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The Habits That Shaped a Leader - Inspiring Insights from Lee Ah Nga

by Ashvini Pandian

From humble beginnings in Kuala Lipis, Pahang, Lee Ah Nga’s decades-long career in engineering took him from Telekom Malaysia to Siemens Components, to then becoming the first local MD at Infineon Technologies (a spin-off from Siemens) before he eventually retired in 2015. VS Pandian and I sat with him at a refurbished café right off bustling Jonker Street in Malacca, as he shared his leadership insights with us over tea – earl grey for him, peppermint for me.

Our readers would like to learn a bit about you. Tell us about your background – where did you grow up and what did you study?

I was born in Lipis, and my parents were rubber tappers. They eventually moved to Kuala Lumpur where they started a coffee stall business. I was helping them in the stall when I was about 6 years old. Life was a struggle for the family, so I am very fortunate to be given the opportunity to even attend school. I studied telecommunications under a government scholarship at the then Technical College in Jalan Gurney – back then I received a princely sum of RM100 a month! 

When I completed my Diploma, I joined the Telecoms Department (later Telekom) and served there for the contractual 5 years. Then I left for Cardiff in Wales where I pursued my Masters in Physics and Electronics at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) followed by a Post Graduate Diploma in Management Studies at the Polytechnic of Wales. When I was a young kid, probably around 10, I had the ambition to have a technical background and then go into management. I don’t know if it was destiny or divine guidance that led me to do this.

How did you step into your first leadership role?

After completing my studies in Wales, I came back to Malaysia and joined Siemens Components (later Infineon) as a Process Engineer in 1977. I was fortunate to have German colleagues who were very caring and nurturing in my early years, and I was given the opportunity to spend time in Germany for a short study and work period. I moved from the Process Engineering role into Production where I had the responsibility to manage a component assembly section of about 50 people. My responsibilities gradually expanded, and I eventually grew into Manufacturing – basically Operations. Here I had the responsibility for the entire assembly process and with that comes a team of around 300 people over a few levels via 4-5 direct reports.

What were your first few years as a leader like?

That time for me was still a learning experience. When you start off with no basic knowledge of management as we know of now, you just lead following what targets have been set, and try to reach those targets. Over time, I found that what makes the company click is really people, nothing else. Whether you like it or not, it’s people that make the difference. I enjoy working with people, and to have the opportunity to inspire and motivate them to achieve goals can be a very fulfilling and satisfying endeavour.

I remember in ‘94 or ‘95 you attended Stephen Covey’s event in KL, and then you decided to bring The 7 Habits to Infineon. What was the motivating factor for that?

The first time I read The 7 Habits book, I found the concepts very profound. The process behind The 7 Habits is very realistic and it gives me what I can really do to make personal changes. At that time there were a lot of things I was not very aware of until I read the book, and I found there are certain ideas which can be so useful in our life both personally and professionally. When I became a General Manager at Siemens Melaka I was given the responsibility of Global Operations of a segment. At that time, all the MDs were expatriates and I had very good interactions with them. Most of the foreign leaders are also here to learn, as the Asian culture was still something unfamiliar to them, so when I introduced them to The 7 Habits they embarked on it.

I’ve always been very keen to look into what makes people tick, what drives people, what inspires people, what motivates people. I used to ask myself, looking at people coming in – what makes them come in to work? Why are they sometimes so eager to leave? Why do they come for overtime? Is it purely for the money? Now, what difference are you going to make as a leader, to make people come to work in your organisation, knowing that it is not for the money? I would like to provide meaning for people to come to work. Not only for those engineers and supervisors, but for everyone. What makes them come to work? Because if you touch on that, then people will sacrifice for you and the company. That’s something that a lot of the time drives me. I find that very very inspiring and meaningful for me.

The 7 Habits was rolled out at Siemens and later to Infineon right up to senior leadership-level when you were there. What changes of behaviour did you observe after that?

