Q&A: A systems view saves more lives, says new Pathfinder CEO Lois Quam

By Kelli Rogers 16 February 2017

Lois Quam (center), new CEO of Pathfinder International. Photo by: U.S. Mission Uganda / CC BY

Lois Quam is assuming leadership of Pathfinder International at a particularly tumultuous time for the reproductive health and family planning sector under a new U.S. administration.

It’s this challenge — and the excitement she feels about tackling it — that drove her to accept the position with the 60-year-old family planning-focused nonprofit.

Quam, who officially began her new role as CEO on Monday, feels a strong commitment to helping mothers give birth safely, she told Devex, having first seen the barriers of access to family planning while growing up in rural Minnesota.

Her own experience as a mother “provides me with a lot of energy and enthusiasm for this work,” she shared, and her business acumen is indisputable. Named three times to Fortune's list of the most influential women leaders in business, Quam has notably served at the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and as founding CEO of Ovations, a division of the Fortune 500 global corporation UnitedHealth Group, where she grew revenues to $32 billion in eight years.

It’s the mission of Pathfinder, though, that attracted her most of all, and she looks forward to applying her experience in a diversity of sectors toward the challenges the organization faces now.

“I’m someone who is very mission oriented,” Quam said. “I like to work toward a really important mission, that’s the central thing, and different government, private companies, nonprofits, religious organizations — I’ve worked in all of those — have different challenges, and I feel I’ve learned from all those settings.”

Devex caught up with Quam to find out what she plans to tackle first, how she’ll call on skills she’s honed in the private sector and how she’ll apply her background in integrated health systems to Pathfinder’s strategy moving forward. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re stepping into the role of Pathfinder’s CEO during a pivotal moment in the sexual and reproductive health movement. What’s on your mind right now, and what priorities will you tackle first?

My immediate priority is to get into the field and to see our work in action, meet with the teams and talk with the people that we serve so I can get a firsthand sense of things. I hope to make a trip to Africa in March, that’s my top priority. We know that there are so many people who need sexual and reproductive health care services who don’t have access to them, and I want to work with our team at headquarters in Watertown [Massachusetts] and around the world to see how we can expand our services to meet the needs of more people.

Due to President Donald Trump’s recent reinstatement of the global gag rule, Pathfinder is currently facing the tough task of re-evaluating and perhaps cutting strong partnerships. What will this mean for Pathfinder both internally and externally, and how will you manage this tumultuous time for the organization?

The simple answer is that it makes our work harder. Our partner organizations are forced to comply with the rule or lose the partnership, lose the U.S. funds. We’ve seen in the past how this rule hurts people, so it makes things harder... there’s no question about it. We’re very, very committed to working hard to find ways to serve as many people as possible in the face of these challenges.

You and your team at Ovations grew revenues to $32 billion in the span of eight years. How will you apply that experience to Pathfinder, especially during a time when the NGO may be looking to diversify funding sources?

It was a similar challenge. When I was leading Ovations, we were seeking to get needed services to low-income families and for elderly people in this country and in the U.K. Nothing we ever did was easy, everything was challenging. But what we were able to do is design and develop and then offer innovative services that met people’s needs — and that’s how you grow revenue.

When you look at what Pathfinder has down over its 60-year history, it has been distinctive in terms of the places that it serves, the people it serves and the way it provides those services. That distinctiveness will offer us the opportunity to expand our work even in the face of these challenges. I’m going to be very focused on finding additional sources of revenue for this work because it’s just so vital. That’s very much at the top of my list. It’s part of the reason I want to get out to the field, I want to see how things are working firsthand. After I do that, my focus is to ensure that our talented people have the resources they need to expand our services.

We know today there are women who bleed to death after giving birth whose lives could be saved. We know how to [save them], and we know how to work with partners to do that.

You’re no stranger to introducing integrated systems approaches for global health problems. Will you shake up any of the current systems at Pathfinder? Any other ideas already that you hope to introduce?

