OKEYO: My Breakthrough – Business Daily

Steve Okeyo, Group Chief Executive Officer, Hospital Holdings Investment (HHI) during the interview at the AAR Hospital on January 24, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
If you saw Steve Okeyo stride around the ultra-modern AAR Hospital complex on Kiambu Road, you would not mistake him for anything but a CEO.
Or in his case, the Group CEO of Hospital Holdings Investments, a private healthcare holding firm that manages integrated healthcare services across East Africa – of which AAR Healthcare group is a part of.
It is his immaculate well-cut suit, his industrious white shirt garroted by a slick tie, and the so-beautiful dress shoes that seemed to have been stitched by the slightly trembly hands of a very old Italian shoemaker with rheumy eyes. However, it is also his mien.
He is eight months in his current role after a two-year stint at Telcom as managing director of the consumer. Before that, you might have known him as the director of regional sales and operation at Safaricom where he was for three years.
The title that does not appear on his LinkedIn [but should] is the storyteller. The man tells a good story as JACKSON BIKO discovered recently over breakfast at Java within the hospital.
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How old are you now, Steve?
I’m 51.
What did you do for your 50th?
I ate a cake. That’s it. Two years before I turned 50, I tried to reflect on my life, do certain things and expand my mind. The greatest thing that happened for me was going for this course in the Netherlands for one year. Creative leadership at THNK School of Creative Leadership.
They don’t give you a certificate at the end because does one need papers for knowledge? Part of the course is you have psychologists and coaches working with you to go inside yourself and figure out who you are.
Good leadership demands that you are self-aware, you know yourself. Unless you’re aware of yourself, very deeply, you’re not able to lead people in a meaningful manner. You’ll just remain a manager.
So what did you find out about yourself?
That I was somebody doing things. Many people think like this; ‘I have to get a job so that I earn good money, then I save, then I book a holiday and when I go for that holiday, I’ll take pictures and post them on Instagram, and I’d be happy.’
But I learned that I already am; I don’t have to do to be and that everything happens for me and through me. So that was a real shift for me. There is this fallacy that your value as a person is in the doing and that if you don’t do, you’re of no value.
That’s why people lose their jobs and go into depression because they put too much of their weight on the title CEO. Your identity isn’t in having a title. What should give you meaning is inside [touches chest].
This breakthrough happened at a time when I didn’t have a job. I had just left Safaricom and they had paid me a lot of money. I was free to chill for one year and do nothing but find out more about myself. And that’s great freedom and a gift.
When people like you — to mean people at the top of the food chain — talk about freedom, I feel like it’s easy to talk about freedom when it’s backed by financial independence. Are you able to be free when you can’t feed your children?
What is financial independence? For me now, at my age, I just want to ensure that my children go to school. Do I have a house where I can live? Can I afford basic things? Can I decide to say that over the weekend I’m going to Maasai Mara or Lamu and just go?
I don’t have to fly, I can take SGR, I can drive myself, I can take a bus.
I think people put themselves in boxes. Financial independence doesn’t mean excesses.
What do you know about yourself now that you didn’t know ten years ago?
That human beings have to live and they have to die. Do you want to prolong your life, or do you want to prolong your death?
Life isn’t measured in chunks of decades, or in how big an organisation you are running. Life is counted in days. Life is here. We are breathing. I can see you; you can see me, we can see the trees. We’re alive.
You’re eating your oatmeal, I’m drinking my coffee, this is happiness. Of course, there’s more to it, the fact that we can pay our bills, we can drive and come here and use all this modern technology.
Are your relationships better now with this newfound you?
From my side, they’re better but maybe other people are saying ‘oh nowadays we don’t see you, he’s avoiding us.’ But now I can say no, I don’t have to see you. Why? Because I’m reading a book. So I choose what I need to do.
You don’t need to look back like Lot’s wife from the Bible. Sometimes when you’re being promised a new life, a new perspective, all you have to do is to look ahead.
Don’t look back. She [Lot’s wife] looked back! And what happened? She turned into salt. (Chuckles) So sometimes, don’t even look back to check whether the people are happy, no. You just move on.
Which character in the Bible do you identify the most with?
God. You know when God was in assembly with his angels and archangels, the devil happened to pass by, and God asked him where have you been? The devil said I have been all over the world and I saw your servant Job.
Look, these guys—God and the devil —knew each other very well, otherwise, the devil couldn’t have just popped into God’s meeting.
They get talking about Job and how Job only loves God because God has given him all these things. God says, no, he loves me regardless, Job is my guy.
