HSBC Private Banking is taking unprecedented steps to help its clients operate sustainable businesses—going beyond the traditional advisory role, it has adopted a hands-on approach with future business leaders

Flipping through photos on her phone, Jennifer Ting might be seated in a conference room in Hong Kong but her mind is thousands of kilometres away in the Borneo rainforest. Stopping at a picture of a wild orangutan, perched in a tree, HSBC Private Banking’s global head of marketing swells with excitement as she recalls her encounter with the critically endangered primate. It is a memory that she will not forget.

Fostering this type of connection is the goal of the bank’s Next Generation Sustainability Leadership Programme—to immerse and deeply engage future business leaders in the front lines of sustainability issues, specifically climate change; to turn the abstract into the physical; and to bring home the message about why businesses need to adopt sustainable practices.

HSBC launched an internal Global Sustainability Leadership Programme in 2010, off the back of delivering hugely successful experiential-based philanthropic programmes designed to engage junior level staff. As part of an effort to escalate the sustainability discussion internally, the bank decided to bring senior-level executives on board and ensure the lessons learned would be put into practice across the organisation, by leveraging their influence and management of resources that could help both develop and embed more sustainable business practices.

Ting joined the programme last year and made a promise to bring private banking clients into the mix.

“My commitment was to host one exclusive programme for our private banking clients and gauge the feedback from that to see if we wanted to expand it further,” Ting explains. “So, I pulled in some senior leaders within the bank to help co-host a session that was recently held with 10 of our top clients.”

The pilot excursion saw Ting travel to Borneo with these select clients from the bank’s Next Generation Programme and colleagues including Roger Goetz, managing director, head of advisory and sales management Asia, and Matthew Robinson, sustainability engagement head, global corporate sustainability.

The goal of the trip was to educate future business leaders on the importance of sustainable business practices beyond impact investing.

“It’s not about doing good or just doing the right thing, it’s actually beyond that. It has to be the new normal because otherwise everything we talk about, business and commercially relevant actions, will be completely irrelevant,” says Goetz.

Sean Lee-Davies, Gen.T lister and CEO and founder of Project C:CHANGE, was invited on the trip to speak with the attendees about his experience raising awareness about climate change, sustainability and wildlife conservation.

“We are running out of time and we are already close to passing the threshold of a 2°C rise in temperature before we start seeing cataclysmic climate events,” says Lee-Davies. “I think it’s very forward thinking of a major corporation such as HSBC to take a lead in helping businesses and individuals become more sustainable. Businesses will have to become more sustainable in the future and learn how to factor the environment into their bottom line, and I think HSBC is showing the way.”

As part of the experiential element of the Sustainability Leadership Programme, getting the participants back to nature is key to the overall learning journey. The group really understood the value of the rainforest ecosystem during treks into the heart of the forest facilitated by local scientific experts.

During this time, the clients physically measured and documented the biodiversity value of the rainforest, and then added to this by planting more than 100 dipterocarp saplings on what is now protected land. All of the work carried out by the clients contributed to research being done by Earthwatch, a non-profit environmental organisation working in the area. HSBC as a bank has contributed over 21,000 hours of hands-on research time by staff to climate change and science-based research. “For me we could do death by PowerPoint in an office like other typical leadership programmes,” Robinson says.

“But this is really about getting the clients and many other senior executives out of the office and into nature to help them decompress and think differently about the world in which they live and work. They can then exchange ideas, and challenge each other’s thinking about how they as individuals and businesses going forward can be more sustainable. At the same time they get to fully understand HSBC’s global commitment to sustainability, and can seek ways to take advantage of the bank’s global network and sustainable financing expertise.” 

The group met between field excursions and took part in interactive sessions to discuss current and future sustainability issues, hear the latest data from scientists, as well as reflect on what they saw. “It culminates with the clients committing themselves based on what they learned,” Goetz says.

Those commitments, while confidential among the team, include sweeping changes such as greening supply chains, introducing job titles that include “sustainability” and ensuring that environmental impact is top of mind in any business-related discussions.

In a few months, both Ting and Goetz will reunite the Borneo group to check on their progress, offering advice and mentorship directly or from any of the 1,300 additional alumni of HSBC’s internal Sustainability Leadership Programme.

As for Robinson, he plans several more international workshops for his senior colleagues to round out the year, making sure that HSBC continues to work towards its aspiration of being the market leader in sustainable finance that will support its clients to contribute to more sustainable business practices and ultimately a healthier and more sustainable world.  

Photo credit: Kourosh Keynejad, one of the participants in the bank's Sustainability Leadership Programme, is an avid photographer and adventurer. He is committed to raising awareness of climate change through sharing photographs from his journey through the Danum Valley Conversation Area in Sabah, Malaysia.

Issued by The HongKong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited. 

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