Leader profile: Wendy Lai


Wendy Lai is from a family undeterred by adversity.

When her grandfather was taken away and executed during WW2, her father Francis was raised solely by her grandmother who made ends meet as a domestic servant. But he was highly creative, intelligent and a fast adopter, and went from rags to riches, with education key to his success, says Lai. When Lai and her sister were teenagers, he landed the role of leading

Fletcher Construction’s overseas division and brought the family from Singapore to New Zealand. Her sister was another key role model, unafraid and never embarrassed.

“She’s amazing, she’s pretty tough. She would take my grandma – who at that stage was wheelchair bound and looked strange as she was always cold and had surgery – out for a walk after school where we would meet other students. She refused to be embarrassed and her kindness to my grandma was humbling,” says Lai.


One of Lai’s life lessons for a healthy career is to never mortgage your self-esteem and priorities to others.

“I took this from Julia Gillard – she talks about not mortgaging your self-esteem to the newspapers. If we dwell all the time on what our bosses, our colleagues and our clients think about us, our inner voices start to say ‘Oh my gosh, you’re not that great, you’re not actually able to deliver.’ But you must reclaim that self-esteem.” She says with the years – and having children – she’s realised that sometimes with some people it just doesn’t quite work, and that’s okay. “Those people are not shaping the way that I see me. But you’ve got to shape yourself before that actually happens,” she says.


Lai believes the one characteristic that every leader needs is authenticity, and the one that can undermine them is pride. Her advice to any aspiring leader would be to build a body of work that they are passionate about and can be excellent in. “This will create opportunities for you to have a broader leadership stage for you to play in,” she says.


She ensures she keeps growing as a leader by continuing to be vulnerable: going to meetings where she’s not the expert, saying (in the right way) what she doesn’t know, and always being curious. Injecting change into her life is also necessary.

”Sometimes you have to do things you may not necessarily think is the best idea, you’re not opposed to it, but it challenges you,” she says. Like giving up her own office so that she can sit with her team. “The ambient knowledge that you get is phenomenal. I know a lot more about my people and their lives, relationships, birthdays etc now. It allows a level of intimacy, but it’s also valuable for the business. For example a colleague could overhear you’re looking for a certain skillset and they might know someone, or people could expose you to new technologies they’re using. The ‘being there’ without ‘trying’ is actually helpful.”


An exciting development she’s involved with currently? As a Te Papa board member, the Gallipoli exhibition is something Lai feels is an incredible example of a cultural institution bringing intelligent debate and dialogue into our society.

“The experience it provides is evocative … I went with my boys, 9 and 12, and they were faced with questions like ‘When would you ever go to war, why would you go to war, are there things you would fight and die for?”

She says exhibitions can shape New Zealand, by making us reconsider what we’re about.

“We are figuring out how you can activate this more and more. How we build a sense of New Zealand identity, a more tolerant and cohesive society – look what’s happening in Australia now, with ISIS group recruitment, because lack of cohesion and belonging in civil society.”

She believes while the role of the cultural institutions in the past tended to be secondary after more basic needs are met, museums in today’s more developed worlds have a fundamental role in supporting and informing national debates, on a deeper and more contemplative way than the newspapers are capable of.

“This digital exhibition has opened up a whole bunch of what next we do that’s good for New Zealand.”