Hear from James Lim, president for Greater Asia at BD, how leaders can successfully move from operational to business roles, but that the integration of work-life will always remain a struggle.

Having grown up in Malaysia, why did you move to Singapore?

I had a dream to become a mechanical engineer. Even when I was young, I used to tinker with things. So when the opportunity to study engineering came my way, I jumped at it.

Coming from a small town in Malaysia, and knowing the high standards of education in Singapore, primarily in English, it was a difficult choice to make for a native Malay speaker like me.

However, I always encourage young people to pursue their interest, no matter what.

Financially it was tight back home, and I had younger siblings to support. So after my course I decided to start working.

I spent six years at Seagate, where I learnt the most. It was one of the top industries in Singapore at the time, with only about 23 such companies in the country.

Then, an interesting story about how I got the opportunity to join the medical industry.

Someone working for me in Seagate left to join BD, and after his boss there resigned, he called me up and asked if I wanted to apply for the opening and become his boss again.

He said the culture was like 'heaven', so I went for the interview and got the job! And that guy is still here, also called James.

The lesson in this story is about the the difference you make in people’s lives. After 26 years of working, you look back and realise how such defining moments shaped what you intended to seek.

After doing an operations role in BD for the first 20 years, how was the transition to running the business?

The transition was a question of three things, and this applies to anyone moving to a new role: whether it is of interest to you, whether there is motivation to be successful in it, and your learning agility.

I look at learning agility, that is, how people learn, in three ways.

Most people learn well through reading, especially Asians as we are studious. The second way of learning is by observing – how people work, what they do, and the power of observation.

And, the third is to seek experts in that subject, those who have knowledge as well as experience. Many people lack this aspect, they feel they can do it all on their own. But learning accelerates a lot if you have mentors.

Many people feel they can do it all on their own. But learning accelerates a lot if you have mentors.
Having been in BD for more than two decades, what's been your most memorable moment?

When I look back, the most fond memories are the friendships, and memories that you share with the people you work with.

It's not like I have dinner with them every night, but to see them achieve their fullest potential gives me a huge amount of satisfaction.

How do you groom your team to take up senior leadership roles?

Good HR practice is to spend 50% of your time with people. But I think it goes deeper than that.

Spending time with your associates is one thing. But spending time to know about their purpose in life is the most important thing - building trust to a level where they share their personal motivation with you.

A lot of bosses just talk about the monthly results and pointing out issues. but if you keep it at the superficial level of work, then where is the human factor?

Maybe because I am an Asian leader, I put a lot of emphasis on relationships.

I also think it is important for the associates to come up with their career blueprint, and for us to coach them towards that. If we are lucky, it becomes a culture, and that is how it is in BD.

How does HR play a role in helping you as a business leader?

Their first role is to advise and provide feedback to the leader. Most leaders are very determined and focused, but sometimes they ride off into the sunset without realising nobody is following them.

So the first task for any good HR leader is to have a partnership with the CEO and finance controller, to give honest feedback about what the organisation is feeling, and your own behaviour.

Second, they have to truly understand the business. That means spending time with customers, understanding the business strategy, and work with the leaders to translate that into HR strategies.

So where is the problem in this? A lot of times, even though the HR and business are speaking the same language, the messages don't translate into the same meaning. I call it the husband-wife factor.

A lot of bosses just talk about the monthly results and pointing out issues. but if you keep it at the superficial level of work, then where is the human factor?
With all of this going on, when do you spend time with your family?

My wife, also a mechanical engineer and an NTU graduate, gave up her career to take care of our two boys, who are now 15 and 17 years old.

I think that was very brave of her. I wouldn’t have done the work I have done in my career, if not for her.

For any regional leader, the regret will always be that we try very much to integrate work and life, but I am not one of those who can balance this perfectly.

I am a lousy husband. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate myself a 3.

The children are big now, they need a father figure, so I need to balance a bit more. I think the next phase in my life will be learning to focus on the ability to communicate and plan for retirement.