Our interview with Tim Harrison, Global Head of Communications at HSBC Commercial Banking

31 Jul 2014 by Sarah Leembruggen.

Tell us about your role at HSBC and your career path to date.

For the past two years, I have been Global Head of Communications for HSBC Commercial Bank, a business with 27 000 people, almost three million customers, and which in 2013 made a profit of $8 billion.

I joined HSBC in 2006 while I was based in Dubai. I was with an agency at the time and after doing a couple of projects for HSBC, I was invited for an interview and offered the role of handling Regional Communications for the Investment Bank. Then in 2009 I became Regional Head of Communications for MENA. In 2012 I returned to London where I took up my current role.

You work for the biggest bank in Europe in a fast-paced setting. What are your tips for survival?

For me it’s more about enjoying not knowing what each day is going to bring. Obviously we plan and manage our activities, but there will be something that lands every day that is totally unexpected, which I think is a great pleasure and a privilege. The other element which I thoroughly enjoy is representing one of the biggest institutions in the world that is a material influence on the global economy. HSBC has 250 000 employees with businesses in more than 70 countries and being part of that is very stimulating. There’s so much going on; you can never get bored here!

As for tips for survival, one of the key elements is networking. It’s important to keep sight of the fact that any institution, however large, is just a collection of people, and HSBC is no different in that respect. If you can get to know those people and get to the position where you can pick up the phone to them and they can pick up the phone to you, that’s how you succeed. If you do not build networks, you will not succeed.

What has been the greatest challenge you’ve had as Global Head of Comms?

The challenge is the same as the opportunity. This is a large complex organisation with a matrix structure between business and geography, which means that there are multiple stakeholders. Considering the consequences of one’s actions in faraway places is very important. It’s something that you have to make a conscious effort to continually do. “What will be the response be in Hong Kong to this news story in Jordan?” is just one example of the kind of questions we have to consider.

In what way would you say you influence C-Suite?

The Communications function is very highly valued at HSBC. I not only sit on the Global Executive Committee of the Communications function but I also sit on the Global Executive Committee of Commercial Banking. This means that I have a seat at the most senior decision-making table for the running of the business. I am able to influence through the provision of solid, sensible communications advice, which can help support business decisions and sometimes challenge them, but as long as the advice is sensible, I get a fair hearing.

What three elements make for successful employee engagement?

1. Openness and honesty

2. Treat them like adults

3. Help them to do their job: if an internal communication does not support the business strategy, then you have to question why you are doing it.

Everything needs to be related to helping people to do their jobs.

Which regulatory change has impacted the external communications strategy at HSBC the most?

We are now in a position where Communications has an important regulatory role to play and our regulators around the world are very interested in what Communications does. They appreciate and understand and value the role of Communications in driving cultural change and regulatory awareness among colleagues. The function has moved from something that’s nice to have to something that our regulators demand. That adds a responsibility to the function that is just as great as the responsibility of Finance or Risk or any other function.

I think the same is true with media relations. We operate in a regulated environment therefore correct governance of media relations is crucial. You cannot be a loose cannon briefing off the record when you are operating within a regulatory framework. When I came into this industry many years ago, PR was very much an art, not a science. While there is still a certain amount of art to PR, a lot of it has been lost—but we are living in a very different world now.

What is the worst professional mistake you ever made?

Changing employers for more money. I once took a role for the sole reason that it gave me a major salary increase, but after a month I realised it was the wrong move, and I had moved on after little more than a year, feeling that I had completely wasted my time there. Work is about far more than a simple reward trade-off. We spend more than a third of our lives at work, and if it is not stimulating, entertaining, and stretching, then don't do it - even for a large pay rise.

What is the secret behind your career success?

Being in the right place at the right time has definitely played a part in it. In my time in the Middle East I was able to experience the boom and the bust of Dubai, and then the Arab Spring in 2011. A real crisis that impacted staff, customers, and the markets we were present in - great experience and a real example of how communications makes a material difference to the lives of our stakeholders.

More generally, the ability to take a different perspective and to articulate how others will perceive the actions that a business takes is an important attribute. If the bank says that it wants to do something because it makes commercial sense, it is part of my job to predict the unforeseen consequences in terms of perception and reputation

And of course, as I mentioned earlier, networking and keeping in touch with people is absolutely invaluable.

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