She’s overhauled a hospital from baby factory to leading paediatric centre, fought for family-friendly offices and championed budding stage stars. Her World closely examines the indefatigable CEO of KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital
Sometime in 1998, passing drivers probably did a double take when Dr Jennifer Lee zipped around town in a witch’s costume—hat, crooked nose and all. Certainly the petrol pump attendants must have been amused to see the witch hopping out of her car to refuel her ride to the office party. And few people would even have imagined her to be the future Nominated Member of Parliament.
“This is how Jennifer can be—wacky and fun,” says her pal, Tisa Ng, a management consultant. “Normal people don’t walk around and shock people like that, but Jennifer certainly got a laugh out of it, telling me.”
Certainly it’s the rare few who catch the 48-year-old chief executive officer of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital hamming it up like that. After all, leading a legion of doctors and nurses means you can’t be too fun and fuzzy if you want things done.
Her staff know her as a stern taskmaster—how else could she have pulled KKH from the dark ages in the 10 years she’s been on board? It used to be that old baby factory with delivery suites holding four hollering mums-to-be at a time. Now it is the leading paediatric hospital in the region providing great “after-sales service” for babies, as she puts it.
She is now also pushing for KKH to be a model for family friendly workplaces, a cause she is labouring for.
Jennifer Lee is understandably proud of her “baby”—oohing and aahing when she meets anyone who was born at the hospital. Like a doting mother, it’s not hard to see where her passion lies.
Besides, the perks are great, attests the CEO, who counts among them—receiving gifts of Teletubbies and balloons, and of course, the plum window seat next to the children’s playground.
Yet her hefty and impressive career wasn’t quite planned for. Jennifer says she let events shape her early years. Her father, former Public Service Commission Chairman Lee Hee Seng, of course, started the ball rolling by dictating her career. Says Jennifer, “He thought it was a good idea for me to be a doctor—it was a respectable and secure career.”
Though she did briefly wonder about her choices at National Junior College, nothing came of it. “Because I’d never really thought about it. I didn’t have a viable alternative career choice,” she admits. “It’s one thing to have found your calling to be a doctor, artist or economist and blaze a trail. But it’s quite another to say you don’t know what else you want to do. That’s how I ended up in medicine.”
Like any fresh grad, she jumped into work, looking only as far as that year-end vacation she was saving for.
“Sometimes I thought I should project my career goals for two years down the road and see how I should prepare to achieve them. But it was just a thought, and I moved on.”
It’s all right to be less than clear about your life’s paths, she says.
“When I ask young people who want to join us what they see themselves doing in three years, they think they have to give a snappy answer. But I’m not interested if they plan to be a CEO or a czar down the line; I just want to learn what they are passionate about, what they want to contribute to their field.”
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Anyone can change the world, she adds: “Start with your own spheres of influence, whether it’s at home or with your staff. If you are positive, you can do so much.”
She says she’d like to be a model for her nieces and nephews. “Not just by proving what women can do, but also in values, and lessons in life.”
And so when the opportunity came up to be NMP, Jennifer took it—lobbying twice before she got in. “My advice to women: Always speak loud and clear. If you mince your words, you won’t get heard at all.”
As the president of the International Women’s Forum Singapore, she actively recruits top executives to plug the gaps in male-dominated boards.
Significantly, this infectious sense of mission and civic duty spills over to many of the younger people she meets—notably in the arts, where she is a staunch supporter.
Says playwright Haresh Sharma who has worked with her at The Necessary Stage (TNS): “I think it’s great how Jennifer manages to pull it all together—her work and her social consciousness. I want to grow up to be just like her!”
NO PRIMA DONNA
It can be easy for someone of Jennifer’s stature to take herself too seriously. But not the good doctor. For one, she is not afraid to laugh at herself. How else could she have persuaded her senior staff to prance on stage with her, witch’s costume and all, at the hospital’s D&D?
How else could she (together with Standard Chartered banker Theresa Foo and former NMP Dr Kanwaljit Soin) have spoofed herself on stage for a fund-raising audience of power brokers last year? “It says a lot about the woman’s confidence, to be able to let her hair down that way,” said one junior staffer.
