retail colleagues and authorities based on our agreed action plans as well as our available but limited resources. We needed to collect the most accurate information so that we could send the tankers to prioritised stations that were not affected. At that time, there was both tension and pressure, but we pulled through. We were the first oil company to reopen our retail stations and was commended by the late HRH Sultan Qaboos.
When I returned to the country as the General Manager of Shell Distribution Malaysia and Singapore, my team and I had to deal with the prolonged closure of a water treatment plant due to a diesel spill. The spill occurred from an accident where a tanker had rolled over to avoid a head-on collision with a vegetable truck from Cameron Highlands. I acted as the site commander given the gravity of the situation where the water supply was disrupted for about two weeks. I had to quickly understand the workings of a water treatment plant (being trained as a chemical engineer helped) and why our initial solutions were not working.
A recent crisis was when the Land Public Transport Agency or more commonly known as SPAD was tasked to organise the distribution of free petrol cards to taxi drivers at a function graced by the then Prime Minister. The taxi drivers heard a rumour that there were limited cards to be issued and all hell broke loose! We were caught off-guard at first, but managed to bring the situation under control with just one unfortunate driver suffering a broken bone.
“As the lead, you must be able to see the bigger picture but pay attention to key details. The most important thing is to focus on saving lives and making sure people affected are given assistance and support.”
Looking back, it is indeed not easy to stay level-headed in a crisis. At the onset of every crisis, I did question my ability to lead my team… but I ultimately convinced myself that we could pull these through together. Dealing with crisis requires early preparation and drills so that you are prepared to respond. Although no drills and early preparation could really prepare you when the real crisis strikes, it has kept me level-headed and calm. One needs to assess the damage and resources at hand before drawing an action plan. Pausing from time to time to review actions against plan is crucial and we must develop the ability to listen to others especially those who have different views when solving a problem. Do not look for a scapegoat and better yet, leave your ego behind, seek advice and professional help (like water treatment specialists) since it is not your expertise. Work with key stakeholders from the beginning and delegate responsibly! Do not pretend that you know everything, but you must try your best! As the lead, you must be able to see the bigger picture but pay attention to key details. The most important thing is to focus on saving lives and making sure people affected are given assistance and support. Post-crisis, it is equally important to conduct a post-mortem analysis to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the response team, and to ensure lessons are learnt and identified gaps are closed.
Personally, I thank my family for supporting me in those times of crisis, where my team and I could not go home to see our families. In Muscat when I had to oversee the operations day-in and day-out until the crisis was stabilised, I thanked my close friends who looked after my children and helper as my husband was also away in Malaysia at that time.
Our country is experiencing an unprecedented uncertainty, aggravated by the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses in Malaysia are trying their level best to stay resilient. Do you have any personal observations on what boards can do at times like this, especially when it comes to stakeholder management? When we look through history, there were pandemics before, and we humans have proven that we are resilient and we can pull through this unprecedented uncertainty. There are many stakeholders to manage but to me, the most critical now is the staff. Their needs (if they have to work in essential services) for safe working conditions must be addressed and HR strategies need to be reviewed to cope with the current BCP and over the short, medium and long terms. Frequent communication to update staff is crucial. The board should assess how long the business can run on the BCP (in case more staff are infected) and to build plausible scenarios (including worst-case scenario) and the corresponding decisions that the board has to take. And of course, complying with the government directives under Movement Control Order is a must. Customers need to be continuously updated via social media and emails. The communication to the shareholders should take place later when the situation has stabilised and we can all pick up the pieces together.
“There are many stakeholders to manage but to me, the most critical now is the staff. Their needs for safe working conditions must be addressed and HR strategies need to be reviewed to cope with the current BCP and over the short, medium and long terms.”
The oil and gas and the public transport sectors are traditionally dominated by men. You have not only managed to survive but thrive in those environments. What is your secret to success? There is no secret actually. Shell has instilled in me to focus on delivering results while at the same time, to uphold our values. My values and Shell’s core values (Honesty, Integrity and Respect for People) are aligned and those basically have moulded me to became who I am now. I also believe that my bosses recognised my potential and trusted me, and I am grateful for that. I managed to realise my potential and did not fail them and myself. Being the only female in many situations also had its pros and cons. If you do well, you can pave the way for others to follow, but if you do not, the negative shadow might be unfairly cast on other women. Be approachable and friendly but at the same time, know where and when to draw the line. I also firmly believe in the adage, “Do unto others, like how you want others to do unto you”.
You were instrumental in obtaining parliamentary approval for the e-hailing legislation back in 2017 and 2018. It was a delicate task having to balance compliance and innovation. Could you walk us through that process? My SPAD’s Taxi team was instrumental in obtaining the parliament approval in mid-2017. The following year was focused on the implementation, which required various stakeholder engagements, from taxi associations, e-hailing operators, and various government authorities to the public at large. The legislation was successfully gazetted in July 2018 with the law taking effect from July 2019 (later extended to Oct 2019). E-hailing operators were welcome disruptors, especially by the public, who had limited choices of public transportation previously. Unfortunately, the level of disruption was unchecked and uncontrolled until SPAD intervened and ensured that both e-hailing, taxi drivers and operators can co-exist on a level playing field.
One of the innovative measures we implemented was to allow the e-hailing and taxi operators to conduct their own e-hailing classes using the newly prescribed modules, which saved the drivers time and cost significantly. Taxi drivers were encouraged to learn the new technology and be mobile-phone savvy but only a minority were willing to take up the challenge.
In addition, although e-hailing operators use dynamic pricing based on supply and demand, such innovation was found to be detrimental to the society in the event of say, very bad weather, as the fares would skyrocket when the supply was extremely limited. SPAD had to balance such innovations with public interest and introduce a cap to the base fare.
“One must be able to look into possible unintended consequences and the preparedness in dealing with matters such as risks and rewards.”
It is not easy to be a board director these days. It is an onerous role with increasing responsibilities and liabilities. We wonder what motivated you to take on this challenge. Indeed, especially with the upcoming introduction of Section 17A of the MACC Act. I believe I can bring to the table my MNC experience and also my experience working in the Government through SPAD. I was on the board of Shell Timur Sdn Bhd, and before that on a few JV boards between Petronas Dagangan and Shell Malaysia Trading. I have been involved in strategy, business development and various operational roles where one has to understand the risks and rewards through many perspectives, from shareholders to employees to customers to authorities and the public at large. One must be able to look into possible unintended consequences and the preparedness in dealing with such matters. Boards are the ones entrusted to look into these via corporate governance and risk management. Corporate governance and business integrity are my passion in addition to road safety which motivated me to take on this challenge.
Qamar Wan Noor has over 28 years of professional experience in supply chain, public transport regulation and policy, business development, project management, corporate planning and refinery operations. She is also experienced in crisis management and in dealing with serious safety incident management and investigation.