Hospital CEO talks money, zeal, silence

Nairobi Women’s Hospital Group chief executive Sam Thenya at his office in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU
Nairobi Women’s Hospital Group chief executive Sam Thenya at his office in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU  

Two things happen the day I interview Dr Sam Thenya.

One, Donald Trump becomes the leader of the free world. Two, Dr Thenya lives through the last hours of his 47th birthday. All totally unrelated, of course.

At 31 years of age, Dr Thenya broke away from formal employment to start Nairobi Women’s Hospital, the first of its kind in Kenya; a great leap of faith. He talks about the one ingredient behind the drive to do that: madness.

We met in his office at Nairobi Women’s Hospital, Masaba.

He tossed away his coat and tie and left on his virgin white cotton dress shirt that accentuated his youthfulness. He remained full of beans through our chat.


As CEO of a hospital, just how many phone calls do you receive in a day?

There’s a time I would receive 50, 60 or probably 70 calls. But now, sometimes even 10 or 15.

What was the bulk of those calls?

The bulk of them had to do with running of the business. Because we’ve been through various stages. At this point, I’m not involved in the running of day-to-day operations.

So, suppliers will not call me, doctors will not call me. So half of the calls I get will be if a patient has a serious complaint or somebody trying to pitch for business or someone looking for a job for a relative – I don’t do recruitment.

Actually, I only recruit people who report directly to me and their managers. So, sometimes I get worried, I think my phone is spoilt. (Laughs)

Is your mom still alive?

No, passed on when I was 17 years.

So who’s your closest female family member that you have?

The closest female family member that I have is my cousin. She must be 65.

If she fell ill tomorrow, and I’m talking about some serious illness, touch wood. Would you bring her here?

Yes! My daughter was born at our hospital in Hurlingham. I’ll bring her here without hesitation.

Are you surprised that you’re here right now? That the hospital is here right now doing as it’s doing?

Surprised, no. But did I imagine that we would be here? I think we’ve done better than I thought. So I’d not call it a surprise, but I did not anticipate that we’d be where we are today.

What have you learnt about leadership that you probably didn’t know, or you’ve never read in a book?

I’m a gynaecologist and I founded the hospital 16 years ago. So I’m probably the only guy in the organisation — not probably — I am the only guy who was never interviewed, because I gave myself my job. (Laughs). So, I have learnt a lot of things about leadership. One of them is humility.

The more powerful you are, the gentler you must be. So I look at myself as a gentle giant. So you don’t flex because the moment you flex, you can blow off a lot of things. I’ve also learnt that leadership is more important and is needed in times of crisis. When everything is working, hardly do these guys need me.

But when there’s a crisis is when leadership must be exemplified with confidence by inspiring the team. ‘This will pass, all will be well’.

When was your leadership most tested in those 16 years?

A couple of times. In 2003, we had only one banker — Daima Bank. This night, I had just left the hospital and was fuelling my car when I heard over the radio—9 p.m. news— that Daima Bank has been closed. (Laughs) We had just issued suppliers cheques. That was a tough period.

The second was the social media problems we had in 2012 when we were getting so much negativity, people saying we were devil worshippers, sacrificing humans etc. I tried to respond in those forums and the bashing increased and the lies flowed so I learnt that the art of silence from that experience.

What part of leadership do you struggle with most?

(Pause) Sometimes leadership by example. So I tell guys, “We must come to work on time and everything” and there are days you just wake up and you’re like, “I’m not going to do this.” Just this morning when I woke up, I had a plan of what I was going to do but my first meeting was at 9 a.m. I’d planned to be here at 7 a.m, but I woke up and felt that I wanted to watch the US presidential results.

But I don’t expect my doctors or my nurses to do that (Laughs). So sometimes that makes me feel like I’m cheating. Like I’m not walking the talk.

You started this business when you were in your early 30s, what drove you to take that plunge?

I was working in a hospital and I had pitched this idea to the CEO of that hospital, but he wasn’t very keen on the idea of taking in abused women for free. Abused women didn’t even trust their gynaecologists to begin with. So this one time he told me that if I thought the idea would work then I should go ahead and open my own hospital because it wasn’t going to work at that hospital and right there I thought to myself, “Why not?”