And Jennifer is conscious that people do not feel too uncomfortable around her. At her first board meeting with TNS as one of its directors, she lugged along a pot of curry to lubricate the discussions at hand.
Says TNS’s artistic director, Alvin Tan: “She knows that some people may be intimidated by her, so she takes pains to correct that. It’s never about power structures and she never plays up her authority. Neither is Jennifer too proud to ask for help.”
Haresh adds: “She’ll say I know this and this is what I can do. In the same vein, she has the humility to say, ‘This is what I don’t know, teach me.’”
And she’s certainly not afraid to get her hands dirty. When The Substation held a fundraiser last year, she personally chaired the committee to sell tables—the toughest job of all. Her connections came in handy and they raised much more than their target.
Said Seow Sher Yan, The Substation’s general manager: “She had actually stepped down as chairman on the management committee, but she knew we needed help. What’s telling is how she refused to let us give her any tickets for the dinner where some people expect it as part of their perks.”
FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS
For a woman who juggles so many responsibilities, she still finds the time to pursue many things—from tango to tai-chi. And what she picks up at play, she does with gusto, too.
Relates her buddy, Madeleine Lee of venture catalyst Bowtieasia.com: “When I suggested taking up tai-chi, she was the first one in the group to jump up and say yes. And in typical Jennifer Lee style – hardworking and consistent – she’d learn the moves, then practice at home everyday to perfect them. In no time, she was leading the group while the others were still trying to remember the steps.”
Not one to do things in half-measures, she commits only to causes she believes she can fully contribute to. If there’s any secret to her success – how she pivots, perfectly balanced between her various roles – it’s all to do with focus and knowing where her limits are.
“I don’t take up all the good causes that come my way. Just take Parliament, for example. I have to be focused because I make a better impact that way. Understanding the issues take time and you don’t stand up in Parliament lightly and shoot your mouth off.”
As Jennifer’s friend Tisa puts it too: “Jennifer is not a dabbler with a finger in a gazillion pies. She takes on what she wholeheartedly believes in and does it responsibly. She follows through.”
Having an occasional tipple with the girls keeps Jennifer sane. Few things beat sharing a yam over a very cold glass of white wine or strawberry margarita.
“In fact, it’s an essential part of being effective. If you are so stretched that you can’t pause, think and de-stress, I don’t think you can be very efficient,” she smiles.
That’s why despite her intense schedule, she never fails to make time for friends and family. Thursday evenings are sacred—that’s when the whole Lee clan meets to catch up over dinner at the family home.
As the doting aunt to seven nieces and nephews, Jennifer’s often ready with the treats to the movies or a trip to the Botanic Gardens.
Theatre junkie that she is, neither is she too busy to attend performances. Now and then, she books the tiny 30-seater cinema at Great World City for a movie party with friends.
And twice a year, she takes a week-long vacation to recharge—one week with the parents in Australia, the second on a ski trip, usually in North America.
BEING SINGLE HELPS
When people marvel at her drive and commitment, Jennifer modestly defers, attributing it to her single status.
“My parents are very independent and because I don’t have a husband or children to look after, that frees up a large chunk of my time and responsibilities. Any woman who has a family has a lot more on her hands than I do.”
With such a full life, she has precious little time to miss having a family of her own. “I’m constantly reminded of my age,” she guffaws. “If I’d wanted a family, I’d have worked a lot harder at it a long time ago. I enjoy being with kids, but there’s no suppressed maternal instincts here.”
Certainly, there is no rush to find herself a partner, like some people fearing loneliness would. “It’s really quite tiresome to spend a whole life dating, meeting strangers, making conversation. My life is so full that I’m not missing anything!”
She was, however, married to her classmate when they were fresh out of university at 24. They divorced after seven years. “Of course it was traumatic initially—having got married and then deciding that things were not quite what they should be. But that’s the time when you keep busy and you then move on.
“Not having kids allowed me to close a chapter in my life. It would have been a lot harder if there had been non-adult lives involved.”
