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 realised 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.

Michelle Lau, the CEO of IPG Howden Singapore
Michelle Lau is wearing a printed organza blouse from Giorgio Armani, a wool jacket with matching pants from Etro, a beaded necklace from Emporio Armani, and leather cutout heels from Hermes.

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 travelled often – and swiftly moved up the corporate ladder.

(Related: SMBC senior executive Rajeev Kannan is guiding the bank towards a greener future)

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.

“My husband asked me why I wanted to take the risk and what the push factor was. But my direction in life did not satisfy me then. I thought about doing something completely different to find
self-satisfaction,” Lau shares.

Drive and Purpose

With Covid-19 grounding her at home, Lau updated her LinkedIn profile. Within days, headhunters left messages. Many families had rolled into town to set up family offices, and they were looking for someone with Lau’s experience and expertise in wealth management. However, nothing felt intuitively right. Then, IPG Howden, a global life insurance brokerage firm and wealth planning partner to many of the world’s private banks, came knocking. Right from the get-go, she was drawn to the company and its people.

She admits that the first few months in her new role weren’t easy. Coming from a global bank, it took her a while to understand that things functioned differently in the flatter, more entrepreneurial structure of IPG Howden. The challenges were also immense, but the risk taker relished the opportunity to transform an industry that she felt was ripe for change. Sure, the fear was there, but Lau has always emerged stronger every time.

“While I’ve made mistakes in my career, I am glad my instincts that led to most of the decisions have proven to be right over time. You will need to take some risks or you remain stagnant.”
The latter is something she wants to change in IPG Howden. According to Lau, the wealth planning industry has remained the same for a couple of decades and, while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “comfort is the friend of mediocrity.” She shares that during strategy meetings, the phrase “Quo Vadis”, Latin for “where are we going next?” kept emerging.

(Related: How a simple trishaw ride taught investment banker Keith Magnus about life and leadership)

Inevitable Transformation

Where indeed? It’s a question that Lau admits she doesn’t have the answer to – at least not yet. A powerful advocate of upskilling, what she does know is that she wants to develop the staff at IPG Howden. “What I hope to do with the troops is have them bring more to the table when meeting clients. They can put forth a broader and deeper conversation.”

Lau elaborates, “This is largely a people business and it will continue being that. However, I believe the model will change. I see a lot of disruption in our industry, and we have to ask ourselves how we’re going to embrace that. Digitalisation will play a major role in this change.”

Lau also envisions that collaboration will be the name of the game going forward. Whether it’s with stakeholders, industry players or even competitors, she believes there are a lot of opportunities and room for innovation. She just needs to find the right time and be in the right place to make the move.

Lau shares with me that a few people felt she’d joined at the wrong time. “They say the golden era of the industry is gone. I agree with that, which is one reason I joined. There is no point looking back. Now, it’s going to be something different, and I want to be part of that change,” she says.

“One of my favourite poems is by T. S. Eliot. It resonates with me because of the phrase, ‘The still point of the turning world’. The world will always continue to spin. When things get hard, I remind myself to find the still point. It tells me: fear not, I’m on the right track, trust my instincts.”

Michelle Lau on how she gets organised in the chaos

Strength in Diversity

While the way forward is still uncertain, what IPG Howden is certain about is that diversity will prepare it for that future. It brings with it a broad array of voices, each shaped by their respective experiences. In 2018, Boston Consulting Group looked at 1,700 companies across eight countries and found that “increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation, and improved financial performance.” Specifically, 9 per cent higher earnings on average.

In the industry, IPG Howden leads the way in female representation. It boasts a significant number of women in senior management positions. “I was at an executive committee meeting and realised that there were as many women as there were men in the room,” she chuckles.

Lau has witnessed the social transformation in the financial industry. When she first joined the workforce, she remembers a strict dress code of skirts for the first four days of the workweek. “Pants were for Friday only,” Lau muses. Clothes were just the tip of the iceberg. Back then, married women with families did not receive priority for overseas postings. Instead, men got first dibs. Lau was understandably livid. She’s glad, however, that the situation has since changed for the better.

Lau thinks that it’s time we changed the conversation about success, especially when it comes to gender. While she’s an undeniably influential leader, who has reached the upper echelons of the corporate world, she feels that the parameters of success are too narrowly defined. She has a point. The world adulates women who show sublime corporate or entrepreneurial chops but overlooks those who choose a completely distinct path: family.

Michelle Lau, CEO of IPG Howden Singapore
Michelle Lau is wearing an embellished silk halter blouse from Brunello Cucinelli and a silk printed jacket from Etro.

“I have a friend, this brilliant lady who went to the University of Cambridge to study law on a scholarship. We used to be colleagues. Then, she gave it all up of her own volition after getting married. Now, she has four children and is an excellent cook. And she sells Thermomix on the side!” Lau laughs.

“To me, being someone like that is also inspiring in its own right. For example, my mum is an independent woman despite being 80. She appears in advertisements aimed at the Pioneer Generation and goes to these shoots and auditions on her own. There are many roles women can play in their lives and, today, we have the freedom to choose who we want to be. These are the examples of positive influences my daughter will learn from.”

(Related: Why Elizabeth Liau created luxury fragrance brand Maison De L’Asie – to cherish her mother’s memory)

Changing the Conversation

It’s something she also hopes to bring to the plush hallways of IPG Howden. The company is in the unique position of planning and shaping the future, thanks to clients who trust it to not only protect and grow their wealth but also preserve their legacy.

Beyond profits, companies are now aware of their social and environmental responsibilities. “I want to grow the business, but I also want us to understand our role in the community beyond driving revenue. We can no longer look at all these factors in silo,” says Lau.

In many ways, Lau is currently in unchartered territories. But she has a calmer, more balanced head on her shoulders now in comparison to the 21-year-old woman who jumped fearlessly into the raging seas.

Where others see chaos, she sees opportunity. “One of my favourite poems is by T. S. Eliot. It resonates with me because of the phrase, ‘The still point of the turning world’. The world will always continue to spin. When things get hard, I remind myself to find the still point. It tells me: fear not, I’m on the right track, trust my instincts.”