Lee Jim Leng knows what she wants in life. During her early adolescent years, she told her parents she did not want to enrol in a Chinese school for fear of having to cut her hair short. When the time came for her to pursue her tertiary education, she settled on Canada. “Why so far?” her father asked. “It’s the cheapest place to study!” she replied candidly.
Though banking was never on the cards, Jim Leng graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Acadia University and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Dalhousie University. It was then that she discovered she was actually good at accounting and finance, hence settling on banking as a profession. “Funnily, being a banker was not even something we would ascribe to be when we were in our primary years. When the teacher asked us to list down our top three professions, I filled in nurse, air stewardess and pilot,” says the CEO of Hong Leong Investment Bank, who has made banking her world for more than three decades now.
“The truth is, during the initial stage of my career, I had no idea that banking was going to be my one and only career. I only know I was very excited with the learning environment and that I was actually quite good at it!” The formidable CEO and managing director who currently leads the investment banking arm of Hong Leong Capital first dabbled in commercial banking at Ban Hin Lee Bank Bhd in 1989 before moving to corporate finance.
In 1993, she joined Schroders Malaysia and fell in love with the fast-paced world of investment banking where the stakes are high and fortunes are made. But success does not come without hardships and Jim Leng has had her fair share of rejection during her initial years at Schroders. How does she retain a sense of optimism when the going gets tough? “Most people often quit when times are bad. But when you love what you’re doing, everything has a purpose. I have always embraced the attitude of giving my best and focusing on improving every day. It’s the culmination of the little steps that we take that will make us stronger by the day. And I believe in perseverance, humility and sincerity,” she says.
Her unwavering spirit and perseverance stems from a challenging childhood as Jim Leng, who hails from Penang, recalls sharing the same room with her family of six until they could afford their first low-cost flat. “My dad was born in China and only came to Malaysia at the age of 12. He runs a trading business and was only able to afford schooling up to primary six. But he worked so hard and I was ever so proud that he made it on his own and enough to send me and my siblings abroad,” she shares. Thus, Jim Leng has always embraced setbacks as part of her life.
We learn to accept that we can’t have everything. We work around it, try to overcome them and accept that once we’ve tried our best, limitations must be embraced.Lee Jim Leng
Jim Leng’s steadfast resolution and ability to adapt in any situation has also contributed to her success, leading her team to achieve a few firsts, including ushering in a new era of capital repayment and working with the Securities Commission Malaysia on the first private debt securities during her time at UOB. “For an investment bank, the biggest asset is our talent pool. Each year, we invest heavily in talent building to drive innovation. This helps us find better solutions to meet our clients’ needs,” she says.
However, a good team falls back on a true leader and Jim Leng believes in transformational leadership by leading through inspiration, empowerment and stimulating her employees to exceed normal levels of performance. “I believe in direct sponsorship and accounting of results, rewarding for performance and recognition for innovation. If you are good at what you do, the results should follow,” she remarks.
In today’s digital era, she acknowledges that knowledge is almost a given and the rise of Alipay and Wechat has surfaced as a new threat to banks. But Jim Leng has always believed in the key value of applying sincerity in looking after her clients’ long-term interests instead of chasing after profits for the bank. She notes that profits made from short-term strategies without taking into consideration of the client’s interest will often result in a loss of long-term brand reputation and sustainability of the bank.
It’s easy to see why Jim Leng’s clients trust her enough to build a close rapport as she is able to strike up a conversation with anyone at any given time. This winning personality has carried her through and she believes that being outspoken is a quality that, when used with skill and wisdom, can set you apart from the crowd. “The key is to be selectively outspoken and applied effectively to get your thought process and idea through,” she says.
Armed with an equally bold sense of dressing which may sometimes be seen as unconventional in the traditional world of banking, Jim Leng is unabashedly unapologetic as she cites Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson as other unconventional CEOs who no longer abide by conservative dark suits dress codes. “What I am sure is that when I feel good in what I wear, I exude confidence. I’m hoping to send across the message that my abilities are not judged by what I wear but rather how I conduct my conversations and presentations professionally and competently to my clients.”
As the only girl in her family, gender was never an issue in her household as her parents never interfered with her career plans. As for whether she believes in the notion that women have to prove themselves a lot more in order to reach leadership positions, she wholeheartedly disagrees. “Most employers and institutions today practise and embrace diversity and equality. Women who did not move towards substantial leadership positions were often forced to leave the industry halfway to care for their children or ageing parents,” she remarks.
After being in a banking career spanning almost 30 years, Jim Leng fuels her thirst for success and life’s indulgent pleasures through her inherent passion for her job. “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it,” she says, quoting Maya Angelou before strapping on her blue Prada heels and strutting out the door.