Small Business

CB Interview Sandra Stuart

The CEO of HSBC Bank Canada explains why she's optimistic about the economy, and why achieving gender parity in top roles isn't so hard after all

Written by In conversation with Michael McCullough

Sandra Stuart started out as a part-time teller working Saturdays at an HSBC branch in Burnaby, B.C., in 1982. She rose up the ranks of the organization, working in Toronto, Brazil and the U.S., before returning to Vancouver to become chief operating officer of HSBC Bank Canada in 2010, then president and CEO in 2015. Canada’s seventh-largest—and largest foreign-owned—bank, with more than $90 billion in assets and $2 billion in annual revenue, the company under her watch has become an exemplar of gender diversity, with equal numbers of men and women on the board and in senior management.

HSBC Canada has achieved gender parity within senior management and on the board. How did that come about?
I can’t speak for the [HSBC] network at large but I can tell you it was certainly a very active conversation here at HSBC Bank Canada. It’s given us the opportunity to take a leadership role within the group. What’s really important is that it’s about talent. It’s about making sure we have access to the largest, broadest talent pool. The market that we serve [requires that] we understand culture, we understand diversity, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, persons with disabilities, indigenous people. That cultural thinking starts at the top, and it’s got to get through your whole organization. When I first joined the board [in 2010], there were two other women on the board out of 10 people. One of the things I respected about the board is that when we think about talent we look at it quite broadly now. We have what we call employee resource groups. Each member of our leadership team sponsors one of these employee resource groups. We celebrate differences. We have seminars about differences. We participate in events so people can understand and learn and not be afraid, and want to cross cultural boundaries. Customers respect that. Vancouver’s a mosaic. The country’s a mosaic. So we’ve got to think that way.

This is a hard nut to crack for a lot of Canadian companies.
I’m personally at a loss as to why everyone’s finding it such a hard nut to crack. If you have a business strategy and you want talent, you are actually limiting yourself if you’re not thinking beyond gender, if you’re not thinking beyond ethnicity. You know, you go to [recruit at] university campuses—again, it is a mosaic. Some of the smartest people in the room are not white males. They’re women. There’s lots of women in MBA programs; there are more female graduates in finance than ever before. So I don’t know why it’s such a hard nut to crack. That’s a question I ask my male CEO counterparts: What’s your challenge? If you have a strategy to grow, if you have a strategy to build business and market, you need to think in diverse terms. There’s got to be a will to do it. There’s got to be a top-down view that it’s not only the right thing [to do], it’s part of our business strategy.

When you say a top-down view, are you saying to your HR department, “This is what we want to do”?
Absolutely. When you ask, “Why are we struggling to get women into top positions?” your data tells the story. What we learned when we looked at junior to middle management is we were losing women. We couldn’t retain women. Why couldn’t we? It’s their child-bearing years. They want flexibility. They want to be able to work from home. They don’t want to travel as much. Do we have policies in place to allow people to have the flexibility to care for children, care for aging parents, get some more education? Is part-time an option? Is job-sharing an option? Strategies at that level are really important. That’s what attracts and retains women. That started to stop our runoff at the junior and entry level.

What about at the senior level?
At the top level it’s [about] how you look at your succession plans. If you look at your succession plans over a few years and all your candidates are male, you’ve missed an opportunity. This is an open discussion at the leadership table: Who’s on your succession plan? Why are they on your succession plan? Have you looked deeply enough? Have you looked hard enough?

How long did this process take?
I think we started at 30% female in senior leadership positions. We thought it was going to take three years to achieve [50%]. I think we actually did it in 12 to 18 months. We’ve really changed in the area of junior to mid-level management. We even have a paternity leave policy now, because we were losing men, too. It’s a majority issue. It’s not a minority issue. In terms of policy, we looked at the intake level and the retention level there, trying to get to 40% to 50% at that middle layer, because that’s what feeds the more senior levels of your organization.

What are some ways HSBC Canada does things a little differently today than it would have done five years ago?
The concrete thing we’ve done is we have a diversity statement and a capability-and-competency statement. We have training in unconscious bias, in how to interview. We make sure before we interview we understand what we’re interviewing for. You’re not interviewing for ethnicity or gender; you’re interviewing for somebody who has the capabilities to fulfill the job. At the board level, we’re much more focused on a matrix of capabilities and competencies. When we fill a board position we make sure we market it. We’re making sure we have the capabilities and we have a candidate slate that can be assessed objectively. It’s more structured. Ultimately your selection is subjective, but there’s a framework around how you think about your talent. And that wasn’t there 10 years ago to the degree it is now.

Given HSBC’s international client base, do you see an impact from the 15% property transfer tax on foreign buyers introduced this summer in B.C.?
It’s not dissimilar to what’s happened in other markets around the world. In Singapore, Australia, the U.K., where the markets have become particularly frothy, they’ve tried to tame that with some sort of tax or surcharge. I think what [the tax] has been successful at doing in British Columbia is almost immediately letting some air out of the tires. [Affordability’s] a big issue here in Canada, and there’s got to be a bigger solution. It’s got to be a multi-level government solution. Canada is a great place to live. It’s a great place to invest money. It’s geopolitically safe, it’s got a great medical system, it’s got good education, so it’s going to continue to be attractive to offshore purchasers. If you look around the world we’re still a cheaper market than New York; we’re still a cheaper market than London. So the government is going to have to come to terms with what that means for affordability in the cities, what’s that’s going to mean for infrastructure, education—it’s a big equation. It’s a good challenge to have, but it has to be addressed.

The company also specializes in foreign trade. Are you worried about the anti-globalization movement that is playing out in the political sphere?
We have a great team, and as tough as the economy is, I’m optimistic. I’m a glass-half-full girl. We can help companies grow and we can help people achieve their ambitions. There’s certainly a lot of turmoil going on around the globe. I think that’s the new normal. It’s to be expected. But there certainly are opportunities to grow and our job is to help you grow. We can do that. No domestic bank has our international reach, and no international bank has our domestic presence. That’s our real strength.

The group is headquartered in London, so does Brexit have an impact on your business?
We had contingency plans in place. We’d done a lot of thinking about what the potential impacts would be and how we’d have to prepare. The reality is that after a few weeks of volatility, things appear to have stabilized. The currency appears to have stabilized, although it’s down. The question now is where’s the opportunity? Our group chief executive actually did an op-ed recently in terms of where the opportunity is, and the opportunity for the U.K. is trade. It’s a similar opportunity story for Canada.

How so?
We do research, so we know only 500 companies account for 75% of the trade out of Canada, and only 10% of Canadian companies generate trade offshore. That is an incredible opportunity for Canada. Our dollar is low, we have great businesses here—I meet with them all the time, and they’re always looking at ways to get into foreign markets. When we look at China, there’s certainly been volatility, their growth pattern has slowed, but when you put it in perspective, we’re still forecasting growth for China over 6%. Canada’s GDP, we’re forecasting this year just 1.2%. What an opportunity [for Canadian companies to grow their sales]. It’s still a great market to do business. We’ll be in India. India is going to grow at over 7% in our forecast. There’s opportunity in India. The U.S., at better than 2.5 [GDP growth], is still a great trade opportunity for Canada, particularly with a low dollar.

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