• 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.

    ©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my.my | Page 2 of 8

    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



    ©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my.my | Page 3 of 8

    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

    ©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my.my | Page 4 of 8

    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

    ©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my.my | Page 5 of 8

    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!)




    ©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my.my | Page 7 of 8

    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.”

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

    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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