So, in 2009, as part of a fast-track training programme leading to her appointment as managing director, Lai went back to the basics to understand what makes the business tick. She donned a crew uniform, reported for daily shifts at a branch in Admiralty, and started to work like any young green recruit.
Besides showing aptitude and enthusiasm with a mop, she took her turn cooking French fries, filling orders, and arranging children's birthday parties. Lai was just one of the crew, not quite incognito, but seeing no need to draw attention to her degree in economics, EMBA from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and marketer of the year award which recognised her work building the McDonald's brand in China.
"For a year, I worked in different restaurants and roles and felt proud to wear my uniform each day," says Lai, who now oversees around 15,000 staff in more than 220 outlets. "Overall, I learned to respect others more, and that a real leader uses the power of influence, not the power of position. I also saw that if you take care of the people, the business takes care of itself."
Applying those lessons, Lai's basic philosophy these days is to be fun, firm and fair. She has no wish to micro-manage, but makes it a priority to engage with staff at every level to inspire opportunities, ideas, and a sense of teamwork. "I can't do everything myself," she says. "So it is important to energise people, boost morale, and stay relevant to consumer needs."
In practical terms, that means responding to local and international trends with a range of initiatives. They include the opening of more McCafe outlets to expand choices and broaden appeal, vegetable and salad alternatives for standard menus, and a special campaign, which started in September, to position the company as a "sunshine" brand.
"We feel people in Hong Kong are becoming a little pessimistic, so we want to cultivate positive thinking," Lai says. "We will introduce value offers, favourite items and game promotions."
When reviewing strategy or fine-tuning plans, Lai makes a special point of listening not just to staff and customers, but also to voices in society at large. Her experience in supporting expansion in China, for six years up until 2004, showed her that long-term corporate success very much depends on being part of the local community, reacting to feedback and being willing to give.
"At the start, people in suburban areas of China had no idea who we were or what we did," she says. "It was `Marketing 101' stuff, with TV commercials and year-round brand campaigns, but we also positioned ourselves as a neighbourhood restaurant. We went into schools, made donations to charities and orphanages, and encouraged volunteer service by sending crew members to spend a day with elderly people."
That ethos continues in Hong Kong and - more than titles or business triumphs - ensures that Lai remains passionate about her job. While admitting to being an ex-workaholic, her focus has shifted since a seven-month stint as managing director in Singapore. Now, she is determined to reserve more time for friends, family, tennis lessons, and developing other interests.
"After 10 years' service, I am entitled to a two-month sabbatical," she says. "I'd like to travel around Europe like a student to look at the world in a different way."