Around the World with Alumnus Adam Lee


Adam Lee

If we were giving out awards for most-travelled alumni, I think Adam Lee might win. Thank you to Adam for participating in Words in Place.–JLH

JLH: What made you decide on an English program at University of Waterloo?
AL: When I applied to UW it was not known for its Arts programme, but I kept reading how pronounced the faculty were and how avant-garde the approach to English was in respect to recruiting established and emerging professors who challenged the traditional literary canon and encouraged new thought and perception. I was an Ontario Scholar, and at that time we could choose where wanted to study. Waterloo was my first choice. I was very fortunate indeed to have studied under Dr. Brenda Cantar for Elizabethan English as she challenged our understanding of Shakespeare and sexuality, the power of theatre, and the theatre of power – I still have my notes and books! Being part of St. Jerome’s also impacted my education as we were constantly encouraged to be different, to question, to be creative in our writing and arguments.

JLH: You’ve made your career in Human Resources Management—can you talk a bit about your trajectory and what you do now?
AL: I started out as a technical author and then progressed to editing for a publishing house. Instinctively I knew this was not the career for me, so when I moved to Europe I started studying human rights and international employment law in order to position myself as a consultant, and also utilise my English degree in respect to consulting and directing communications around redundancies, organizational (org) design, and strategic transformation, as well as making an individual’s journey through such change more understandable and less stressful. Drawing on my degree, I use literary figures and examples to assist me in drafting documentation, to ensure comprehension and direct reactions.

I left Canada to work for Philips in the Netherlands as an HR business partner, looking after one of the largest cross-cultural people & learning programs, and spearheading a graduate programme. I also negotiated with the works councils, employee tribunals, and unions. This led to a new contract in India, where I spent a year designing people strategies and org design implementations for a multinational corporation.

I returned to the UK (where I was born) to work as a consulting director of HR and learning for a large IT company which led to being the interim global head of learning and development for IBM – a contract that took me around the world to design training programs, people strategies, and large corporate mergers/acquisitions. I oversaw all people planning training and development.

After IBM, I moved to Paris for two years and headed a people and change programme, as well as the people planning and works council negotiations for an SAP merger/acquisition. This led to a job with British American Tobacco as an HRBP for people planning & transformation, taking me to Indonesia, Cambodia, Brazil, and Australia.

After British American Tobacco I was recruited as a consulting director for Ernst & Young in Riyadh. There I created HR divisions in Saudi and designed org structures for two petrochemical cities. I worked in Iraq as well on an org design piece – what an adventure!

I returned to London, focusing primarily on strategic transformation and people planning with Lloyds, RBS, and now HSBC. I work closely with the unions, works councils, and cultural recruitment teams. Designing and implementing HR strategies is hard work and you have to really enjoy your job to do it effectively. Corporate takeovers, mergers/acquisitions, and reductions all have to be well planned, communicated, legally safe, and above all, people friendly – I find every day different and every hour presents a new challenge.

JLH: Have you bumped into other Waterloo grads in your travels?
AL: I have yet to bump into UW grads but our university is globally recognised as one of Canada’s top schools. When I was living in Paris, a colleague approached me and said that when his French university offered engineering placements at a Canadian university, he applied for Waterloo but his grades were not strong enough for such a good school. He said when my CV was circulated during the hiring cycle, the committee all noticed I had attended a prestigious university!

JLH: How do you think your English education shaped you? Now that you have twenty years behind you, what stands out?
AL: English allowed me to escape into stories and develop my imagination, offering a release sometimes from university life and letting me be someone else for a couple of hundred pages. English was always my first love and I still reread the books that I studied at UW. Did I understand friendship, love, or tragedy in literature age 19-23? Most definitely not. When I read Shakespeare now, I read with a little more experience, maturity, and gravitas. I understand the beauty and humour of Chaucer and Shakespeare and enjoy them now. Likewise, when I read books and articles by Dr. Higgins, Dr. Fogel, and Dr. Diehl-Jones, I read them with a scholarly interest but also, as someone who has experienced a bit more. Relating to literary characters, their adventures, emotions, and challenges puts my own life into perspective.

Literature and the descriptions that the writers conjure up also influence a great deal of my design work – from choosing paint and bricks to art. I am restoring a Victorian warehouse in London and surprise myself when I go in search of my favourite books to influence the design of my space. Your home is your sanctuary and I believe it impossible to be comfortable without influences from your life, family, and education around you.

JLH: Are people surprised to find out you have an English degree?
AL: Yes! I keep leaning toward art and architecture now and I suppose I never quite look like the consultancy or director type in dress or action, so I am not surprised to be asked if I have a degree in art, design, or PR.

JLH: In hindsight, what do you wish you had known when you had graduated? Would you have charted your career differently?
AL: Good question! I wish I would have known how difficult finding that first job is and how much graft goes into establishing yourself. I thought I would immediately walk into an amazing job – instead, I worked as a French translator for a telecommunications company and a dentistry supplier company! I also wish I would have known that it is okay to change your mind and career later in life – and to be brave enough to do so.

I would have applied for an MA or teacher’s college as I think I would have enjoyed growing into one of those maverick English teachers! That being said, I have adventures all of the time so I do not regret a thing.

JLH: And finally, the literature question: if you could drop everything and re-read one novel right now, what would it be?
AL: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I discovered it long after publication, in a charity shop with a friend and she said it was an excellent read. The book moved me emotionally and I get upset writing about it now.  Simple prose is often the best and the writer’s magical ability to transfer the reader into Nazi-occupied Europe and the minds of a child and a survivor always remind me that I do not know suffering of that level, and makes me proud to have discovered my own Jewish ancestry later in life. It made the history of the people who survived such atrocities more real.

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