I feel that we have a lot to build on at Pathfinder. I think Pathfinder’s record is very distinguished. I’m looking forward to sitting down with my colleagues in Dar es Salaam and Watertown and around the world to say: What could we do more of? What could we do differently? Where are the barriers? How do we innovate?

I like to think in terms of health care systems and I think it’s fundamentally because you know there are some problems you can only fix if you look at it in a systematic way. Maternal survival — saving mothers in labor and delivery — is at the heart of that. There’s no vaccine, there’s no drug — you have to have an integrated health care delivery system, and that system needs to deliver in real time. It needs to be a joined up system, so a mother can come in and receive skilled help when she’s giving birth, can get to place where she can have a caesarian section if she needs that, and can stay long enough so she doesn’t go home and hemorrhage there — and that requires a system.

I also think systems are powerful because I look at it from the perspective of a woman who is trying to care for her own health and the health of her children. I myself had three children under 2 at one point; I had a son and then twins. I identify — but I lived in Minnesota, I had a car, I had a lot of advantages. But if you have to go one place to get you bed nets, and one place for vaccinations, another place for prenatal care and another place if you have HIV… that is really difficult. And if you look at the flip side of that, at what it’s like for a doctor or a health care worker working in that system, it’s also difficult for them. I think the last thing I’d say, one thing I learned when I was working at the State Department and traveling with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the investment that PEPFAR [U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] made through CDC in blood systems. When we started to look at how you can save lives of women in labor and delivery, you could build off that investment and make incremental changes in investment so you would have the kind of blood supplies that women needed to save their lives.

I think a systems view saves more lives in the end. The U.N. and member states have asked us to look at universal health care and make progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. I’m very excited through all of that. It’s a very important time to be working in global health.

The sexual and reproductive health and rights community expects other roadblocks under this administration, but there will also likely be surprising ripple effects. Are you anticipating anything in particular? And how can you prepare for these potential setbacks?

The challenges motivated me to take this role. I want to do work that’s really important. And this mission is really important and the challenges we face in doing this work call me to do it. We have to learn from each other, support each other, be resilient and just keep on. Keep on finding ways that we can do this work because and I think we have to take inspiration from the people whose lives are changed including our own by doing this work.

When I traveled in Kenya the first time, I remember being at a school with these young girls and learning the challenges for them at delaying their first pregnancy. If they could have their first pregnancy in their 20s rather than in their teens, there is opportunity to finish school and opportunity to have a completely different life; and if they have a different life, their community has a different life, their country has a different life. I think we just have to keep our eyes focused on our mission and be inspired by the people we serve — and be resilient in the face of all the challenges we face, whatever they are.

As a celebrated leader, you’ve already successfully transitioned between the private and public sectors. How has that prepared you for this role? What do you think you’ll find most challenging taking on this particular role?

My earliest leadership experiences were in the Lutheran church; then I was part of what became a Fortune 500 company; I served in the State Department with Hillary Clinton; I chaired a commission in Minnesota; I worked at the Nature Conservancy. What I try to do is bring the tools that I’ve learned from each of these sectors — each sector has an advantage and a challenge. That gives me a broader set of tools to approach this work at Pathfinder. For example, in a company, there is a tremendous amount of discipline on meeting performance goals. We set high goals and work toward meeting them. In government, there’s tremendous priority on protection of the rights of individuals; you learn from that. I seek to bring all of that to Pathfinder but also to learn from my colleagues here. I’m very fortunate — we have people who have been there a long time both at headquarters and in countries where we work, as well as people who have joined more recently. I’m looking forward to learning from and working with them.

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About the author

Kelli Rogers@kellierin

In her role as associate editor, Kelli Rogers helps to shape Devex content around leadership, professional growth and careers for professionals in international development, humanitarian aid and global health. As the manager of Doing Good, one of Devex's highest-circulation publications, she is constantly on the lookout for the latest staffing changes, hiring trends and tricks for recruiting skilled local and international staff for aid projects that make a difference. Kelli has studied or worked in Spain, Costa Rica and Kenya.

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