The devil said let me test him a bit. So God told him look, you can test him; you can touch anything else but don’t touch him. So it was, and Job was tested. The Bible is very violent, Biko because the devil went and killed all these people and all the animals and just left this man.
I find God very interesting seeing that he wants to prove a point by killing all those other guys and leaving one guy. People think that they know God, but they don’t know Him.
Don’t try Him. Don’t get into a bet, you’ll lose.
(Laughing) Job was tested, man, the devil killed people around him and took his wealth, but he remained faithful to God. Later he was restored.
My point is that a human being as an individual is not very important. Nature does not respect individuals. Nature respects species.
When was the last time the devil tested you?
[Chuckles] The devil tests me every day, Biko. And the devil tests me in terms of anger. This morning we had a meeting, and something went wrong last week.
I had to remind myself to calm down because it would have been easy for me to tell someone, ‘yeah, man, let’s part ways, this is not working.’
Do you have a problem with anger?
No, not really. I’m a very calm person but you know calmness is an exterior thing. When I’m mad I tend to cut people off and move on quickly which isn’t helpful because you can move on from a good thing.
I realise that anytime you feel angry or upset about something, you’re not upset about what’s happening because what’s happening is only a trigger. It’s reminding you of something else. Sometimes it’s subliminal.
People who have anger issues have unresolved feelings from the past that come out. It’s like where I come from we cry a lot during funerals as a form of catharsis.
The truth is some people cry not because they’ve lost a loved one, but because they remember their pains.
When was the last time you cried?
One day last year I fell in my house. I fell on my arse. It was so painful I thought I had died. [Laughter). I just sat there and cried.
Did you have an interesting childhood?
I grew up in a village in Homabay. We are a small-town people. My dad was a nurse, my mom was a teacher. I was sickly. I used to get malaria a lot. I also had an allergy. Whenever I cut grass I sneezed a lot.
When I was 11, we moved to a place called Ol Kalou, in a government house so I didn’t have to cut grass or catch malaria. It was cold. I loved it there. Then we moved to Kiambu.
I later studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Nairobi. I knew I didn’t want to become two things: a teacher, or a civil servant.
Ironically, after university, I got the one job I ever enjoyed in my life, a social worker.
A judge would send me to interview suspects before they were jailed. I’d also visit the person’s home and build a social profile to understand what drove him. Often I’d advise the judge not to jail him, having understood his context. Best job of my life.
After four years, I left to sell photocopiers while studying for a Master’s degree in business. Then I left to work for another company, and another company, and another company, and the rest is history. I like Homabay.
Every once in two months I go and work from there. My parents influenced me a lot. Mom was always encouraging when things were bad. She had the wisdom, and my dad had a lot of stories.
He came from a dysfunctional family, went to England to work in a hospital in Southampton, and that really opened his mind.
So these are the gifts that parents ought give their children. Life lessons. Things that remain with you. Not money.
What gifts are you giving your children?
I’ve had the opportunity to live in different countries and to travel to different places and as much as possible I’ve tried to go with my children. To open their minds, give them exposure because life isn’t just about formal education.
My children [18 and 13 years old] can go to any city in the world, ride the subway or check themselves in a five-star hotel. I’m also giving them the gift of knowing they have a home in Homabay, where they can go and be amongst goats, chickens and swim in the lake.
Which part of fatherhood have you struggled with?
When my daughter was born, it was a bit scary. I looked at her, gray, crying, kicking her legs, and thought, now this child will depend on us?
I’m often told that it is a very happy moment when your child is born. I was not happy. I was scared and depressed. I only started enjoying my children when they started talking and walking. It’s great to have children.
Are you a sentimental person?
I’m a sentimental person but I guess I don’t show it very much. I don’t remember my dad coming and hugging us, no.
What’s your wife’s love language?
I think she likes words of affirmation, touch, gifts, quality time, she likes being served…she likes all the love languages! [Laughter] That gives me a lot of pressure. But we have lived together for so long, almost 20 years now.
What’s easier; running a company or marriage?
I think marriage is easier. Maybe because we’ve reached that point where we never really have drama in our marriage.
I understand some people have a lot of drama. I think you just need to be yourself, be open. Try to share as many things as possible. I’m not good at some things, she’s good at some things. She tells me the truth, and that’s good.
What’s been the most important truth she’s told you about yourself?
That I don’t listen. Which was true. [Laughs].

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By Kwetu Buzz

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