“If there was one thing I learnt, it was that making one bad decision won’t stop life from going on. Growing up, school, getting married and unmarried. All these things in the past go towards shaping you today. So if you are happy with who you are, the experiences are OK.”
Life must be good then for Jennifer. Some people say that she’s been blooming over the past year—what with her heightened profile in Parliament, KKH, even on stage. And in her typical precise fashion she explains, “It’s just that my life is so congruent these days. Whether it’s running the hospital, serving women in a very practical way, contributing my bit for the family in Parliament—it all gels together with my personal interests to be a voice and representative for women.” HW
1971: President’s Scholarship, University of Singapore
April 1976 to April 1981: Practised medicine in both the public and private sector
May 1981 to 1983: Joined Jardine Parrish as a sales manager pushing medical equipment
November 1984 to December 1987: Returned to the civil service as an Administrative Service Officer assigned to the Ministry of Health. She was involved in policy-making, personnel and also handled public relations—notably when the first three HIV patients in Singapore were discovered
Jan 1988 to March 1991: Helped corporatise the Singapore General Hospital as its Chief Operating Officer
April 1991 to 2000: Runs a 900-bed hospital with 2,300 staffers as Chief Executive Officer. In her 10 years there, KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital has morphed from a one-discipline hospital to a major teaching centre for Obstetrics, Gynaecology, Neonatology and Paediatrics in Singapore
1999: Became Nominated Member of Parliament and made history by being the first non-married woman there. She has focused largely on work and family issues: How Singaporean balance the two without compromising on family life. Sits on various committees to push those causes
Other involvements: President (1999 to 2001), International Women’s Forum Singapore; National Committee for Unifem Singapore; Women for Women Association; Association of Women for Action and Research; The Substation; The Necessary Stage; Practice Performing Arts Centre Ltd, Tsao Foundation, Eu Yan Sang International Holdings Pte Ltd
THE SIMPLE LIFE
Her snap efficiency extends to her personal tastes: Just sticking to costume jewellery, a watch that can take some dunking in water and a few good jackets thrown over a core black top and bottom.
For the last 20 years, Jennifer Lee has been buying her clothes at the same store at Shaw Centre—Hawaiiana. Says sales manager Nancy Han, who attends to her: “She leaves us to tell her when some suitable clothes come. Then she pops by on a Saturday afternoon and spends what time she can spare – whether it’s half an hour or three hours – to get a few simple, classic suits to tide her over. She’s careful with money and buys only what she needs. When her office eased up the dress codes, she bought pants. And when she started going to Parliament she got brighter jackets too—to stand out from the men.”
FAMILY FRIENDLIER OFFICES
It’s just like Jennifer. While everyone gets all toasty from this wave of family-friendly initiatives, the analytical CEO brings you smack down to earth. “All this has nothing to do with being nice to employees. It’s about productivity.”
Stressed-out staff aren’t a help if they fall ill or find it tough to cope with demands at home. As with any organisation, there has to be a bottom line to justify the initiatives.
That’s why Jennifer just launched her two-man Worklife Unit to document clear principles and guidelines, so there’s little chance to “be opportunistic and ad-hoc”. If a staff says he needs time for his sick mother, the manager knows exactly how to handle that.
She says, “This is what will give KKH the cutting edge. I want to prove it can be done and roll it out as a model later on for others to follow.”
WHO’S THE BOSS
As a fair-minded boss who’s not afraid to praise, better yet, not afraid to be unpopular, you know exactly where you stand with Jennifer. “This makes it possible for you to go to her and say, ‘Look I made a mistake. But this is what I can do.’ You can’t do this to every boss,” says KKH’s director of speciality and ambulatory services, Tan Keet Yee, who’s worked with her for the last seven years.
“And if there’s an unpopular decision to be made, she’s not afraid to take it on, even if she could have easily got someone else to do it. Few bosses can be so supportive.”
LESSONS WITH DAD
“Those walks in the garden with dad were very precious. He taught me about integrity, about doing the right thing, being principled, meticulous and true to what you believe in.”