Collymore: How I battled cancer for nine months


Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore. PHOTO | COURTESY

Having just turned 60 not too long ago, what was your greatest revelation of the 50s?

I think I had a lot more self-realisation in my 50s. In my 40s I was still hunting around. I left the UK for Japan and then to South Africa, where I started to gain a defined sense of purpose, began to understand there is privilege in working in an environment where you can make a difference. The other significant thing that happened in my 50s is that I adopted my daughter — we have a 50-year difference between us. That was a great thing. My 50s is also when I was diagnosed with cancer and to think of life and wonder if things will work out; will I get back to Nairobi or is this it?; and when I look back at my life, how do I feel about that?

Has your purpose shifted, what’s your purpose in your 60s?

That’s a good question. I know my purpose is to help as many people as I can to do the right thing. I have talked about cancer children at KNH on palliative care, children who know they will die and not dying in the best circumstances. My question is; can I sway people or the government to do the right thing for them? Can I make business deals that will look at the climate change or impact it in a good way? Can I do more to encourage great transparency, reduce fraud and corruption?

Have you always been clear what you wanted? Was this ever part of the big idea?

I was always clear that I wanted a bigger car and a bigger house, like most people, really. [Laughs]. I wanted these things because they show status but at some point, I must have been 45 years, things changed. I started asking, what do I want to do and why? I was in Japan then with my family and my son had just finished school and I thought, ‘what is important to me now?” and at that time it was my son’s happiness. But was the car I was driving then, a Jaguar XKR Sports, going to guarantee his happiness? I started to think about the society he was living in and the future he was going to occupy and my role in making it better. That was my turning point. Life was never going to be about the size of car I drove.

Did you ever cry when you were in that hospital?

I think I did. Once or twice, in the early days. There was a period of uncertainty, when I didn’t know exactly if I had cancer or not but everything was indicative that perhaps I had it. I came to that realisation in London at the hospital when it dawned on me that it was cancer. But I don't think I cried because I thought I was going to die, I think I cried because I started to realise how much everybody else cared. And I cried in response to the messages. These were moving messages, even the sea was moved. Everybody at Safaricom and just the general Kenyan public, strangers, acquaintances, friends, just wishing you well.

How can you tell which people align themselves to you because you are the CEO and those who genuinely connect with you because you are Bob?

It's tough. I remember many years ago, Wambui [the wife] asked me the same question. I said I don't and that's why I only have one friend, unfortunately that friend died. She said wow! But over the eight years of being here, we've seen more and more people emerge as genuine friends or people who genuinely care. So I have a very small circle of good friends, and they come from different kinds of backgrounds. It's tough for people like me because we actually want people to care more.

So who now tells the emperor when he’s naked?

Wambui does. Also, him [points at Urbanus Musinga, his Executive Assistant] He is likely to tell me when I’m doing stupid things...

What's the most stupid thing you've done in nine years as CEO?

(Chuckles) Why are you asking this question? Because I have to go through so many things that I have done to pick the most stupid thing I've done. They're many. My mind is in paradise to think about it now. [Pause] I think some of the bad HR decisions — the firing was more about the timing rather than if I should have done it or not. Then there are commercial decisions, we made some wrong calls. [Pause] We do stupid things every day, I do stupid things every day.

You have been married once before…

Three times! [Laughter in the room] But divorced twice.

How do you do it three times. What is your reason for coming back over and over, is it love? Faith? What is it?

Each time it's got better. Each time the match has been better. There is stuff I could have done better for sure. And there are blames I have to take. Hopefully I have learnt some of them. What keeps me coming back? [Pause] I think I never set out to remarry, I think I just met someone who, we lived together for a while before we got married, so someone I think I can spend the rest of my life with because we care for each other.

The first marriage was a mistake for sure. I was too young — in my 20s. The second one was not a mistake, what was a mistake was how we conducted it.

Now we're actually very good friends with Clare because we have children and she has been very very supportive because she's gone through cancer herself in the UK and she kind of gives me tips on how to deal with some of the challenges I face with the chemicals they're about to pump into me.

She frequently reached out to Wambui and said why don't you come down for the weekend?

When you were in that room, alone, with your thoughts, did you discover anything about yourself?

Yes, actually I did. [Pause] I don’t know if I should say it...I should in the spirit of honesty. [Pause] I had hundreds and hundreds of well-wishers sending me messages to get well soon, some who are strangers, business rivals, acquaintances and all and I stopped and asked myself, “would I have done the same thing?” [Long pause] The answer is no. That realisation didn’t fill me with pride, knowing that I was not the nice person I thought I was.

Has this experience changed your perception of mortality?

[Pause] Death is inevitable and I have made the decision not to cling on the thought of it because it will eventually come, I just do not know when. I have chosen to focus on the things that are more important to me. Now I know it’s kind of impossible for somebody to live for 200 years. [Chuckles]. But something very important is that when you have cancer the idea of death is near, and so it doesn’t surprise unlike you who is healthy but death could be coming in the next minute or tomorrow morning.

Has it changed how you do business?

To some extent it has. It has allowed me to let more people manage me. It’s made us focus on the things that are important because not everything is important, not all arguments are important to many. You do not always have the last word on something and you do not always have to be the first person to say something. Just shut up and listen and do not have to always say anything. When you spend a lot of time on your own, you realise that silence actually is a pretty good thing.