The importance of sustainable leadership at HSBC.
Bill Thomas had no intention of being a sustainable leader and was, in fact, a self-confessed sceptic before he took part in HSBC’s Climate Champion programme in 2007. The two week experience led to a u-turn in his career, from IT to making one of the world’s biggest financial organisations more efficient, reduce its impact and become more sustainable.
In a talk at Earthwatch in June he explained the plan: to tackle sustainability head on using the most influential decision makers. With the scale of HSBC’s operations, the reach of its customer base and the influence and power that it holds over its investments, it has the potential to make significant global changes. He is intent on HSBC becoming the leader in sustainability. But to an organisation whose energy consumption is equal to that of a small city, this is no easy task: for it to succeed he needs universal buy-in from the top.
The Climate Champion programme, run by Earthwatch as part of the HSBC Climate Partnership, was the foundation on which the ambitious Sustainability Leadership Programme (SLP) was built. In 2010-11 he hopes that over 160 of HSBC’s most senior managers, responsible for vast budgets and workforces, will participate in the scheme. His reasons are clear: “If senior management aren’t on board, you can only go so far. Bottom up is also important, but big achievements need top level support”. Although it may seem hard to convince senior managers, the SLP has been a resounding success, with 100% stating that the programme has not only had a significant effect on them professionally, but also personally. “Making that personal connection is essential” he believes, “when senior managers realise sustainability is much more than just good for business.”
One thing is for certain is that sustainability makes business sense, and this he believes is the key to internal and top level buy-in. “Climate change is undoubtedly an important issue” he adds, “but from a business point of view sustainability is about resources, the lack of resources and how to use them more efficiently. It’s not about tree-hugging: it’s about good business. Talk about trees and the answer is always: so what? Mention that we can save £10million by simply turning off the lights, computers or cutting down on paper and suddenly they are interested”. They have gone one step further and built sustainability criteria into senior managers’ bonus allocations, with 10% of the bonus dependent upon managers’ performance in 16 sustainability areas. He is adamant that performance led sustainability initiatives will bring about big changes.
As the global HSBC Climate Partnership programme with Earthwatch draws to a close at the end of this year, Thomas is positive about its impact and the future, but there are new challenges on the horizon, such as HSBC’s vast data centres, currently responsible for 25% of HSBC’s global energy consumption but likely to consume more as data storage needs increase in the future. Thomas is determined to remain ahead of the game and lead by example because the challenges that they face are not unique to HSBC.
Read more about the HSBC Climate Partnership.