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Interview: Robert Hinton

“The company secretary is a crucial role, and governance is an ever expanding field”

How did it feel to win Governance Project of the Year at the CGIUKI Awards 2019? Can you talk us through the project?
It was a great honour to be part of the team that won the award for the Excellence in Governance project. It was achieved through a massive effort by the Corporate Governance and Secretariat team and was supported by thousands of employees across HSBC. The project was led by a newly created Centre of Excellence, a six-member global project team. Two work streams, Meeting Justification and Meeting Effectiveness, asked: ‘Do we need this meeting in its current form?’, and ‘Is the meeting being run in the best possible way?’ Meeting Justification aimed to streamline and reduce the number of executive hours spent in meetings. This was implemented by documenting governance meetings with each of the strategy heads of the business, support functions and regions across the group. The Centre of Excellence then applied a number of levers looking at activities, attendance, duration and frequency before making streamlining recommendations. We saved over 200,000 in-meeting executive hours per annum, excluding secretarial and preparation times. Meeting Effectiveness took the meetings that remained and applied a new framework to how they should run, standardised on a global scale for the first time. We implemented a new standard agenda structure to provide greater focus on a smaller number of topics, as well as applying a new report format to standardise report writing. This used a context, question and conclusion template that aimed to draw out the input sought from each meeting. Meeting Effectiveness was underpinned by a global programme of training, run by the Centre of Excellence and delivered to thousands of employees involved in meeting preparation.

How long have you been in your current role and can you talk us through your route into HSBC?
I’ve been at HSBC for nearly 10 years, joining as a Company Secretarial Assistant, fresh from completing the Corporate Governance and Law LLM with GradCG at the University of Portsmouth. I initially worked in the Europe team and was responsible for a collection of subsidiary entities. Since then I have worked in a number of governance-based roles across the organisation both inside and outside the Corporate Governance and Secretariat function. This allowed me to supplement my governance skill-set with risk, operations and project management skills, to name a few. The latter ultimately led me back to the Corporate Governance and Secretariat team, as a member of the Centre of Excellence team to deliver the Excellence in Governance project.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in governance?
I studied a general Business BA at university but always enjoyed studying the law-based units of the course. I was introduced to the concept of a company secretary and the field of governance at a postgraduate fair, which focussed on legal courses. Not long after, I signed up for the Corporate Governance and Law LLM, which was accredited by The Chartered Governance Institute. I enjoyed everything about the course, including that it spanned elements of law, business and finance and that it taught the right things to get along in the corporate world. What I learnt and the accreditation I received have both added significant value throughout my career.

What do you feel most proud of in your work?
I feel most proud of the positive feedback both the team and I receive following the delivery of training sessions. HSBC is a great organisation to work for, with many lovely people, and receiving positive feedback is always enjoyable. On several occasions, we have been told that it is the first time somebody has been properly guided to write a paper, draft an agenda or compose a set of minutes, and it is very fulfilling. All of us in the Centre of Excellence have built up countless strong relationships across the organisation as we have helped people and teams develop skills that are often incorrectly assumed to exist.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?
Stakeholder buy-in can still pose a challenge but is something that has become much easier to overcome as the project has progressed. Even one and a half years later, the Centre of Excellence still receives challenge from people asking why certain formatting standards are applied, why papers are designed to call out a specific ask from the meeting or why agendas are structured a certain way. While this was more difficult to articulate in the early days, it has become much easier as both senior management and other areas of the organisation have really supported and seen the benefit of the programmes. Some people who were our biggest challengers are now our loudest promoters, which is amazing to see.

What advice would you give to those beginning their governance career?
I remember starting at HSBC with very little experience and being thrust into the thick of it with board meetings and statutory filings. Speaking with friends in similar circumstances, I would tell anybody in that situation that this is normal. Focus on getting an understanding of technical aspects, especially matters related to governance and statutory compliance, as quickly as possible, as quite often you will be seen as the expert in the room. Do not be afraid to question why things are the way that they are, or to speak up if you see a way that they can be done better. I would also recommend getting a breadth of experience. The company secretary is a crucial role and governance is an ever expanding field and I am lucky that HSBC has offered me a range of roles that can leverage this key skill whist allowing me to develop others.

What does 2020 hold for you? Are there any goals you are hoping to achieve?
The Corporate Governance and Secretariat function at HSBC continues to change rapidly following the appointment of the new group company secretary and chief governance officer towards the end of 2019. The Centre of Excellence continues to support these changes, whilst developing and offering a global service to improve employees’ governance practices and reporting. My goal for 2020 is to continue building on our successes, and I am currently working to refresh the Corporate Governance and Secretariat policy library and supporting a review of the reporting dashboards. Both form part of a continuing bid to drive improvements and efficiencies in governance.

Interview by Sonia Sharma, editor of Governance and Compliance

HSBC Robert Hinton