I think immediately after the first 7 Habits sessions, I could see the language used by the people regarding behavioural topics. We began to speak the same language. A lot of people would cite “Are you thinking of the end in mind?” and “Have you heard me before you shared your perspective?” I saw changes come in. We rolled the program out to supervisor-level to do facilitation. It was quite some people who were trained, including to Operators and in Bahasa too. The first-level managers, all of them went through it. Certifying supervisors as internal 7 Habits facilitators was a good move, because if you want to change the people you change the leaders. If you change the attitude of the supervisor, then the people will follow suit. I still think the first batch of people we got as facilitators was very good. It was really important to show that The 7 Habits was important at the very top levels. As leaders you must make sure that the direction you set is still there. It must remain a priority.

When you look back, what do you think was the biggest impact The 7 Habits had on the organisation at that time?

It slowly drove people to be more people-oriented, not just be profits and performance-oriented. After the 7 Habits we found that those at the management and supervisor levels cared more for the people, and looked at changes that needed to be done in order to contribute well to the organisation. In general, leadership nowadays tends to focus too much on results without really looking at the relevant enablers. Developing people’s character is an important aspect of [enabling] an organisation. That’s why more emphasis must be put on the people and working on enabling them – because after a while the results you get will stagnate, and you need that kind of energy from people to give it a new push.

What was your defining moment as a leader?

My defining moment was when I grew from Independence to Interdependence – when I realized that I depend so much on others for mutual success. As my responsibilities expanded from production to manufacturing to general management, the span of control grew correspondingly. No matter how independent or capable I assume myself to be I am not an island operating on my own. I need the cooperation of and collaboration with others to flourish. I found the immense importance of working together, and how what I do or my organization does affects others. And the other way round too. There is always the vital interdependence factor that makes things really work meaningfully. That’s why interdependence is linked closely to synergy in the 7 Habits – together you become much much more fruitful.

Were there any particular projects at Infineon where you really saw this synergy happen?

Yes. From 2009-2011 I was given the task to transfer and set up the first production to Wuxi, China. It was easy to think that because we are going there, they are depending on us. But in the longer run, the success of Infineon as a whole and in particular the division I’m working in will depend also on the success of the people in Wuxi. Once we have transferred it, it’s them doing the work, and that’s where the Interdependence comes in. If they do well, we do well. If they fail, we fail. If they fail it’s a reflection on us. So whether we like it or not, we are also dependent on them. 

I couldn’t speak mandarin but they ensured that this was not a blocking point. In fact, they warmly welcomed me there. When I see the people in China, I observed that they are very hungry for knowledge. They are like a sponge absorbing every piece of information we give them and more. They make use of their creativity and improvised when necessary to achieve better solutions. We transferred some technical people to Wuxi to develop the team there. Some went for 2-3 years, some even for 8 years. And Wuxi now is still doing very well and has become an important BE site for Infineon.

For you personally what is the biggest takeaway that you have taken from The 7 Habits that still sticks with you today?

All the habits in a way stuck with me, from 1-7. I remember Be Proactive, and that’s where it helped me in leading the company, to think ahead about what I want the company to be. That links of course to Begin with the End in Mind. So I ask, how do I want my organisation to be? My target is a long-term thing of course. What I had my mind was to really build my organisation into a people-organisation with people driving results on their own. 

The one habit which is really in me now, is Habit 7 – Sharpen the Saw. For me, life is a continuous learning process. I will continue to pursue knowledge. I think knowledge is important for anyone to remain relevant. But knowledge for knowledge’s sake is no use unless you apply it. In looking at the 4 aspects of wellbeing – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, I spend a bit of time now also on spiritual wellbeing to give this better balance. As part of my sharpening the saw, I have enrolled for a part-time course to study basic theology. Not to become a religious nut, but hopefully to bear more spiritual fruit! 

A habit I find really good to develop is Habit 5. Very often I interrupt people. Sometimes people haven’t finished and I tell them what they need to do. That’s something I have to learn and inculcate in me. I think it’s a very profound habit to understand people first. They say you are given two ears, but you only have one mouth so I must learn to be swift to hear and slow to speak!

Effective leaders need to have the right attitude, the right aptitude, and bring people to the right altitude. Attitude is character, aptitude is skill, and altitude is where you want to be.

