HR Excellence Awards 2023 Singapore
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Suite Talk: Ken Lee, DHL Express

Jerene Ang speaks to Ken Lee, managing director for Hong Kong and Macau at DHL Express, and executive vice-president of commercial, Asia Pacific, about the culture of “respect and results” that has helped the organisation evolve as a family.

You’ve been with DHL Express for almost 18 years now, how has the company changed since then?

For 18 years, our guiding principles have been respect and results. We treat everybody with the utmost respect, without compromising attainment of the highest standard of results.

Having joined as a business manager, how did you progress to become managing director?

Throughout my school days and my time in the National Service, I realised that I enjoy working with people. So when I decided to join DHL, my role of a business manager was a hybrid of dealing with customers externally and people internally.

When about a year later, the company asked me to run the Singapore hub, what excited me most was that I would have close to a hundred-plus people to manage. They soon sent me to Hong Kong, which is one of our three global hubs.

Since you like working with people, how would you define your leadership style?

I am pretty situational in my leadership. I think that certain aspects of leadership suit different situations at different times. For instance, situations with tight deadlines need me to be more directive.

I also believe in showing the world coherence, so when we close doors for management meetings, everybody speaks up. But when we open the door and walk out of the meeting, whether it is my idea or someone else’s idea that we accepted, we only go for that one idea. We respect teamwork.

You’re bound to have a dominant leadership style, which for me is that I like to influence people. I like to listen to them because I don’t believe that I’m the smartest man in the world.
DHL has received a lot of recognition under your leadership. What’s your advice for leaders in motivating employees?

Awards may be given by external bodies, but they are won by your people. With DHL being in the service industry, our product is our delivery service. Once in a blue moon, we may have uncontrollable factors such as bad weather delaying a plane. In such cases, it comes down to the attitude with which you manage your customers and explain the situation to them.

I can’t follow every courier around the country and see how they serve the customers. So it’s important they are in the best of shape and feel motivated before they step out.

How do you keep them motivated every time they step out?

We have programmes such as employee of the year and employee of the month. But we also have regular appreciation weeks to recognise effort, and express our gratitude towards every staff at DHL. Our appreciation week involves things such as a buffet spread, with the senior managers putting on aprons and serving our people.


Ken Lee, DHL Express


In your tenure with DHL, what have you enjoyed most about your job?

My answer is still, the people. If one day you wake up and you dread going to work, I think it would be time that you changed your job. More often than not, when you stop enjoying the company, it has got more to do with the people than the success of the company.

Money is one factor, but if so, you can always find a job that can pay you more.

With such a big role, when you have a really busy day how do you unwind?

When you are upset or angry about a situation, it’s the worst time to make a decision about it. Move out of it for a while, grab a coffee and come back to it later, because when you are in a cooler state of mind you are able to handle the situation better.

What is your view of HR as a business function?

HR has to be in the business to support the business. Because only when you understand the business and know its needs can you support the people.

However, I don’t believe that motivating people is HR’s function, it is everybody’s function. While HR can help to administer processes, it is the specific function we have to look at in terms of addressing any concerns or areas of improvements.

Do you believe HR leaders can develop to become CEOs?

Yes, if they genuinely know what the business is and what they can do to support people to do a better job. But if they come into a company saying they are only interested in following HR processes, then I don’t think they can reach CEO level.

Ken Lee, DHL Express


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