Leadership Essentials – A Recipe for Effective Leadership

This article is about a man whose decisions may already have had an

impact on your life. Or the life of one of your friends or relatives. And,

as time goes on, his impact on Malaysian society will multiply. Mr Lee

Weng Keng has a lot of responsibility resting on his shoulders. He is

the Chief Executive Officer of Sunway Group’s Education and

Healthcare Division. In this capacity, he has direct responsibility over

three dynamic and growing institutions in Malaysia – Sunway University

College, Monash University Malaysia and Sunway Medical Centre.

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I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with Mr Lee. My

impressions are that he is a humble and unassuming man. He prefers

to be low key rather than high profile, even in his own organisations.

He comes across as a very calm person who listens intently before he

speaks. I wanted to learn how he maintains his calm demeanour

despite his many responsibilities. I found that the answer lay in a

combination of a high level of self awareness, a strong set of core

values and a “Leadership Compass” – the key principles that guide Mr

Lee’s leadership behaviours.

Let’s do a quick tour of Mr Lee’s career. He started out as a teacher.

After 4 years, he moved to a local Malaysian company. By the age of

30, Mr Lee had 50 people working under him. His next career move

was to have a big impact on his life. Mr Lee joined a multinational

company. He was with this company for 18 years before joining the

Sunway Group. In his early days with the Sunway Group, Mr Lee

made a name for himself by turning around a manufacturing company

from the brink of failure to being one of the profit stars in the Sunway

Group. He was rewarded by being appointed as Director of Sunway

College in 1996. Another key milestone in Mr Lee’s career was to start

up Malaysia’s first foreign university branch campus – Monash

University Malaysia in 1998. Mr Lee has held his current position for

the last 8 years.

Self awareness – a key to effective leadership

So, let’s start with why Mr Lee does not seem to be a stressed, burntout

senior executive. The short answer lies in two words – self

awareness. Mr Lee knows his strengths and works off them. “You

need to know yourself – your strengths and your weaknesses. I focus

on where I can add most value. I may be responsible for lots of things,

but stay out of the way where I can’t add value,” he said.

Mr Lee continued, “You have to ask yourself, which are the areas

where you can make a difference. People think that if they are in

charge of a department, everything has to come through them. I have

had someone who took over a department who was stressed to death.

I told him that he felt stressed because he is responsible and he felt he

must know and be involved in everything. That is not true. It’s wrong.”

Focus on

where you

can add the

most value





core values

and a



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Trust and empower your people

Empowerment plays a major role in Mr Lee’s management style. “I

have three big areas and 2000 people; I can’t run from this. But it’s

impossible for me to cover all the ground. I have to know which are the

areas I should focus on. I make sure that the people under me

understand that they are free to make decisions. Even if they make a

mistake, it’s not a problem.”

A key to effective leadership is the ability to get out of the way and to

trust your people to get on with the job. Mr Lee has a simple formula. “I

make sure people understand they are free to make a decision. If they

feel comfortable, then they can go and make decisions. If the issue is

really important, then they will let me know. If they feel they want to

consult with me, then my door is always open,” he said.

Leverage off your strengths

So what are Mr Lee’s strengths? “I am strong in conceptual skills. I am

strategic in my thinking. So many things are happening with lots of

variables. I have the ability to scan the variables and come to a

conclusion on what works and what does not work. PepsiCo’s CEO

spoke about “strategic acuity”. This is my strength.“

Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind” speaks of the rising

importance of the right brain in business. He introduced 6 key senses

that leaders should possess. One of these is what he calls

“Symphony.” This is the ability to integrate information, to construct

the whole from the parts. My discussions with senior managers who

work with Mr Lee indicate that he certainly has this right brain ability.

There is another key skill that Mr Lee brings to the table – the ability to

size up ideas and proposals and to manage risks. “It’s about thinking

how to take the business forward. I am quick with numbers. I studied

economics and business, specialising in statistics. Risk management

is always at the top of my mind. I think of the probability of success

and the probability of failure. If it’s a big risk, it better give you a very

big return. If it’s a small risk, then the decision is easy to make. If

people give me a proposal, I think of what is the probability of it being

true, of it working. I will intuitively think whether it is likely to succeed

or not,” he said.

