Wendy Lam is Director for strategic partnerships and commercialization for the latest subsea technology innovations at Baker Hughes. She has spent 20 years across organizations like GE Healthcare, Rolls-Royce, GE Oil & Gas / Baker Hughes in various leadership roles in product management, marketing, supply chain and advisory services and is a spokesperson in the energy industry. Wendy is a Hong Kong native who grew up in Canada and married a Norwegian she met in Australia. Now living in Oslo, she is managing an international career in the energy sector, in the middle of the biggest transition the industry has seen in decades with the push towards a secure, and sustainable energy future.
She co-founded an executive board development program with her business school INSEAD for alumni. She studied Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the Universities of Waterloo and Toronto in Canada and completed her MBA at INSEAD/Wharton. She also gained executive education at Tuck School of Management at Dartmouth College and Cornell.
What is exciting about what you do today?
One of the most exciting things happening right now in the industry I work in is the full-on force of the energy transition. Governments, investors, citizens, and young people are all pushing for change and even antagonizing companies like the one I work for which is part of the fossil fuel industry. Suddenly, this industry which used to attract some of the best engineers and talent is finding itself being shunned, and deeply reflecting on what needs to change, not just for an image, but to survive. What is exciting for me is leading this change in an environment where the push for change is genuine – this is not ‘greenwashing’. The change is evident in the flows of investment, public funding dollars and in some cases, new board leadership.
Getting to ‘net zero’ emissions is such a massive undertaking that it will not be possible without a complete shift in the culture of leadership of traditional corporates. There is a greater need to consider and include ideas from a much broader context. This is requiring us to be more ambidextrous in combining the traditional with the new, and not pit them against each other. The energy transition is a cultural transition.
How is this impacting us as leaders?
We can be specialists or experts in something all day long, but if we stay in our silos, we’re going to keep coming up with the same old solutions. We have to bring in new ideas and value differences—even though sometimes we may not want to hear it. We’re all trained to think in a certain way, and sometimes we overestimate ourselves. You think things like “I’m smart. I’ve been in this industry for 30 years. Of course, I know the answer.” But the fact is, when you become an expert at something, you also start to lose your ability to see other possibilities. So, it’s critical for our business that we collaborate, seek and value different opinions and mindsets. It’s not just about being inclusive and having a nice work environment; it’s a competitive advantage.
To what do you credit your success from your background or work or life experiences?
I have transitioned geographies and cultures many times through my life, first from Hong Kong to Canada, then to the US, to Singapore and France for studies and then moving to Norway and working closely with the UK. Through every one of these experiences came some growing pain that eventually helped me learn something profound about leading in different contexts.
For example, it was amusing to me to have been told by a UK manager once to be careful about being overly positive or negative about a situation, when only a few months before, was told in a US context that I need to show ‘more passion about my opinions’.
Through these experiences, I have built a very keen awareness of people which has allowed me to navigate not only cultural differences but personal differences. This has played well in both major negotiations, and in building customer relations.
With such a global background and experience, what does diversity & inclusion mean to you?
It is a competitive advantage. I think a big mistake many leaders make is thinking that diversity metrics are an INPUT metric for a more inclusive environment. To me, it is an OUTPUT metric. So, what we should be working on is the context and the culture. How? Creating new behavioral norms for all, leading by example. How not? Only training or ‘correcting’ a certain group of people to learn how to be more like the rest of the organization. The benefit of working on the overall culture of the organization is that all should benefit.
Just putting people in roles to meet metrics will not make the fundamental changes we need today and often just put those people under more pressure and give the organization a sense that they’ve ‘done their job’.
Going back to the importance of a cultural shift for the energy transition, I think now more than ever, the value of inclusion and diversity matters to capture and execute on the ideas we need to make it happen. We have to respect tradition but also know that in established ways of doing things, there are blinders.
What else has helped you succeed?
Some traits may be inherited but I am a believer that most of who we are and how we lead is learned -from our environments, who we know, what we read and how we spend our time. The learning is based on time, exposure, experience and repeating what we do. Here’s a great example.
Earlier in my career, as a first-generation professional in an immigrant, non-English speaking family, there was so much I did not know about how to behave and act in the western professional work environment. I would see some of my colleagues effortlessly get up and strike up a conversation with a senior executive or client, or confidently present a perfect presentation and was so puzzled how I would ever be able to do that. I thought I must be missing some fundamental traits. I was the last person to have been chosen to lead a key engagement that involved this kind of interaction.
But I knew this is what I needed to be able to do, so I observed, I read, I practiced and asked for help. I was coached, mentored and surrounded myself with so many people who did this well. It is really remarkable that I now am a key spokesperson for external events and a moderator for large international conferences. No one believes that I was never good at this before. I credit this to deliberate learning and a good learning environment.
How do you balance work, rest of life -any tips?
I managed to do a lot in my career with activities that serve multiple purposes. I believe in planning your activities for more than one result. Some examples: I finished my Masters in Mechanical & Industrial Engineering by doing a project that was also for my work. I like to combine some fun learning on vacations sometimes. It is ok to have friends at work. We should be able to be who we are at work.
What advice would you give someone regarding work or career?
A few things I learned from great mentors including you Mary:
- The future of work has a different archetype for success. No longer is the model for success increasingly big titles and up the hierarchy by a certain age. The future has many more possibilities.
- Monitor your stress level. If it is high, it will affect everything you do and even if you think you can hide it, others will feel it. Take your vacations, meditate, and do things to de-stress.
- Relationships really matter, all through your life and career. I am always surprised by how a connection I made 10 or 20 years ago is helping me today; in small and big ways.
- Don’t expect too much from your boss. You’re the CEO of our career and your boss, your peers, and others can help you but only you can make it happen.