So you need some certain trigger, madness or passion. It can never be about money. You must have a passion for something. I was so determined and everybody thought I was going crazy. So it was lonely, but I was determined to make it work. Two, you must move from your comfort zone. Sometimes I tell myself, “Sam that was not you.” But I have had to push and push.

How much does politics influence the business in your opinion?

You know the biggest procurer of goods and services is the government. The government is run by politicians. I actually get surprised when people say there’s a way you can divorce business and politics. So especially organisations that trade with the government, you cannot divorce the two.

Now, I am fortunate that in the health industry, it does not play much because other than say, NHIF, where you have a government entity that has a medical scheme and they contract us — and they’ve been contracting many others anyway, we hardly ever do any business with the government.

Has there ever been a situation where a politician has come demanding for a piece of this cake?

Not that way. My biggest problem, and I think this is in the public domain, is politicians calling for release of patients who have not paid their bills or release a body of a someone who has bills. That’s usually the main one.
Actually, that’s the biggest pressure from politicians and technocrats — you know, the ministry and other places. But I have been very steadfast and I tell them to pay. I think that is in the public domain.

The President called me and he told me that somebody had written to him an e-mail that the body of the mother was here and he asked me, “Sam, what do we do?” He was very casual so I said, “Your Excellency, the bill has to be paid.” So he said, “I’m going to pay the bill, so release the body.”

So I said, “I need some proof of payment of some pre-payment today. If you want me to release it today, then pay today.” And he actually cleared the bill.

So you are turning 48 tomorrow...

Yes. It takes 48 years and God to look this way. (Laughs). Mostly God. (Laughs) But the years have been kind as well.

And again also, money helps.

No, it’s not money.

What’s it about?

It’s about taking care of yourself. So like, after my meeting at 9 a.m, I had a few minutes. Okay, two hours before my lunch meeting so I hit the gym. There’s no way you’re going to be inactive, eat what you want, eat carelessly and still expect to be healthy.

So what have you learnt in 48 years?

(Laughs) Probably nothing.

What are you most insecure about?

I suspect I have constructive paranoia of the future. I am a planner. As we speak, I know exactly know what I’m going to do with my holiday, the days of Christmas, New Year. To the date, to the hour I’ll fly in, out etc. So I’ve even planned for trips for the next year. So maybe I have some futuristic, constructive paranoia — if you want to call it.

What I’ve learnt is to also not worry too much about the future because sometimes things change that are beyond your control.

What kind of gift would someone give a 48-year-old of your stature that would really impress you?

Oh! you want to give me a gift? (Laughs) How about you try a Range Rover? (Laughs)

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?

(Laughs) Let’s pass that one. Because there’s one, but I don’t want to discuss it.

How do you unwind except from gym?

Play golf, not seriously. I read anything and everything. I don’t say I listen to music because music is always in the background. I love to cook, but I don’t get to do that often. In fact, when I’m tired, that’s my favourite past-time. If I’m tired and you’re hungry, then you’re in good books.

What have you learnt about money?

I actually learnt about money from my daughter. Money is just a concept — so she told me. I believe her. If you want to be philosophical, it’s just an exchange of what is a perceived value—but let’s not go there.

What I’ve learnt about money, is that money is important. In fact, I’d call it Vitamin M. It is important and essential to have some money because it gives access to goods and services. Two, as the Bible says, the pursuit for money is the root of all evil.

You know why? Because, think about it this way, if you hinge your happiness on money, and I’m not saying it’s not good to have money, it will give you a good car, it will give you a good house, clothing, it can take you on holiday—the good things that we think are important. But if you hinge your happiness on it –that the more money I have, the happier I will be, its doom.

What brings you happiness?

That’s a difficult one to say. Let me first of all generalise and say, happiness must come from within. You must first of all be happy about the little things. Number two is relationships. Friendships – you don’t have to have a 100 friends, but if you have two who you know will be there...because fair weather friends are many.

Happy Birthday, daktari. Thanks for the interview.

Thank you. So shall I wait for that Range Rover then? (Laughs).