Learning to Lead with HSBC

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Bill Thomas admits that back in 2007, he was a climate skeptic. So how, just 6 years later, did he become the Global Head of Sustainability for HSBC? Thomas joined the Sustainable Business Fridays conversation, hosted by the Bard MBA in Sustainability, to talk about this transformation and what HSBC is doing to lead the financial sector in sustainability.

HSBC formed the Climate Partnership with Earthwatch Institute, The Climate Group, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and WWF in 2007. The mission of this $100 million, 5 year project was to create “climate champions” during a two week training retreat. These champions could then go back to their organizations and embed climate consciousness into business practices. Thomas was asked to be part of the first group to go through the training. He says that he decided to do it because it was two weeks away from work without having to take vacation…

“Be careful what you ask for,” he warns.

Thomas became a true climate champion. He says, “I could decide that I wanted to do something, or I could decide to ignore it. I decided to do something.” So he went back to the business and started learning more about sustainability and doing what he could within his department of HSBC. The initiatives were rudimentary at first, but they were a start. It wasn’t long before he changed his career path and took the job as Global Head of Sustainability for HSBC.

Under Thomas, HSBC has done far more than just the 5 year Climate Partnership that trained 2,200 climate champions. They began to realize soon after the Climate Partnership began that no senior managers would leave work for two weeks for the training, so they “trained the troops, but no generals were coming.” To solve this, HSBC created the Sustainability Leadership Program, a four day training workshop that is intended to “train the generals”. Thomas says that in order to change the culture of an organization, you have to train the people with the big budgets and the big influence.

And Thomas is certainly one of those people within HSBC. As part of the Climate Partnership, HSBC commissioned the largest single study of climate change on forests and donated over 8,5000 hours of staff time to the study. He has also led other initiatives, like the new Water Program with a budget of $100 million over 5 years. The goal of this project is to bring fresh water to people in developing countries because, “without water, there is no economy”, says Thomas.

In addition to philanthropic sustainability initiatives, HSBC also embeds sustainability into their lending practices through the Equator Principles. Thomas admits that HSBC is not perfect, for example, they still lend to coal companies, but they are working to improve every company they come in contact with. Overall, it was evident that HSBC is using the power inherent in their size to make a real impact.

Thomas left us with some sobering and inspiring words, demonstrating his realist worldview. “Our economy the way it’s set up today, cannot survive the next hundred years…Just being big like HSBC doesn’t mean you are going to survive. So it’s imperative the we understand what’s going on on the planet and do something about it, and our senior leaders are.”


Click here to listen to a recording of this conversation.


Join us this Friday for the next conversation in the Sustainability Business Fridays series. We will be talking with Amy Hall, the Director of Social Consciousness at Eileen Fisher about sustainability in the fashion industry. Find out how to connect here.


Photo credit: HSBC.com

By, Christina Wildt, MS/MBA ’16

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