Financial institutions, for the better part of the last decade, have been grappling with how best to go digital.
While banks are working hard to update its legacy systems and use technology to become more efficient and improve customer experience, leaders too are grappling with the pace and demands of leading a digital workforce.
“In this day and age, a leader should be accessible. A leader should listen well,” says Lee Lung Nien, CEO of Citi Malaysia.
“It’s no longer about barking out directions. It’s about listening to ideas and comments. It’s about engagement, communication, teamwork and collaboration,” adds the veteran banker.
The Singaporean, who calls Malaysia home now, has spent his entire 30-year career with Citi. “I started as an analyst and worked my way up.” Over the years, Lee has worked in Singapore, New York, London and Kuala Lumpur with the bank, leading treasury, corporate sales, anti-money laundering divisions - and latest, as country head.
“One of the beautiful things about Citi is the commonality of culture. No matter what country you are posted to, the culture within the firm is more or less the same. Everyone is very focused, everyone wants to work as a team to achieve goals.”
Citi Malaysia CEO - What Makes A Good Leader?
According to Lee, having a culture that is open, welcoming and supportive is no longer just an option for companies. Today, employees consider those values as much as they consider salary and benefits when deicing on a desirable workplace.
One practice Lee does to intentionally make him accessible is by having breakfast at the company cafeteria on Mondays, allowing informal face-time with the staff. “I want anybody to sit and talk with me,” says Lee, who otherwise spends his early mornings at a coffee shop in Pudu on other days (where he also meets staff from time to time).
Being the boss, the information that comes to me is sometimes filtered. So, when you cut through the levels, you hear what's really happening on the ground
“Employees air their views and grievances but I get a true picture of what’s actually going on. Because being the boss, the information that comes to me is sometimes filtered. So, when you cut through the levels, you hear what's really happening on the ground.”
Leadership, he adds, while is mostly about giving directions on what to do, it is as important to explain why too - and that often requires stepping out of the office to show the staff how to do it.
Toward this end, Lee practices a daily ‘walking the floors’ routine in the main Citi office on Jalan Ampang to get a better handle on operations. “We have about 20 floors in this building. I do sit down with the staff to understand what’s going on.”
It’s about cultivating a positive environment to let employees’ opinion be heard, says Lee who manages some 5000-strong workforce in Malaysia.
“Citi has a very open culture. If there is an issue, people come together to work things out. Bosses are very open to taking risks on junior staff,” he says, adding that contrary to popular belief, making a mistake at work isn’t always a bad thing.
“We allow people to make mistakes,” says Lee. “Hopefully not too big a mistake,” he jokes. “But (mistakes) are okay because we learn from it and that’s the only way we can move forward.”
Citi’s methods seem to have worked well for the bank; the attrition rate at its Malaysian operations is something Lee is proud of. “The turnover rate is about 12 to 15 percent a year,” he says. “I believe the industry rate is somewhere around 18 to 20 percent. So we are very happy that people are staying and our attrition rate is low.”
“Overall, we have a very ‘can-do’ attitude whereby the staff - doesn't’ matter young or old, works in a very collaborative and energetic environment.”
Banking At Digital Crossroads
When asked about what it takes to lead a financial institution in this day and age, Lee says acquiring new skills are necessary to adapt to an evolving and digitally-driven culture.
But to become a profound leader, Lee emphasises four traits; “Clear direction, good communication, empathy and the ability to lead from the front.”
A lot of my own traits and leadership style has come from all the various people that I’ve worked for and worked with
As the popular saying goes, people leave bosses, not companies. “I’ve had great bosses at Citi,” says Lee. “I’ve worked for so many people that I’ve learnt from; bosses that you want to emulate.”
“A lot of my own traits and leadership style has come from all the various people that I’ve worked for and worked with.”
Lee agrees that antiquated management structures and rigid hierarchy have fallen in popularity; a collaborative and innovative work culture resonates more with the millennial workforce that prefers to be ‘led’ than ‘managed’.
“I try to relate to the young workforce. I believe I communicate well, I’m high energy and open to new ideas,” says Lee.
The avid musician and go-kart racer also leads by the motto ‘Work hard, play hard.’ He won the 2015 Asia Rotax Max Challenge and was the Singapore X30 Challenge Champion the same year.
The current President of Motor Sports Singapore is also a skilful drummer; he has even performed with Gurmit Singh of Phua Chu Kang fame. And if you don’t find him on the golf course on the weekends, he might just be ‘jamming’ with his band or with Malaysian songstress Dasha Logan.
“We must have a balanced life, says Lee. “That way, it keeps our sanity. It also allows staff to see the other side of the leaders. People see that we are human as well, it’s just not about work.”
Want To Become a Good Leader - Stay Humble, Be Accessible
Last but not least, we asked Lee what does it take to keep employees happy, loyal and motivated.
Routine promotions or pay bumps are simply not enough anymore, says the 55-year-old. Employees want to work in an organisation that offers the opportunity to develop new skills sets - and to grow into leaders.
“We have a lot of training programmes for staff. We put them on task forces. We also created special groups or digital councils whereby ideas are put together. So there are opportunities for staff to step up into the digital space.”
“For high potential staff, we allow them to rotate. We have a programme called 2+2. So, if you want to explore a new department after working two years in one, you can go for an interview without even telling your boss. If you do get it, your current boss will have two months to release you. So there is opportunity to move around,” Lee explains.
“We also allow high potential staff to do cross-business projects, which are often not in their area of comfort. So, there is always the opportunity to learn and to grow.”