10 Mar CLARITY Feature Story: Irene Lee – The Success Taskmaster

Setting High Standards Empowers You to Realise Your Goals

Principal career coach Irene Lee’s first batch of coachees were chronically unemployed. They were job seekers who had been out of work for longer than six months and they tended to appear downcast.

Being a novice in the coaching profession, Irene recalled her first assignment was uneventful. The person she dealt with was grousing incessantly and defensive from the start of the session. It got nowhere. She was disappointed with herself and almost wanted to throw in the towel.

However, Irene overcame the ordeal. She prevailed through the weeks and months, and survived to tell her story. Looking back, the resident Principal Career Coach — now in her mid-50s — said she is glad she held on to the calling.

Since that episode, she has moved on and learned how to strike rapport with PMET coachees who are earnestly seeking work. With a listening ear, she was able to identify their strengths and suggest career options. She kept an open mind and triggered the thought process to enable each coachee to share their mind.

Irene emphasised that it is essential to moderate the pace of the conversation and put the coachee at ease. If the discussion becomes impassive, it would soon bore both parties before the hour is up. Conversely, shooting off questions in rapid-fire intensity would appear as if it is a police interrogation and scare the coachee. Enthusiastic coaches in training, heed her advice.

A dedicated career coach with an interesting profile, Irene strongly urges job seekers to venture beyond the boundaries for greener pastures.

Uncompromising Pursuit of Greater Heights

Coaching is Irene’s latest calling. She is a full-fledged chartered accountant with sterling credentials under her belt. Her 23 years of financial accounting and corporate leadership experience with an international luxury brands powerhouse holds her in good stead. But it is her deft questioning skills and the ability to sense instinctively a coachee’s hidden qualities that stand out. With these instruments, Irene is able to draw out answers from her coachees and thereby reveal their innate talents.

Beyond her full-time corporate role, she has also lectured ACCA students, conducted motivational workshops, held dance training classes and public seminars on financial know-how for non-accounting professionals, among others.

It is no secret that this diminutive lady also has a deep passion for dancing. She once partnered a friend to lease a dance studio for ballroom dancing enthusiasts, and complement their business dealing in the supply of gowns, shoes and other dance accessories.

She has also gained a string of accolades, including Singapore Excellence Award 2013, Singapore Entrepreneurs’ Award 2013/2014, Singapore Quality Brand Award 2013/2014, and Asia Excellence Award 2014. The mother of two is especially proud of being crowned Elite Mrs Singapore 2011. She won the beauty pageant despite her height disadvantage so it was unexpected, she said.

In her own words, Irene declared that her dream is to motivate and touch the heart of every human being regardless of age, religion, race, gender and background.

“There is a never-ending road to the learning process, be it knowledge, skills or even a hobby! Never be afraid to try,” the outspoken coach affirmed.

Q & A with Irene

CCE: Irene, please tell us when did you take up this latest calling in coaching.

Irene: It was in late 2015 when I was told of a new career coaching project undertaken by Centre for Career Excellence. My previous background was more training and on-the-job coaching. Without prior career coaching experience, I was game for the challenge and signed on as one of the coaches.


Irene_coaching2CCE: After you overcame that first episode and having been through several rounds of coaching sessions since then, what would you say are your strong points as a coach?

Irene: Yes, I gave myself a second chance after those teething problems along the way. Instinctively, I am able to strike up rapport with the person and win over his/her confidence. I am compassionate about coaching and do understand what my coachees face, though each one of them comes from a different background with a specific set of problems, be it a mid-career switch or a mid-life crisis situation. I must say that I derive satisfaction from my ability to impact someone through the coaching sessions, to bring that person out of a dilemma, to identify his/her strengths and to urge him/her to build on them. I am ever creating strategies to make my sessions fruitful.


CCE: Any instances of appreciation from those you have coached so far?

Irene: Oh, yes! I received gratitude by word of mouth from some coachees; they commented my sessions with them have helped change their outlook on career life. A few of them have also given favourable testimonies of my coaching. One found a job recently and sent me a surprise gift token. I am happy for all of them.


CCE: You once worked for 23 years with a company which owned several international luxury brands. That’s a long time. What company was it?

Irene: It was a Singapore maison (French for ‘house’) for luxury brands, managed as an independent entity of holding company Richemont, which is headquartered in Switzerland. I was the first employee to be recruited by the maison in 1986, and was appointed its chief accountant at age 27. Richemont’s first luxury brand was Cartier; it was followed by a score of other acquired luxury brands such as Piaget, Montblanc and Dunhill of London. The prestigious brands speak for themselves and attract elite customers.


CCE: Could you share with us your experiences during your term of service in that maison?

Irene: The HQ chief executive entrusted me to manage the subsidiary. On top of financial matters, my responsibilities included back-office support functions, setting company policies and investment/project appraisals, internal controls and even security issues. During my term, we acquired several other luxury brands and absorbed their staff in the process. The continuing flow of acquisitions meant challenging periods for the unit. As the one in charge, I had to ensure a smooth transfer of retail operations, logistical issues and work flow, induction training for new staff, as well as alignment to service standards set by Richemont.


CCE: So you were practically heading the unit by yourself, handling delicate matters on restructuring and staff orientation?

Irene: Right. I was known to be a taskmaster among the 200 staff in the Singapore office.  To be a role model to the support staff under my charge, I chose to adhere to high standards of work ethics myself and be impartial at decision making. I would expect my staff to follow after me, to deliver and maintain the highest quality of service to our customers. Fortunately, I enjoyed consistently good relations with HQ. But I have also been known to be supportive of my staff and fought for their welfare. Thanks to diplomacy and an efficient restructuring system, the initial feelings of apprehension gave way to mutual trust and camaraderie among colleagues, guided by our SOPs. The best part is that we all gel as a team and worked as one big family! I get sentimental every time I talk about those times! Even today, we still go on Facebook to keep in touch!


CCE: We gathered you also lectured at tertiary institutions. When was this?

Irene: During the late 1980s. When I graduated with my chartered accountancy qualifications, I got the job at Richemont. I further supplemented my income with teaching ACCA in the evenings and on weekends. It was good money and being young and energetic, why not? Come to think of it, those students… all working adults, they personified me in my adolescence – studying ACCA to further their job prospects.

Frederick Goh & Irene Lee (2)
CCE: Irene, you have ‘strategised’ an array of interests to keep yourself active. Is it true that ballroom dancing is another passion of yours? If so, do enlighten us!

Irene: Yes, I was mesmerised with ballroom and Latin American dancing. That passion drove me to start a business in 2010 with my friend after I left Richemont, dealing in dance supplies, and also leased out a dance studio for rent. I have since sold the business. But I still dance competitively! Allow me to share one memorable business function. In June 2013, we organised an international dance competition unlike any other at the Orchid Country Club. We invited foreign judges and tweaked one rule: every dance pair has to be of the same gender, and one partner would have to impersonate the opposite gender. The ladies shied away and only wanted to be part of the audience; only the men participated. Though amusing to watch, the contest was no laughing matter and required deft skills on the dance floor. Men dressed in gowns or tights and stilettos twirled and waltzed and tangoed with their partners. They really brought the house down, leaving the audience gasping in awe. That event was one-of-a-kind!


Written by Harry Tan

Harry began working on his passion for writing with a leisure weekly. He then picked up copyediting and proofreading skills, working on college textbooks, annual reports and travel guides. Currently, he offers freelance editorial services. A Peranakan Singaporean, Harry enjoys small talk and long walks. He loves planning train-bus journeys and has gone on several DIY road trips to Japan, Britain and Germany. Harry is a RACE graduate.


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