How Medtronic APAC President Chris Lee Approaches Leadership
In 1991, Chris Lee found himself in a car driving on a deserted highway in Baghdad. There was usually a lot of traffic on the road, but the First Gulf War scared everyone away. Everyone except Lee, that is to say.
Iraq had bought $ 6 million worth of vaccines from his company. As the war broke out, the Iraqi government told Lee’s employer that he would pay cash if he sent someone to the city. Lee volunteered. “I was young and brave. However, if you asked me to do it now, I might have doubts, ”laughs the 53-year-old man.
Such maverick behavior is typical of Lee. He was born into a medical family. His parents were renowned doctors in Korea, and his three older brothers followed in their footsteps. Still, he left Korea at a young age to study in Japan because he was always at the bottom of the class at home, he frankly admits.
“It was harder than Korea,” he recalls. “I naively thought I was going to go to medical school in Japan. But it was much more competitive.
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Lee decided to try his luck in the United States. Again, he did poorly because the lessons were taught in English and he barely knew the language. Yet his global adventures have given him a better appreciation of the world. Along the way, he even became the US representative for taekwondo at the 1988 Olympics. “I wanted to go home during the summer and Korea was hosting the event, so I got a free ride.” He has also run DJ decks in Korean nightclubs.
His roundabout path helped Lee realize that there are many paths to success and that being a doctor isn’t the only way. His parents, however, were initially disappointed that he did not follow in their footsteps. He says his father was even embarrassed by his first job: a sales representative selling medical devices to doctors.
It took nearly eight years before his parents finally gave Lee their blessing, helped by the fact that he had won the Chairman’s Award for best salesman out of 50,000 people and had doctors working under him.
“The company printed my face on the cover of their magazine and I gave a few copies to my dad. I later found out that even though he openly disapproved of my career, he wore a copy every day to the hospital for three months! he says.
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Decades later, Lee maintains the same unorthodox approach to work as the Asia Pacific (APAC) president of Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical technology companies. Age has not dulled his taste for maverick behavior. Recently, he signed a memorandum of understanding with the Singapore Economic Development Board to launch the Medtronic Open Innovation Platform (OIP).
The two will collaborate strategically on health technologies, fostering capacity development, partnerships and business networking. The OIP is a boon for start-ups in this space, because it is a platform to present their work.
“I’ve always believed in collaboration,” says Lee. “It wasn’t that long ago that many of the biggest companies had huge egos. They thought they could develop everything internally without collaborating with others. They soon realized that there were a lot of duplicate resources doing the same thing. It is far better to work together to achieve a revolutionary product.
Nothing sums up this philosophy better than the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines, which has only been possible because large conglomerates have collaborated with promising medical technology start-ups and governments.
The OIP initiative is a victory for Lee and Medtronic APAC. This is the first time that a regional branch has taken the lead in launching such a project. Most, if not all, of these projects are usually initiated by company headquarters.
Lee is also here for the long haul. “You can’t develop products overnight. It takes patience and a long-term commitment, and we’re ready to do it. A business cannot beat disease on its own. This requires many stakeholders and I hope to rally more collaborators with the launch of this OIP.
Fostering partnerships also fosters diversity of thought, a value Lee strongly believes in. Today, many of the world’s largest organizations have diversity mandates – a certain percentage of senior management and boards must be women, from ethnic minorities, and soon.
But Lee sought diversity in Medtronic’s ranks before it even became a buzzword. He attributes this to his early days as a globetrotter when he realized how much his outlook and worldview changed as he traveled and worked in different countries.
Diversity, humility and respect form the core tenets of Lee’s leadership philosophy. “A requirement for a good leader is to show equal respect for all employees, regardless of their level. Everyone has a reason for being there, ”says Lee, noting that he has seen too many other leaders forget their humble beginnings and fail to show their appreciation for the staff.
It’s clear that Lee’s people really love him. He knows LinkedIn very well, posts videos of his trips and takes part with pleasure in the challenges of the company. There’s even a video of Lee keeping a blue balloon in the air while going about his daily routine to promote Medtronic’s type 1 diabetes campaign.
He even launched a new half-Friday system. Every two consecutive quarters of goals met, Medtronic employees in the region can clock in an hour earlier. The best: the more they reach their quarterly goals in a row, the more hours they accumulate.
“This initiative only exists in APAC, and I haven’t seen a drop in productivity since we started,” Lee proudly says. If the goals continue to be met, he shares that Medtronic APAC could start operating over a four-day work week.
He also has a unique approach to talent management and retention. “When employees tell you they’re considering leaving the company, it’s too late,” says Lee. “You can temporarily make them stay by offering them financial incentives, but that only pushes this problem further down the road. Instead, Lee believes in working to keep employees before they even become a retention risk by offering them a package that exceeds their expectations. He thinks this is the only way to stay ahead of the competition. “If your employees are grateful and appreciated, they will want to stay and make our customers happy. “
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As Lee nears the twilight years of his career, one issue that has crossed his mind is legacy. If he has one regret in life, it is for not having taken the additional initiative to work in Europe or the United States.
“I’ve been lucky my whole life,” says Lee, noting that he has always been hailed as one of the first Asians to reach high-level management positions in many of the companies he has worked for. Still, he thinks there is more he could have done.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be the global CEO of a big company. But I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance. If you think about it, it’s usually good Caucasian senior executives who come to Asia for regional leadership positions. You never see Asians managing European or American subsidiaries.
Lee doesn’t believe it’s racism, just different mindsets. He recalls asking one of his former bosses why he was not considered for a managerial position in Europe when the opportunity arose. His former boss replied that he didn’t think Lee would be interested.
Now Lee is constantly encouraging his staff to assert themselves and ask for global roles. He also helps as much as he can by sending them on overseas missions and hopes that an Asian will shatter the glass ceiling he has never broken in the future.
In the meantime, Lee is positioning Medtronic to deal with whatever the future holds. He envisions an increase in the use of robotics in surgery. Doctors are already working with robots in operating rooms, but companies are creating very advanced robots that will give surgeons more control and precision.
Medtronic has one. Hugo has modular surgical arms and was recently approved for use in gynecological and urological procedures in Europe. Lee believes that such innovations will accelerate with more collaboration and initiatives, like OIP. “We cannot do it alone. We have to work together, ”he says.
He says a better future requires collaboration, partnership and respect. And just that little derring-do – the kind that gets you to places no one else dares. Maybe a city like Baghdad.