Citigroup Malaysia CEO: “Why I’ve stayed at my bank for 27 years”

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Lee Lung Nien has worked for Citigroup for the best part of three decades and he’s clear about what’s motivated him to stay for so long.

“I’ve been based in London, New York, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and held 10 jobs in 27 years that have all challenged and stimulated me in different ways. Because of the great internal opportunities that Citi has afforded me, I’ve grown my career without changing companies,” says Lee, who’s been Chief Executive Officer of Citibank Berhad, Citigroup’s wholly-owned subsidiary in Malaysia, since 2014.

Lee spent much of his time at Citi in senior markets roles, before becoming the bank’s COO for Singapore, his home country, in 2010. He then made what he describes as “the most interesting” move of his career in 2012, taking over as Anti-Money Laundering Business Head for Asia, overseeing Citi’s AML monitoring hub in Kuala Lumpur.

“Citi is truly global and its extensive network offers every employee tremendous opportunities to progress and build a successful career with the organization.  One of the best lessons for me is to always be curious and to look for new challenges that will enable you to develop new capabilities or strengthen existing ones. For me the opportunity to move from Sales in Markets to a Controls/Operations role at our Citi Service Centre in Kuala Lumpur exemplifies this. It was a radical shift but it provided me with an environment where I could learn and grow as a leader,” Lee shared.

“It was a big job and it came with added responsibility. I also had to re-locate from Singapore to Malaysia. It wouldn’t have been possible without the great team around me who progressed  and supported me  in charting some new achievements in terms of lower employee attrition and stronger team morale.  That job and the COO position in Singapore prior to the KL posting, gave me the combined leadership skills which are an advantage to me now that I am in a country head role,” he added.

Lee now leads more than 5,500 employees in Malaysia and is extremely proud of the recognition Citi received  as Best Foreign Bank by Finance Asia and The Asset in 2017. “That means several things: being an employer of choice,a trusted advisor to clients and having first-class governance in place by building great relationships with regulators and within the firm.”

This vision is helping Citi recruit some of the strongest  talent in Malaysia, with an emphasis on compliance and anti-money laundering jobs, as well as front-office roles in corporate and consumer banking. “This year we’re looking to hire more fresh talent – particularly in these functions – as we grow our business here,” says Lee. Here at  Citi, we nurture our best talent  and groom them to be global professionals. You get the best of all worlds if you work here.”

No matter which job you’re applying for at Citi in Malaysia, you must be a motivated self-starter and progressive thinker to succeed at the bank, says Lee. “These are  the fundamental  attributes that we look for. For example, if you’re talking to your manager about your career, don’t say ‘what’s the next job for me?’, say ‘I want to move into securities services, how do I get there?’ If you show your boss that you have a plan, doors will open up for you in the future at Citi.”

Lee’s own career is testimony to this. “When I look back, all my bosses at Citi have been supportive of my ambitions. I think working across different job functions and markets helps to develop stronger leaders and  progression within the company.”

Citi employees can look forward to not just a job, but a long-term fulfilling career that could take them anywhere in the world..  The 2+2 programme allows employees to apply for internal transfers every two years, and leave their current teams within two months if they  secure a new job elsewhere in the firm. There is also  a leadership development initiative, called LEAD, that gives high-potential staff short-term work experience in other divisions – a trader could join the transaction banking team, for example.

“I’ve enjoyed helping some of the people I manage to move into totally different roles within Citi because it keeps them motivated,” says Lee. “We believe in equal opportunity for all employees - everyone is eligible for mobility. Being adaptable and having the right capabilities is what counts and will help create opportunity

“For expatriates like me, one of my key priorities is to  grow local talent. I  counsel all my foreign managers to ensure that having strong succession plans in place, including local talent, should be their ultimate objective.  – If you don’t have someone earmarked to replace you now, you’d better have in three to five years. It’s about creating a strong bench, just like you would at a football club,” he adds.

Evidence of this can be seen in the  increasing number of locals who are moving into leadership roles in Malaysia. Identifying top performers from the Citi management associate programme is an important way of building a strong talent pipeline, says Lee.

Lee’s vision for Citibank Berhad is already bearing fruit. Staff retention rates have improved as has workforce satisfaction, according to the bank’s latest employee survey. Last year Citi also won best retail mobile banking experience in Malaysia at the Asset Asian Awards, and was named world’s top consumer digital bank by Global Finance.

“It’s great to be receiving these ongoing accolades,” says Lee. “They are recognition of how far we’ve come as a bank in Malaysia and what our employees have achieved over the past few years. Now we look forward to welcoming   new talent on board  to help us take Citi to even greater heights.”

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