Interview with Sr Lee Ka Lun, Stephen, Chairman of Chun Wo Construction Holdings, the core business of Asia Allied Infrastructure
If there is a ‘Most Popular Senior Executive Contest’ at Chun Wo (Chun Wo Construction Holdings, the core business of Asia Allied Infrastructure), Chairman Sr Lee Ka Lun, Stephen (Mr. Lee) will definitely be a hot pick. Mr. Lee, a senior with extensive experience in construction management, has served Chun Wo for 17 years. Even though he is highly respected, colleagues in the back office or on site call him a genial and friendly person. Often, we can even find Mr. Lee having lunch or dinner with colleagues. He is a management and mentor with no airs and graces.
So, how does this ‘moderate leader’ build his authority and bring teamwork into full play while being close to colleagues? During his career journey at Chun Wo, what is most unforgettable for him, and how did he overcome those difficulties? Among the many parties in construction, why did Mr. Lee choose to be a contractor and stay in the same field for so many years? What motivates him to remain passionate about his job? Get ready for Mr. Lee’s sharing!
Your problem is our problem
Mr. Lee demonstrates a coaching leadership style. Instead of deliberately keeping a distance from his colleagues because of rank differences, he attaches great importance to the shared responsibility with the team: “I often say to my colleagues, ‘your problem is my problem’. When they make mistakes, rather than scolding them at once, I’d rather solve the problem with them together first.” With empathy, Mr. Lee is able to share the guilty and self-blame that colleagues experience after making a mistake. Therefore, rather than blaming them to vent his emotions, he believes to let them realise their mistake, learn from it and avoid repeating it is a better option. “My principle is ‘to make the people around me feel comfortable’, and ‘comfortable here does not equal ‘happy’, because I will correct my colleagues when they do wrong, but I’ll do it in a more acceptable manner. Ultimately, I hope colleagues can grow from the process of making mistakes.”
Mr. Lee emphasised that ‘tolerance is not the same as connivance’. He has his own requirement for colleagues: “I allow colleagues to make mistakes, but they have to be willing to fix the problem. I allow the same kind of mistake to happen only once.” He added that he is very sensitive about numbers. For example, he requires colleagues to be precise when submitting tenders, as there will be a dramatic change in the tender price only by adding or removing a ‘zero’ to the number, which decides whether the or not Company can get the job.
A decisive mentor and friend
In addition to management work, Mr. Lee is also a mentor of Chun Wo's ‘Core Program’, always sharing his experience with the Core Members and offering them guidance in work and life. What’s more, colleagues often invite Mr. Lee for lunch or dinner, and he attends the appointments if he has time. They discuss everything – from work to chitchats – they get along just like friends.
So, as a top management, Mr. Lee should have a busy schedule. If he spends a lot of time on maintaining a relationship with colleagues like this, how does he deal with time management? He replied that his tip is to make decisions decisively, because ‘not making a decision is the worst decision’. When colleagues encounter a problem and come to Mr. Lee for his opinion, he will give directions immediately so that colleagues can executive the solutions without delay. Even if he cannot come with an answer immediately, he will set a time limit and will never procrastinate. Therefore, colleagues can always gain something from Mr. Lee.
Chun Wo: people-oriented, provides various development opportunities
When asked why Mr. Lee stands with Chun Wo for many years, he replied that Chun Wo is a people-oriented company, and he happens to value relationships. Over the years, he has established a relationship with the Company and colleagues which is beyond monetary value. Here, Mr. Lee recalled with a smile on his face an interesting happening between Dr. Pang Kam Chun (Old Mr. Pang), Founder of Chun Wo Development Holdings, and him, and that ‘personal guarantee’ he has treasured to this day: “Back in time, I was referred by a friend to join Chun Wo and I agreed. But later, I learned that my former company was in financial difficulties. Based on the consideration of friendship, I decided to stay and help. As I was not familiar with Old Mr. Pang at that time, he thought that I hesitated due to salary concerns. So, I explained to him that I needed around six months to help my former company come out of difficulties. Much to my surprise, he told me that he was willing to wait for me, and the promised salary increase would also be honoured, the only requirement was that I needed to sign a personal guarantee with him promising I’ll join Chun Wo after six months.” Mr. Lee was deeply moved by the sincerity of Old Mr. Pang, so he signed the guarantee, and later joined Chun Wo in 1998 as General Manager (Quantity Surveying) as promised.
Although Mr. Lee left Chun Wo and joined another company in 2005, at the sincere invitation of Ir Dr. Pang Yat Bond, Derrick, JP (the second son of Old Mr. Pang), Chief Executive Officer of Asia United Infrastructure (AAI), Mr. Lee re-joined Chun Wo as Director (Commercial) in 2011 and has served the Company for eleven years until now. In April 2017, he became the Chief Executive Officer and since June last year, he has served as the Chairman (Construction). Mr. Lee said that Chun Wo provides diversified development opportunities to its employees, and as his job position changed every one or two years, he must keep gaining new knowledge, and it was his source of motivation and satisfaction at work. Moreover, Mr. Lee enjoys working. During the heyday of the Company, there were two or three thousand employees, so the Company’s performance directly affected the livelihood of two or three thousand families. This is why he never stops.
Be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness
In Mr. Lee’s office, there hangs a calligraphy with the words ‘Be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness’, which is his motto that he has been reminding himself of over the past few years. He said that it is easy to become arrogant and impatient as one becomes a top management in construction. However, it takes time to build relationships and convince, and a wrong decision by top management can lead to serious consequences. Therefore, even though Mr. Lee is already the Chairman, he never forgets why and where he started.
He recalled a labour incident that he will never forget. Due to the lack of complete attendance records, there was a labour dispute in 2004 between Chun Wo and some repair workers. Mr. Lee was surrounded and blocked up by around 100 workers holding hammers outside the Shatin Office of the Labour Department, and they even insulted him at a close distance. It was intimidating. Although the Company wanted to send out security guards, Mr. Lee insisted that he did not need it, and he even talked to the workers in person. In this negotiation, empathy and calmness were indispensable, and Mr. Lee has retained both to this day.
Lastly, Mr. Lee encouraged the younger generation to face challenges and learn new things on their own initiative: ‘Contractors are under clients and consultants. It is a challenging job, but it offers a lot of room for development. Besides construction, AAI has many other businesses now, so as long as our colleagues are capable, they can enjoy a lot of opportunities for development.’
In Mr. Lee’s office, there hangs a calligraphy with the words ‘Be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness’, which has been his motto for these few years.
On holidays, Mr. Lee likes to have a chill out drink with colleagues and friends.