Michelle Lau - Taking The Bull By Its Horns
The PEAK Singapore|May 2021
Michelle Lau has never shied away from challenges, but the new CEO of IPG Howden Singapore is facing her toughest one yet as she bravely leads the organisation into an uncertain but exciting future.
Farhan Shah

It wasn’t the best day to dive. The waters were choppy and the skies were a menacing shade of grey, but Michelle Lau and her friends were confident that nothing could go wrong.

They took the boat out, dropped anchor and went overboard with their tanks and wetsuits. Halfway through the dive, Lau realized her diving buddy was no longer by her side. She stayed calm and ascended to the surface. That’s when panic set in.

The boat was nowhere to be seen and the sea had transformed into one tempestuous beast. “I was paddling in different directions, but I couldn’t see anything at all. I could have died then,” Lau reflects. The boat and her friends did finally find her a few excruciating minutes later. The 51-year-old tells me they can laugh about it now – although the taste of seawater on her tongue still gives her a bit of trauma.

That incident changed her. “It happened the year I was going to graduate. I began taking life seriously and started thinking about what I wanted to do next after that.” She was 21.

RAPID ASCENSION

Lau reflects: “Strangely, each time at the turn of a decade, I’d think about what I want to do in the next chapter of my life. It helps me to recalibrate what is important.” Her 20s were a whirlwind of marriage, children and getting a foothold in the banking industry. When she turned 30, she put her nose to the grindstone and joined HSBC as a wealth planner. She worked long hours and traveled often – and swiftly moved up the corporate ladder.

At 40, Lau went into management where she continued pushing herself hard until her health suffered. “I have thalassemia and always thought I had it under control. Then, I went for a medical check-up one day and the doctor immediately called that evening to say that I had to be admitted immediately. I didn’t want to because of all the work I had and the doctor wrote that I was in denial,” Lau recounts, laughing at the memory. She’s fully recovered now and monitors her stress levels to make sure it doesn’t flare up again.

Last year, as she celebrated her 50th birthday, she thought about her next move. Her two children had grown up and started their careers, and she was well-established in the private banking industry. The regular runner, who finds balance in doing yoga, could have easily chosen to stay on with HSBC, but she couldn’t shake off the stillness enveloping her life.

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