Get out of the

way and trust

your people

to get on with

the job

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Factors that have had an impact on Mr Lee as a person and as a


Mr Lee’s upbringing shaped his values. And then, his time in a

multinational company shaped his thoughts on leadership.

Mr Lee came from a humble background. As a child, it was a case of,

“Be seen, but not heard.” As a result, he developed and honed the

skills of being a keen observer of people and events, and a very good

listener. Mr Lee’s father had a major impact on his value system. His

father taught him the values of hard work, reciprocation of kindness to

those who help you, keeping of promises and being loyal to those who

help you. “Loyalty to the company is old fashioned. It’s automatic to

me,” he said.

Mr Lee’s 18 years with an American multinational had a major impact

on his leadership style. “There was a lot of emphasis on being open

when dealing with issues. The culture was that we have to face up to

the issues, be open with your people and articulate the issues clearly,”

he said. “Presentation is a part and parcel of building a career in a

multinational – presentations about your strategy, the future, your

analysis. This honed his thinking skills and ability to articulate issues

clearly,” he continued.

In his time with this company, Mr Lee observed how leaders managed

the business. He formed opinions on what worked and what was not

that successful.

“I saw what they did and learned some good things and thought that

other things didn’t make sense. I didn’t follow blindly,” he said.

For example, directness, even aggressiveness, was a part of the

multinational company’s culture. “The company valued people who

were dynamic and could ‘kick ass’. There was an attitude of, ‘I don’t

give a damn what you do, just give me the results.’ I saw a lot of

people acting like this,” he said. “Some executives were doing very

well even though they were very rude and used four letter words. They

got the job done. One time, engineers in the quality department were

meeting with the manufacturing department. After a heated

disagreement, the Head said, ‘Get out of my department!’ Mr Lee did

not think that this made sense. “How can quality problems be resolved

when the quality people are not welcome?” he asked himself.

Work hard



kindness to

those who

help you

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Another example relates to performance reviews. “In the 1970s, they

would say that your performance review must follow the bell curve.

Some of your people will be above average and half below average.

Then there would be 10% who are outstanding, 40% above average,

45% below average and 5% weak. They would give a bonus and

increment based on this. I had a lot of problems with this. Straight

away you have to divide people into two halves. Why would people

want to be below average? If they are below average, you will have a

hard time dealing with them. Rating 50% of your people as below

average is not good,” he said.

Mr Lee’s view is that 70% of people are in the centre. These people

are meeting job requirements and are doing a solid job. And then there

is the 10-20% who are above the 70%. And then, above that, you

have 5% who are true stars. “The good people are solid and happy to

be there. The talent – you have to nurture and develop. The stars – you

have to recognise them. People are happy with that,” he said. “At the

other end, there is the 5% or less who are not pulling their weight. You

have to confront this group. It may be 1% of your people. You must

make an effort to identify these,” he said.

Mr Lee’s Management Style

I asked Mr Lee to describe his management style. “It’s not about

having an autocratic style or democratic style. When I am in a position,

I say, ‘What is the role that I need to play?’ I am a situational leader. I

don’t believe in treating everyone equally. How can you treat people

equally? You have people who work hard and loyal. When they make

a mistake do you scold them? Compare this to someone who makes

mistakes often. If two people make the same mistake, you will be

harder on the one who makes more mistakes,” he said.

“I play a role. When I am at home with my family I am different. I take a

different role when I talk to my children. I can be a different person at

work. When I am in the company, I am serious typically. The right and

wrong is important. I am strict. For example, when handling company

money, the line is clear. But when it comes to my personal money, I

am generous. If a family member needs some help, I will give help. If

they cannot pay me, it’s okay.”

70% of

people meet



. 20% go

above that

and 5% are


©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my.my | Page 6 of 8

Leaders as listeners

Mr Lee’s senior managers confirm that he is a very good listener. One

manager said that she could be speaking to Mr Lee for an hour and

then he would summarise the key points and then draw it all together.

