Jean Lee teaches leadership and human resources management at Ceibs in China. Before joining the Ceibs faculty she was associate dean at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, which she joined in 2004.
Prof Lee’s research interests include leadership, corporate culture and women in management. Her papers have appeared in various journals including Family Business Review, International Journal of Management and Women in Management Review. In 2008 and 2009, she was awarded the Ceibs Teaching Excellence Award.
After suddenly switching from science to art in school and earning the nickname ‘brave seagull,’ Prof Lee studied sociology at the National University of Singapore. She later applied for postgraduate study at the University of Massachusetts in the US, where she majored in organisational behaviours.
In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, dance and travelling to different parts of China to keep in touch with life and nature.
1. When did you know you wanted to teach?
When I was doing my undergraduate programme. I was a volunteer with the Samaritans of Singapore, a voluntary organisation. The director, also my woman mentor, once asked me during our coaching session if I would ever aspire to become a professor. That was the first time that someone saw that potential in me, something that even I myself had never given thought to. Prior to that, I was a part-time dance instructor and had been doing that since age 15. I taught dance to young children in school. With the young kids, I learned to articulate abstract thoughts and movement in simple words. I was also a choreographer and had developed the skills to connect with people.
2. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?
I conduct my classes until midnight. I get students to share their life story, which is a very big part of learning in leadership.
3. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
Never assume. Nothing is impossible. Everything is possible. With my years of experiences, sometimes I tend to judge and come to a conclusion too soon. There are times that I was proven wrong. People can amaze me with their potential and determination.
4. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Transforming people. I feel so amazed that people can change and that I could be there to witness that change. It shows in their eyes and in their behaviour, which is very gratifying and rewarding. With some students, I am still amazed with why and how they change. It’s certainly the most rewarding experience when I see how my students regain their energy, find their sense of meaning and direction and make good decisions for themselves, for the companies and for society. Having that desire and vision to make change and impact. I am truly happy for them. We need more good leaders to make the world better place.
5. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
To be who I am! Being a smart and intelligent woman, I often put pressure on my peers unintentionally. By having high standard for myself and others, I am often seen as “demanding”. I have lost friends because of that. There were times that I was very doubtful about myself and tried to shy away from the limelight. One of my professors told me that I would shine no matter how much I hid and that I have to be who I am. At that moment, I felt very touched and relieved. Now, I give the same piece of advice to other women leaders.
6. Who are your business influences?
Hadi Surya, who is the boss in my first consulting project. He is an entrepreneur and founder of one of the largest family business in Indonesia. I was impressed by his willingness to engage a young 28-year-old PhD lecturer, based on an article that I had written in the Straits Time, a newspaper in Singapore. In the six years of working with him, I learned a lot about family business, entrepreneurial leadership and organisational transformation. I admire his vision and determination and his foresight in business decisions. Most of all, I respect his appreciation of simplicity and humanity.
I am also very inspired by some of the Chinese business women leaders/managers: Yang Mianmian, Liu Mingming, Shi Xiaoyan, Zhou Xiaoguang, Chen Ailian, Anita Leung Fengyi, to name a few, whom I interviewed in the last two years in China. Their positive attitude, determination, kindness, willingness to take hardship and sacrifice make them authentic leaders. They make me believe that we need more women leaders to bring a female perspective into the workplace and business. I always believe that women can bring a more balanced view and peace in life.
7. What advice would you give to women in business?
Never give up on who you are; be proud of your gender and identity and be feminine; Love yourself in order to love others. Turn the stereotypes of women into strengths.
8. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
Face the reality and live with it, respect the strengths of men, communicate effectively and speak up with confidence. Try to be assertive and not offensive and know where your support stems from. Work with men who appreciate and support you and endeavour to win respect with your own actions and your own merits. Try to do what they can’t do and do it well, accept that it will take time to change and take a step at a time.
9. What inspires you?
Helping people to grow and be better always inspires me. After coming to terms with the death of my father and brother, I realised that life is short. We bring nothing to this world and will take nothing from this world when we leave. The key and fundamental question we should ask ourselves is: what do I leave behind to the world and the people? My answer is words of wisdom, therefore I teach and I write.
10. What are your future plans?
I will continue to do research in China because there are many interesting issues here. I will continue to be the bridge of east and west. I would like to help promote more women leaders and mentors for women students and I would like to assume more leadership roles.
Interview by Charlotte Clarke