Rashid Khalani: Numbers guy’s rise to head Aga Khan University Hospital office


Rashid Khalani, CEO, The Aga Khan University Hospital at his Nairobi campus office on March 1, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

The new sheriff at Aga Khan University Hospital is from Pakistan. His name is Rashid Khalani. He grew up in Karachi. It’s one of the most populous cities in the world, the 12th most populous, to be precise.

This means you have to swim with your head above the parapet like he did or you drown and become nobody. Mom was a housewife, and dad was a small businessman.

Dad fell sick, Rashid took over while forging forth studying a Bachelor of Commerce and then a Master's in Business Administration, then joining Aga Khan University in Karachi then off to Afghanistan to work for Roshan telecom. Anyway, all that is online.

What's important though, is that he’s the CEO now, one year in the job after time in the trenches working his way up like a very smart and determined Karachi boy.

Rashid plays badminton every week, we don’t know how well but seeing as he has great-looking hair, we can only suspect not too well.

He’s only 42 and has a great sense of humour for someone running a massive hospital like Aga Khan University Hospital.

How did you bag this job at a relatively young age, was it hard work or do you know someone?

It's all of the above. I mean, without hard work nothing can be achieved - unless you're born with a silver spoon, which I wasn't.

Also, there has to be someone who recognises your hard work and I was fortunate that my bosses over time in the past 19 years of my career threw me at the deep end and when I swam they recognised me.

And when they recognised me I grew, I moved up the ladder. And I think God has been very kind. Without Him, I don't think anyone can grow. So it's a combination of hard work, being more adaptable to changing circumstances, and being recognised.

Are you religious or spiritual?

I’m spiritual. I think religion is very personal. I am not one of those people who go out and preach, or use the name of God in every sentence.

But I have my own beliefs, and it’s an individualistic matter, and that’s how it should be. The conversation is between you and God. But I believe in the power of God. Very much.

Is there something you're currently asking of God?

Yes. Many things. Good health and good education for my children. The world is ever-changing. It was the case 1,000 or even 50 years ago.

But the pace of change is too rapid and dramatic these days. How do we learn and unlearn some of the things we need to adapt amid this fast-paced change?

These are some of the things I ask of myself, of God, and from God every day.

Hospitals are places where science and spirituality often cross. God and science in healing. Has this been apparent to you during your time here?

If God just wanted us to rely on Him, He would not have given us brains. But He gave us brains and knowledge. He gave us the thirst to acquire new knowledge. If He had not given us this, we would not have developed into what we are. And we continue to develop.

If you look at the advancement of science, at artificial intelligence, satellites, and many other discoveries, God has enabled us to do that.

So, yes, our work is based on science, and we should be good at it, but then there are always elements of the power above at play.

I am a strong believer that if you do it right, good things, right things, will happen to you. I also believe that no matter how good the doctor is, they are not God.

But that does not mean that you disregard the science. So science is important, but obviously, there is divine intervention in everything.

You were CFO [chief financial officer] before, with someone above you who would take the heat. Now, as the CEO, you take the heat directly. When you were transitioning was there a sense of self-doubt, anxiety or fear?

Self doubt, no. Fear, yes. And fear because of the external environment. When I took over, we were battling the third wave of Covid-19, the harshest.

Vaccines were not coming to developing countries. We didn’t know what was happening. The news of what was happening in India and in other parts of the world was playing on my mind, but I had faith in the institution and the people. But this external environment did cause fear and anxiety, but I never doubted myself.


Rashid Khalani, CEO, The Aga Khan University Hospital at his Nairobi campus office on March 1, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

You are running a hospital yet not a medic. Under you must be many surgeons, specialists and whatnots, probably much older, more experienced and likely earning more money. How do you lead people like these without rocking the boat?

That is an important question, and one that was playing on my mind when I was transitioning from CFO to CEO. With 19 years of experience, I think I have domain knowledge.

I have not become a physician, I cannot cut you or treat you, but I know a lot about the domain. So that is extremely important.

Because once you have good domain knowledge, and you continue to learn, that gives you some credibility. That also requires hard work.

I have spent days in the ward, not to treat, but to understand what is happening. When they say, “I want to intubate a five-year-old child”, what does that even mean? I’ve spent hours and days in these technical and clinical areas and I read a lot so I’ve gathered knowledge. That’s one part.

The second part is that you have to create relationships with the surgeons, physicians or nurses. There are things they’re good at, but there are things that I am very good at.

There are other aspects of business, financial management, supply chain management, human resource management, marketing and communication, and long-term strategies that they don’t know but I do.

So yes, they bring something to the table, and I bring something else to the table. It’s a partnership. That way, we can understand each other once we have a relationship.

What do you know with certainty now that you didn’t or wish you knew at 32?

That’s a tricky one. (Long pause) That I would become a CEO at 42, that I didn’t know. Ten years ago, I thought a CEO should always be someone in their 50s, with grey hair.

There is a saying that the one who wins the race doesn’t have to be the fastest or the strongest. The one who wins the race is the one who is the most adaptable.

So if you’re ready to adapt, I think you can be the winner. Now age is just a number.

Describe your childhood.

I grew up in Pakistan. What I remember are the many human interactions. Unlike my children, we were not glued to the TV or gadgets. There was no internet.

So we sat outside the house, laughing with friends. I was active in sports until the age of 23 when I completed university. To date, I still play badminton twice a week.

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, ours was a middle-class family of three. I had to take a loan to complete my postgraduate degree. But my parents taught me well.

Value small things, value relationships, believe in God and believe in yourself. My dad used to keep the English newspaper on the dining table every day with the expectation that I would read it.

He would come back home and ask me, "have you read the newspaper?" I was only nine years old, and I found the last two pages - the sports section - to be the most interesting. The habit of reading newspapers continues to date.

Do you miss home?

I miss my parents. I visit them twice a year. They're retired and now live with my younger brother. My mom has always been a housewife. My dad had a small business, but then he got kidney disease. He's been a dialysis patient for many years. Eventually, he left the business. I have had to take care of my parents and my brother.

What did you dream of when you were a child in Pakistan?

I always wanted to be a doctor but the circumstances couldn't allow. We had money issues so that wasn’t possible.

If money was never a problem at all, what's the one thing you'd do?

I would not retire for sure. I love working. Adrenaline is inbuilt into me. I love challenges. If money wasn’t an issue I would send my children to the best universities in the world because I think in this day and age, battles are lost and won on computers, or excel sheets.

The best tool that I can give them is education. Money isn’t a big thing because today you want a four-bedroom house and tomorrow a six-bedroom. How many bedrooms will you sleep in? But I like helping others, my family first then others.

Do you believe in reincarnation?

No, I don't.

What space do you think fear has in leadership? Is it necessary to be feared and if so, is that the same as being a dictator?

No war can be won by a single individual. And there have been so many dictators who are buried six feet under, people who thought they could be gods.

Being feared means you're offensive, and abrasive, that you're not a good listener, that you don’t value other people's ideas and beliefs and their knowledge and experiences.

If you disregard all that, that means you want people to fear you and then you will not be able to benefit.

But if you open the door, and your mind to new ideas, to learnings, you will be adding value not only to yourself personally and professionally but also to others.

Leaders who don’t believe in themselves think they should be feared.

What personal traits are you currently working on?

Patience. As a former CFO, I am and will always be a numbers guy. So attention to detail is my forte. I expected, and I still do expect others to be the same.

Finance people are usually very good at multitasking. I expect others to do the same. But I realise that not everyone is a finance person, and shouldn't be, and so I’m learning to be patient.

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