01 July 2018

Poh Kait Lee

Poh Kait Lee

Director of Asia and Pacific, Air Canada
Master of Business Administration (MBA), International Business

Poh Kait Lee’s career has taken him to great heights, with high-profile positions at Canon, Malaysia Airlines and Air Canada, after a fated night with former classmates over Bah Kut Teh (slow-cooked pork in herby soup) changed the course of his career forever.

PK (as he is known affectionately) explains that two years after he completed his tertiary education he bumped into old friends in his hometown of Klang in Malaysia, famous for its seafood and traditional delicacies, at a restaurant.

“That brief encounter with my ex-classmate was a game-changing moment for me because all of us decided to enrol into this MBA program. It wasn’t an easy decision though as the odds were up against me.”

“Firstly, I needed to fund the course on my own and at the time we were welcoming the newest addition to our family. Also, my job back then at Canon was very demanding with new roles and responsibility added onto my plate almost every month.

“However, after I had the opportunity to better understand the program, which was designed to suit executives like me, I was convinced.

"Most importantly though, I have a very understanding spouse that encourages me all the time. Hooi Leng Ng is not only my trusted wife, but a best friend, an advisor, and a great mother to our three children, so I soon learned how to cope with work and study-life stress and how to balance family life at the same time.”

Poh Kait Lee with his family
Poh Kait Lee with his family

Rapidly, he began climbing the corporate ladder at camera and electronic manufacturer, Canon, where he established himself as a valuable asset to the company with the knowledge and experience he had gained at UniSA.

A call from a head-hunter then pulled him out of the comfort zone that he had established in his 16-year tenure at Canon and into the aviation industry. Equipped with his experiential learning from UniSA, PK entered the aviation industry and lead Malaysia Airlines through one of its most difficult periods.

“I had a very promising future and career in Canon. Being a highly reputable company, Canon was a very profitable electronic giant and rewarded their employees well. But when I was told Malaysia Airlines were looking for leaders to turn the company around, to me it was a calling to serve the nation.

“In 2005, Malaysia Airlines was at the verge of bankruptcy and needed a transformational leader to drive structural changes in the airline. With my operations expertise, armed with an Australian education, I was extremely confident in adding value to this national icon of Malaysia.

“I’m a person who likes challenges and is inspired by self-actualisation, and I saw this as a great opportunity to test and to prove myself by accepting this risky decision to join Malaysia Airlines.”

After PK took the risk, he quickly made his way up the ranks becoming the Area Manager for Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen, displaying a natural talent for market analysis, revenue and management development and strategic partnership engagement.

Just three years later, he was promoted to Regional Senior Vice President (North Asia and North America) where he was responsible for overseeing operations across seven offices and dynamically led a team in achieving new heights.

PK was then appointed the Regional Senior Vice President (Australia, New Zealand and Southwest Pacific) position in 2013 overseeing one of the largest region and crucial markets for the company.

“Starting my aviation career with Malaysia Airlines without any airline experience was both challenging and crazy. But again, my education on Strategic Project Management at UniSA was put in effective use. At the same time though, I needed to unlearn all my technical skills and relearn another new set of airline skills.

“After turning around the North Asia and North America region in six months, I was posted to Sydney to lead the Oceania region. Australian flights were under attack from AirAsia X flying into Australia.

“Malaysia Airlines in Australia was on the right path until two major incidences put our focus on supporting the victims and their families as our top priority.”

In 2014 tragedy struck when two Malaysia Airline planes, MH17 and MH370, were involved in disastrous plane crashes.

PK played a key role in guiding the company through this period of turmoil and rebuilding confidence in the brand and Malaysia Airline’s perception.

“During the MH370 and MH17 incidents, I provided the much-needed leadership in crisis during the most difficult times for Malaysia Airlines,” he says.

“I also acted as the airline’s Emergency Operation Centre’s Chairman when the MH370 search was headquartered in Perth, working very closely with Embassies and Commissions, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Federal Police and local governments in designing very delicate family reception plans in Perth.

“It was also imperative to provide local emotional support not just to the families, but also to employees tasked with family assistance roles.”

As a result of PK’s strong leadership and tenacity, he was promoted to Regional Head of Sales for Oceania and Southeast Asia, spearheading its needed corporate restructuring and leading all commercial activities in these markets.

These days, he heads Air Canada as Director of Asia and Pacific, where he hopes to contribute to the longterm profitability of the company, making Air Canada and Canada the preferred carrier and destination for both work and leisure.

After so many high pressure roles with a range of great expectations on his shoulders, how does PK relax and recharge?

“I enjoy listening to my favourite music when I’m resting or travelling. An ability to maintain a positive mind when faced with challenges keeps me moving forward. You need to surround yourself with like-minded friends,” he says.

“I also love driving long distances while enjoying the beautiful sceneries along the journey. Such a holiday is a good opportunity for me to engage with my family and at the same time enjoy the drive!”

PK also acknowledges that having a strong family base and support is key in his many successes.

“I travel extensively but I try to maintain a happy family. I have Hooi Leng to thank for her sacrifices and support allowing me to have my undivided commitment on my career. We communicate and consults each other all the time to set expectation and fulfilling them.

“I will be lying if I told you I have a work and family balance. In my role I’m always away from home, but when we are together we create and add value to our relationship.”

“When asked for his best advice for recent graduates and those hoping to reach similar career heights in business, PK explained that remaining open-minded and teachable are key.

“Be humble and learn from others, even from your junior colleagues. Asking questions is the quickest way to learn, but it has to be done with courtesy, especially if someone is older. Work as a team. You are as good as what the team can deliver.

“AQ (adaptability quotient) will ensure you consistently deliver and perform. Be sensitive to cultural and language differences. Expose yourselves to diversity; try understanding the rationale behind certain practices or beliefs.

“Identify your purpose in life. Once you anchor that it will be your main source of sustainable leadership energy. Frankly, without this leadership energy I would have given up long ago.”

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