I think you’ve listed every Habit! So, what advice would you offer to new leaders?
  1. When you take over as a leader, you actually work for the people. The people don’t work for you. So bear in mind, whatever you do, you are doing it for the people, for them. Because by doing things for them, they will then work for you. This is very important.
  2. Have humility. Surround yourself with people who are better than you. A lot of leaders hire people who are not as good as them and try to control them. That doesn’t work. In the end you suffer. You lose personally and your company loses. You do not want the weakest link in the chain to be you, therefore make sure you practise Habit 7 – sharpen your saw by learning from them.
  3. Don’t step on people on the way up because you may meet them on the way down. So, be careful – I’ve seen that happening! Sometimes people think it’s very good to step on people and lick the boots of your bosses on the way up. Whether you like it or not, someday something unpleasant will happen, so don’t step on others.
  4. In any argument, don’t try to always win it. Sometimes you may win the battle but you lose the war. Especially in disagreements with bosses. Don’t think you can win an argument with a boss, eventually you may lose.
  5. Of course, you yourself as a boss you must learn. Learn from these situations, don’t keep disagreements in your heart and take revenge. Some things can eat into you, an argument can get the better of you, but you mustn’t keep it. Be more forgiving. Practising Habit 4 – Think Win-Win – will be helpful for such situations
You mentioned humility earlier. What are the traits that effective leaders need to have?
  1. Effective leaders need to have the right Attitude, the right Aptitude, and bring people to the right Altitude. Attitude is character, Aptitude is skill, and Altitude is where you want to be. I think you are familiar with this – you hire for character, you train for skill. You cannot train a person’s character. So I would advise aspiring leaders that when you promote people, look at their character. If possible, know their heart, and don’t look at their appearance. A lot of time we are picking people based on their appearance, I’ve made that mistake. I’ve seen people that seem so charismatic, they come in, they talk very well, they seem to know everything, they have an answer for everything, but then when they work for you you find out it’s all empty. So hire for character, train for skill. If they don’t have the skill but you find they have the right attitude and right character, take them. Skill you can train. 
  2. Building. You are leader, that means you are a builder. You build the organisation, you build people, you build the culture of the organisation. You are responsible to make sure that what you are responsible for, grows.  
  3. Consistency. Consistency means you walk your talk, do what you say, say what you do. Mean what you say. It’s good to have bosses who are consistent. If they say something, they will implement. If they say I don’t want this to be there, they won’t do it. 
  4. Direction-setting. List down where you want the company to go. List down where the people should be in terms of their character, their performance and their attitude. Be able to set that direction for them. Then you will know what exposure you need to give them, what training they need, and what kind of programs you need to offer them to achieve that. 
  5. Excel. Excel in all you do personally. Drive this culture of excellence throughout the organisation, through the people. They will also target this excellence. Drive your people to excel in what they do, and they will come before all those giants in the industry. A leader must have those kinds of traits in them.
There you have it – my ABCDEs of effective leaders!

How about for those who are aspiring to be leaders someday?

  1. Learn. Like what I shared just now, continue to learn. Whatever you do, continue to learn.
  2. Listen. Listen to people, even to the people you don’t like. Listen also when you talk to people. Listen to what is spoken, but more important listen to what is not spoken. Body language, the eyes, the movements. And also listen in between the lines. You must know that sometimes people are so emotionally drained or troubled, and you have to listen in-between and realise that this person has other things going on. Listen and continue to learn. 
  3. Love. Love what you do, do what you love. If you don’t love what you do, you are torturing yourself coming to work. If you love what you do, it becomes a hobby. Forget about your pay, because if you love what you do you will grow in your career. And then the rewards come. This is really from my experience. In my work life, I just make sure that I perform, and the rest divine care took care of.  Just imagine, you are being paid to enjoy your hobby!

I always tell people who are aspiring to grow – adopt these 3 L’s: Listen, Learn, and Love.

Thank you for giving us your time and wisdom, Mr. Lee. We wish you continued growth, learning and success! 

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