“I listen to people before I make decisions. But when the decisions

need to be made, I make them fast. I don’t consult too many people. If

I am sure, then I will be quite dominant and say, ‘Let’s go.’ If I face

resistance, I listen and ask why. I ask, ‘Why do people resist?’ and

‘Who resists?’ If people who I respect resist, then I have no difficultly in

changing my mind,” he said.

Never say “it can’t be done”

“When I first joined Sunway, we had a company that was bleeding to

death. Everyone was losing money. I analysed the company and said

that there was no hope. Two weeks later, they appointed me as GM to

lead it! It was now my baby.”

“We turned it around after 2 years. It became one of the most

profitable companies in the Group. We achieved this through

operations management, quality management, and common sense

marketing. We were able to bring the cost down from RM1000 a piece

to 700 and finally down to 550. When we started to move it down to

700, we made money. When we brought it down to 550, we made very

good money. One lesson from this is never say die, never say it’s

impossible,” he said.

Mr Lee’s Leadership Compass

I asked Mr Lee to talk about the principles that guide his leadership

behaviour. After listening to him, it was clear that he operates by a well

defined Leadership Compass. The points on his Leadership Compass

can be summarized by quotes from Mr Lee as follows:

1. Leadership by example. “If policies are good enough for the

people, then they are good enough for me. There should be one

standard for all.” (I personally witnessed this when I visited

Sunway University College. It was during the time of the HIN1

scare. Mr Lee had just returned from the US and wore a facemask

for a week after his return. The rule was that you had to

wear a face mask for a week if you had just returned to

Malaysia from certain countries. There were no exceptions to

the face-mask rule – even for the CEO!)




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2. Win-win. “I will not do business that does not have a win-win

outcome. When I come to a situation, I want both parties to win.

3. Fair play. “I must feel that it is fair. It’s difficult for me to do

something if it is not fair to stakeholders. Sometimes, it’s a bit

difficult. I have been lucky that I have been able to live by that


4. Leverage off people’s strengths. “Develop them, give them

the opportunities. I ask, ‘What is the person’s strength? How

can I put them in a job to optimize their strength?’ We need to

have the right job for the right people.

5. Feedback – “I am a one minute manager. I have no difficulty in

telling people that they have done a good job. A quick pat on

the back.”

6. Visibility: “I don’t like to sit in the office too much. I talk to

people and observe what is going on and assess the situation.”

7. Profile: “I prefer to be not too high profile. Where I need to be

seen, I do it. There are CEO communications twice a year.

Some of my leaders like to be seen. For me, it doesn’t matter. I

have management meetings 3-4 times a year, plus EXCO

(Senior Management) meetings weekly.”

8. Integrator. “Sometimes, people have conflicting priorities and

become emotional. For example, in Pre–University, we have

units representing Australia, Canada and A levels – and they all

go to the same market. They are fighting for the same set of

students. My way of looking at it is that I don’t over-emphasise

individual program numbers. I don’t beat them to death. I want

to see evidence of strategy and plan to leverage and plan to sell

on each unit’s own uniqueness. But I say “Don’t back-stab on

your colleague’s program.” This is a no-no. When we all win,

we all get a bonus. We all win in total. We all get recognized.

This is the environment that we get when we all win. Look at

people who look after themselves, then look at their lives. They

are miserable. I emphasise that we are all winning together.”

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Challenges of leadership

I asked Mr Lee about the challenges of leadership in Malaysia. He

indicated that leading diversity is a challenge. “Diversity is our strength,

but diversity is a big issue for leadership and management. How do

you get them to see the benefits of their diversity? It’s compounded by

racial interests. How do you leverage that to your advantage? You

have to exploit that as strength and manage the conflict from the

differences,” he said.

So what lies ahead?

I concluded the interview by asking Mr Lee about the opportunities that

lie ahead. Mr Lee gave a focused response. “The opportunities are

clear-cut – to build a top class institution. To make this place prosper.

It will be good for Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah and good for the stakeholders.

The opportunity is to make this a success. There is a lot to do to make

this happenM” No doubt, with his self awareness and values as his

foundation, and operating by his Leadership Compass, Mr Lee will

continue to lead his team to growth and success. Until next month.


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