Up Close and Personal with James Lim
Kai Foong Tan and Rebecca Siow speak to James Lim, President for Greater Asia at Becton, Dickinson and Company, about his rise to becoming the first Asian to hold this position.
When asked about his journey to top leadership, James chose to reflect on his modest beginnings instead.
“I grew up in Sitiawan, a small town about 50 miles from Ipoh in Malaysia. I did not do well in my GCE 'O' Levels partly because of a motorcycle accident. But, the other reason for my mediocre school performance was my tendency to focus on one particular subject until I had mastered it. And, this was normally at the expense of other subjects. I enjoyed spending hours on just one difficult math problem and I won’t stop until I solved it,” explains James.
Despite the GCE 'O' Levels setback, James moved to Kuala Lumpur and persevered to turn in good results for his A Levels examinations
When it came to pursuing university studies, he decided on mechanical engineering, borne out of his love for anything mechanical and how all things worked. This meant moving away from Malaysia to Singapore, for only the National University of Singapore (NUS) could offer him this opportunity.
“If you want something to happen in life, you have to go for it,” James remarked.
Going for it required sacrifice. James came to Singapore with very little money in his pocket. To make ends meet, he gave private tuition and borrowed from his classmates. Pennies were saved when breakfast and lunch became one meal.
The determination to get through and graduate from NUS was borne out of a laser-like focus to solve a problem.
“If they can do it, why can’t I?”
People who know James credit him with resilience in the face of adversity. This resilience is clearly shaped by his early life experiences. Yet, it is also rooted in something deeper – in a core tenet of James’s philosophy, which always questions, “If someone else can achieve success, then why can’t I do the same?”
James recounted an experience when he was at the NUS. Then staying at residential college, his hostel needed one last tennis player for the inter-college games. James had never played tennis before. But, he challenged himself.
“If others can play competitive tennis, why can’t I?” asked James.
He learnt from watching TV, through other players, and trained rigorously. And, he became good enough to secure a spot to represent his college within 6 months.
James applies the same principle to his leadership journey. He looks up to Asian business leaders such as Ho Kwon Ping (founder and Executive Chairman of luxury resort operator Banyan Tree Holdings) and Koh Boon Hwee (one of the first Asian Regional Heads of Hewlett-Packard) at the time when all President in Asia Pacific were expatriates. But, beyond admiration, he challenged himself , “If they do it, why can’t I?”
Having spent 18 years in Becton Dickinson working his way up from managing a plant’s operations to the entire Greater Asia region, James has shown one thing: that he can indeed.
“I want to give back.”
Yet, when asked about his business achievements, James is quick to point out that success is not about achievements per se, but ultimately about people. Leadership is about the ability to influence and impact lives for the better. That is the legacy he wishes to leave behind: to help others have a better life, and inspire them to do the same for others.
A large part of this desire is anchored on the help that James himself has received from others. Looking back on memories during his undergraduate years, James recounts that he did not have enough money for his school fees in his final undergraduate year. He would have been barred from his final-year examinations had a kind Singaporean classmate (Wong Wai Keong) not loaned him the money. As a result, James is now driven to serve others and make a difference.
Accordingly, his focus has turned towards mentoring others, leveraging his own experiences to accelerate their learning process and realise their potential. His passion for mentoring is fuelled by yet another incident. He recounts training for the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon – one of the world’s toughest triathlons.
In preparation, he would cycle to and from work, and run 10 to 15 kilometres everyday for six long years. While this speaks volumes of his focus, he eventually injured his knees and never made it to Hawaii. Looking back, he realised a coach would have been a very valuable partner, offering expert guidance and accelerating his development correctly.
“You can get to the top 10% if you work hard and focus,” claimed James.
James invests much time in building relationships based on trust.
For example, given the importance of trust in establishing a relationship in Korean culture, James managed to build a trustworthy and fruitful rapport with a Korean subordinate, by sharing drinks and dinner over a period of time.
“Only after you build trust can you have crucial conversations with them. When they trust you enough to listen to you, that is when you can challenge them,” James said.
In the Korean instance, James pointed out specific behaviours – for example, a more paternalistic style, which is perfectly acceptable in Korea, may not work as well in a global context. Because of the established trust, he was able to coach his Korean colleague on the impact of his behaviours in different settings, and provide feedback and coaching on how he could develop the new skills in communicating and building trust with senior management outside of Korea.
“It’s not about you, but them.”
Given his penchant for cars, James recounted an epiphany one day, standing bewildered by the variety of car models parked in the office carpark
“Why would someone buy a Chery, and another a BMW? You have to understand how they think and what criteria were important to them when they bought that car. You have to be observant and adapt,” said James.
‘Observe’ and ‘adapt’ are core tenets of James’s philosophy about leading across borders.
Heading up Greater Asia from Singapore, James highlighted that a current key challenge is managing the dynamics between the region and corporate headquarters in the US. Given the geographical distance and cultural divide, James talked about the need to “stand in the shoes of my US-based stakeholders” to gain credibility.
He recounted a critical R&D project where the project leader had a choice between doing it in the US or Singapore. James succeeded in winning the project by first asking how he could make this project leader successful.
“For you to succeed, make it your responsibility to make the other person successful. Do not focus on yourself,” said James.
Focusing on others also includes adapting one’s communication style to match theirs.
“When in a review and they [James’s US counterparts] ask a question, our tendency as Asians is to tell them the full context of the story, not just answer what was asked but explain the background behind why it happened. Americans are not interested in the long story. They prefer you to get to the point. Tell them the problem directly. If they want more information, they will ask you for it. The key is to ensure that your communication is clear and impactful, and that it is tailored to your audience,” explained James.
This is especially true when leading across Asia, which is an extremely diverse region. It is this ability to adapt one’s leadership style that can make all the difference, believes James.
“Yes, Asian leaders can”
As the first Asian in his company to take on his current role, James has come a long way from his humble roots. He is optimistic that many other Asians can similarly succeed in the upper echelons of major MNCs. After all, he feels that Asians in general are strong at relationship building, which lends itself toward trust formation and thinking from another person’s perspective.
James also believes Asians to have a strong, dependable work ethic, believing this sets them up to be resilient, which makes for a headstart in challenging themselves to scale greater heights.
“If they can, why can’t I?” has been James Lim’s philosophy. And if he can, perhaps we should also ask ourselves:
“Why can’t we?”
This article was first published in HQ Asia (Print) Issue 04 (2012).