During our latest Academy Spotlight webinar for senior leaders, Dineshi Ramesh, Director of Specialist Delivery at Board Intelligence, spoke with Ian Stuart, CEO of HSBC UK Bank plc. Ian talks candidly about his experiences with imposter syndrome, being held to account by those closest to him, and moving at pace during a crisis.Your rise to CEO is inspiring, can you tell us a bit more about your journey?
It wasn’t until later in life that I found my feet as a leader. I left school at 16 and university wasn’t an option. I got a big career break at 22 when I joined NatWest, and then another one when I was asked to join HSBC. But the truth is, I almost didn’t take that second opportunity. I got cold feet and a major case of imposter syndrome. It was my wife who reminded me of my ambitions and encouraged me to take that leap of faith. From there, I worked hard to plug my skills gaps, gain a degree and other qualifications at night school, and grow more comfortable in my judgment.
It was actually during a sector crisis in 2012 when I remember thinking “there’s no book or manual for this – and I just have to trust the judgement and knowledge that I’ve built up over the years.” That’s when I knew I was in the right place. But it took me a while to get there – I was 46 at the time.
On that note, what’s key to managing a crisis?
Number one is agility. You have to be willing to make decisions quickly, and pivot on these, depending on what’s best for the customer. To give an example, this time last year we were providing bounce back loans to businesses — we had to get this turned around quickly or businesses would fail.
Being customer-centric anchors me to what’s important during a crisis. Because if you and your colleagues feel lost amid the chaos, imagine how your customers are feeling! You have to put them first.
Moving at pace and with agility for the sake of the customer can’t happen unless you’re surrounded by smart people who can make decisions. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m often the least qualified person around the table, and that’s not an accident.
"If you and your colleagues feel lost amid the chaos, imagine how your customers are feeling! You have to put them first."
What’s the biggest obstacle to growth for businesses?
I think complacency is the biggest killer for a business. Don’t assume you’re better than the competition and get stuck in your ways. And when you recognise the competition, don’t simply criticise them - learn from them. Competition is a good thing for your customers. Challenger banks have been good for us, they have made us a better bank.
At some point, someone will come in with a better product, especially when we are in the thick of the fourth industrial revolution.
You owe it to yourselves and to your customers to innovate.
What do CEOs need to be successful in the future?
Once upon a time, it was all about profit. But now as a CEO, you have to influence positive societal change. I spend 40-50% of my time doing this; whether it’s working with the government to try and level out financial inequality or making sure our succession planning is robust enough to carry this purpose forward.
The skills that we train people on as part of this succession planning look completely different compared to 10 years ago. We train our leaders on empathy - so that they can help customers through financial difficulty and come out the other side. We upskill people on managing climate risk and working towards sustainability targets. Can you imagine this 20 years ago, when the most sought-after skill was being able to turn a profit by whatever means necessary?
I say all of this from a place of excitement. I look forward to seeing how the role of CEO continues to evolve for the greater good. My children are always holding me to account, and I’m grateful for it. They say to me “You’re in a position of influence – you have to be using it for the right reasons.”
"My children are always holding me to account, and I’m grateful for it. They say to me 'You’re in a position of influence – you have to be using it for the right reasons.' "
What part does culture play in helping the CEO achieve this goal and be a force for good?
I’ll tell you a secret – once upon a time, I thought the idea of company culture was baloney. I’ve had to learn fast over the last 10 years that this is simply not true.
Company culture is so important for a business to thrive. While there are a million definitions out there, for HSBC it’s having a purpose that encompasses a social contract. And it’s about being clear on this purpose and collaborative in driving it forward.
Our international teams may be thousands of miles apart with a million unique qualities – but their purpose is consistent– and that’s to open up a world of opportunity. That’s our secret sauce.
"Once upon a time, I thought the idea of company culture was baloney. I’ve had to learn fast over the last 10 years that this is simply not true."
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