Power Players

Why the CEO of this global family business refuses to take his dad's advice

Roger Lee Kwo-chuan (Left), Chief Executive Officer, and Dr. Harry Lee Nai-shee (Right), Chairman of TAL Group.
South China Morning Post | South China Morning Post | Getty Images

When Roger Lee became CEO of one of the world's largest fashion manufacturers in his late-thirties, he had several role models to emulate.

Chief among them were his father, Harry, and his great uncle, C.C., the founder of TAL Group — the company behind high street retail giants Banana Republic, Burberry and Patagonia.

But, for the former IT consultant who switched industries to replace his dad as CEO of the family business, following in his predecessors' footsteps was not on his agenda.

In fact, according to Lee, refusing their advice has been key to the company's success.

"A lot of family businesses from generation to generation fail," Lee, now 46, told CNBC in a recent episode of "Managing Asia."

"I think we're very fortunate that, touch wood, so far we've been successful," he said.

Lee's great uncle launched TAL Group in 1947 in a bid to revive the family's century-old textile business. Over the past 70 years, the Hong Kong-headquartered company has gone from strength to strength under three generations of the family.

When you hand it over, have a clean break and let the next generation make mistakes.
Roger Lee
CEO of TAL Group

One of the key reasons for that, Lee said, is that his forefathers have known when to pass on the baton to the next generation.

"He doesn't get involved once he has given it over because we're so different in the way we operate and the way we manage," Lee said of his father, Harry. "He knows that if he was involved, we would clash all the time and never work."

Dr. Harry Lee Nai-shee (Left), Chairman, and Roger Lee Kwo-chuan (Right), Chief Executive Officer, of TAL Group.

Lee said that autonomy has been vital to his leadership of the business over the last seven years, as it's allowed him to make his own mistakes and learn from them.

"When you hand it over, have a clean break and let the next generation make mistakes," said Lee. "So what he does to me is that he sees that I would make a mistake, he lets me make the mistake – doesn't matter if it will cost us millions – but the most important is that I learn from that."

"Everyone makes mistakes. If you don't dare to make mistakes, that means you won't dare to try new things," he added.

Leaders should not be telling people what to do day-to-day.
Roger Lee
CEO of TAL Group

Of course, letting go is not always easy. Neither is watching mistakes being made, Lee's father Harry noted in a 2016 Forbes interview. "One major difficulty when I was CEO and now as chairman is to allow the next generation to carry on," the elder Lee told the magazine.

However, the 78-year-old who remains as TAL's chairman, said it's something he's trained himself to do for the sake of the business. "The best thing is to go away and not to interfere. That's why the transition is smooth."

That laissez-faire approach is something the younger Lee said he is now trying to implement as a leader, by allowing his 25,000 person-strong team to take responsibility for their own work.

"I like to delegate clear responsibilities, let them make the decisions and if they make mistakes, they tell me why. It's okay, we move on," said Lee.

"Leaders should not be telling people what to do day-to-day," he continued. "You should be setting the direction, setting the guidelines, and helping them remove roadblocks when they face them."

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Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that C.C. is the great uncle of Roger Lee and that the TAL Group is the company behind high street retail giant Burberry.