• ESSEC’s Master in Finance guest speaker reiterates the need to develop the Asian financial talent base.
  • Lessons learned during the financial crises.
  • Perseverance and self-belief are keys to success.

Growing up in a modest family, Clifford Lee viewed success as relatively straightforward—getting a college degree and rising to the managerial level at a global firm.

As Managing Director and Global Head of Fixed Income at DBS Bank, it is safe to say he far surpassed his expectations when he first started in the financial sector in 1991.

Over the years, he slowly but surely carved out a name in the Asian bond market, and in 2004, he joined DBS to help the bank build its own bond house.

The trials of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 left him slightly battered but not broken.

The experience taught him a valuable lesson about work and leadership: “You cannot build your career just following and hoping that someone will add value.”

“You must be ready to create value,” he declares.

The Need to Grow Good Timber

This realization came about back in the nineties when the players in the Asian bond space were primarily the US or European investment banks.

“Clearly, Asia was a fertile hunting ground for deals and transactions. But because it was done remotely, with US or European practices being applied in Asia, the market wasn’t growing sustainably,” Lee explains.

Once trouble arose, the businesses pulled out of the region in favor of their home countries, propelling the Asian market into a devastating downward spiral.

It became clear that to cushion the volatility in the market, Asia needed to have its own functioning capital market to supplement bank financing. Lee states that an active capital market should comprise Asian players.

From then on, he says, “I found that there is expertise to grow our own timber, whether in terms of professionals or firms. I believed we could build something in Asia that could operate well within Asia.”

Work Hard and Move Fast

He observes that digitalization has leveled the playing field by making information easily accessible.

Yet, this has only increased the need for speed. Technical competence must be acquired quickly, and “tough work cannot be avoided.” He says that knowledge about the latest technologies is crucial, and there are no shortcuts to acquiring the wisdom of experience.

With its rigorous curriculum and regular talks with industry professionals, ESSEC ensures its Master of Finance (MiF) students are well-equipped with technical knowledge and industry exposure to gain a head-start.

Cultivate a Mindset for Success

Having spoken at these talks and continued to mentor and guide the students who reached out to him afterward, Lee reiterates that the mindset one brings is the most important.

“If you don’t have a proper perspective, it can limit your growth,” he shares.

“I know the younger generations would have less of an issue because many want to join startups and change the world. But there will come a time when you get exhausted and have self-doubt.”

When that happens, the measured approach is “to have the confidence that you can do it and know that a setback is temporary.”

By mentoring and advising young professionals, Lee hopes to “remove their mental limitations” so they may stand unwaveringly through the fiercest storms and carry the Asian financial markets to the next level.