In 1991, Chris Lee found himself in a car trundling along a deserted highway in Baghdad. There would usually be a lot of traffic on the road, but the first Gulf War had caused all people to flee. Everyone except Lee, that is.
Iraq had purchased $6 million worth of vaccines from his company. As war broke out, the Iraqi government told Lee’s employer that it would pay cash if they sent someone to the city. Lee volunteered. “I was young and brave. However, If you asked me to do it now, I might have second thoughts,” the 53-year-old laughs.
Such maverick behaviour is typical of Lee. He was born into a medical family. His parents were renowned doctors in Korea, and his three elder brothers followed in their footsteps – yet he left Korea at a young age to study in Japan because he was always at the bottom of the class back home, he candidly admits.
“It was tougher than Korea,” he recalls. “I naively thought that I would get into medical school in Japan. But it was much more competitive.”
Lee decided to try his luck in the US. Once again, he did poorly because classes were taught in English and he barely knew the language. Still, his global adventures gave him a better appreciation of the world. Along the way, he even became the US representative for taekwondo in the 1988 Olympics. “I wanted to go home during the summer and Korea was hosting the event, so I got a free ride.” He also helmed DJ decks in Korean nightclubs.
His circuitous path helped Lee realise that there were many routes to success and being a doctor was not the only way. His parents, however, were initially disappointed that he didn’t follow in their footsteps. He shares that his father was even embarrassed with 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’d won the Chairman’s Award for the best sales associate out of 50,000 people and had doctors working under him.
“The company printed my face on the front cover of its magazine, and I gave a few copies to my dad. I later found out that while he outwardly disapproved of my career, he carried a copy every day in the hospital for three months!” he says.
Decades later, Lee maintains the same unorthodox approach at work as the Asia-Pacific (APAC) president of Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical technology companies in the world. Age has not blunted his zest for maverick behaviour. Recently, he signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Singapore Economic Development Board to launch the Medtronic Open Innovation Platform (OIP).
The two will strategically collaborate on healthcare technologies, fostering capability development, partnerships and business networking. The OIP is a boon for start-ups in this space, as it is a platform for showcasing their work.
“I’ve always believed in collaboration,” Lee says. “Not so long ago, many of the bigger companies had huge egos. They thought they could develop everything in-house without collaborating with others. They soon realised that there were a lot of duplicated resources doing the same thing. It is far better to work together to achieve a breakthrough product.”
Nothing encapsulated this ethos better than the rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccines, which was only possible because large conglomerates worked together with promising medical tech start-ups and governments.
The OIP initiative is a win for Lee and Medtronic APAC. It’s the first time a regional arm has taken the lead to launch such a project. Most, if not all, of such projects, are usually initiated by company headquarters.
Lee is in this for the long haul, too. “You can’t develop products overnight. It takes patience and long-term commitment, and we are prepared to do that. One company cannot conquer diseases on its own. It requires many stakeholders and I hope to get more collaborators on board with the launch of this OIP.”
Encouraging partnerships also promotes diversity in thought, which is a value Lee strongly believes in. Today, many of the world’s largest organisations have diversity mandates – a certain percentage of the senior management and boards of directors have to be female, from minority races, and so on.
But Lee sought diversity in Medtronic’s ranks even before it became a buzzword. He credits this to his younger, globe-trotting days when he realised how much his perspectives and world views shifted as he travelled to and worked in different countries.
Diversity, humility and respect form the core tenets of Lee’s leadership philosophy. “One requisite of a good leader is to show equal respect for all employees, no matter what their level. Everyone has a reason for being there,” says Lee, noting that he’s seen too many other leaders forget their humble beginnings and fail to show their appreciation for staff.
It’s clear Lee’s people really like him. He’s very savvy on LinkedIn, posting video logs of his travels and happily taking part in company challenges. There’s even a video of Lee keeping a blue balloon up in the air while going about his daily routine to promote Medtronic’s Type 1 diabetes campaign.
He’s even started a new half-Friday system. For every two consecutive quarters of targets hit, Medtronic employees in the region get to clock out an hour earlier. The best bit: the more quarters in succession that they hit their targets, the more hours they accumulate.
“This initiative only exists in APAC, and I haven’t seen a drop in productivity since we began,” Lee says proudly. If targets continue to be met, he shares that Medtronic APAC might start operating on a four-day workweek.
He also has a unique approach to talent management and retention. “When employees tell you they are thinking of leaving the company, it’s too late,” Lee says. “You can temporarily make them stay by giving financial incentives, but it’s only pushing this issue 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 feels that is the only way to stay one step ahead of the competition. “If your employees are grateful and appreciated, they will want to stay and make our customers happy.”
As Lee approaches the twilight years of his career, one issue that has crossed his mind is legacy. If he has one regret in life, it is that he didn’t take the extra initiative to work in Europe or the US.
“I’ve been lucky my whole life,” says Lee, noting how he has always been lauded as one of the first Asians to reach high-level senior executive positions in many of the companies he’s worked in. Yet, he believes there is still more he could have done.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be the global CEO of a large corporation. But I didn’t know if I would ever have the chance. If you think about it, it is usually capable Caucasian senior executives who come to Asia to helm regional leadership roles. You never see Asians managing European or American subsidiaries.”
Lee doesn’t believe it’s racism, just different mindsets. He remembers asking one of his former bosses why he hadn’t been considered for a leadership role in Europe when the opportunity came about. His former boss replied that he thought Lee would not be interested.
Now, Lee constantly encourages his staff to be assertive and ask for global roles. He also helps as much as he can by sending them on overseas assignments and hopes that an Asian will smash through the glass ceiling he never broke in the future.
In the meantime, Lee is positioning Medtronic to tackle whatever the future might hold. He envisions a rise in the use of robotics in surgery. Doctors are already working with robots in operating theatres, but companies are creating highly advanced robots that will provide surgeons with more control and precision.
Medtronic has one. Hugo has modular surgical arms and was recently approved for use in gynaecological and urologic procedures in Europe. Lee believes such innovations will speed up with more collaboration and initiatives, like the OIP. “We cannot do it alone. We have to work together,” he says.
He says that a better future requires collaboration, partnership and respect. And just that bit of derring-do – the kind that makes you to go to places where no one else dared to. Perhaps a city like Baghdad.