Susan Urkevich is Managing Director, Chief Operating Officer for Corporate, Financials and Multinational Banking (CFMB) as well as Chief Operating Officer for Credit & Lending at HSBC. Susan’s role is far reaching and extends from overseeing capital management initiatives to leading change transformation programmes and risk management for a global division of the bank of which she serves on the executive management committee.
Susan Urkevich
Susan Urkevich

With over 20 years of institutional banking experience, Susan’s wide experience and mental acuity give her a uniquely broad view of solving the problems faced by the corporate bank in a complex global environment. She spent her early years at the bank in Hong Kong and speaks Chinese proficiently.

After taking a sabbatical to raise her daughter, Susan returned to banking and quickly achieved promotion to MD. She is passionate about advancing the diversity agenda both internally and externally, and established a Female Leadership Programme within her global team and now leads a diverse high performing team that works to improve the strategic positioning of the Bank.

Susan has been nominated for this year’s Award for Achievement.

Tell us about your day to day role

As a Chief Operating Officer at HSBC, I wear lots of hats. My ‘operations’ hat involves capital management, credit risk modeling and the like. My ‘managerial’ hat involves business transformation, digitising the lending process, and dealing with client issues. These days, I of course have a ‘Brexit’ hat to deal with the bank’s planning and implementation of migrating its European business. One of my favourite hats is the ‘motivational’ hat, which I wear to manage and guide the team, including coffees and chats with mentees, including young female graduates seeking career advice. After wrapping up as much of my workday as I can, it’s time to slip on my ‘Wife/Mom’ hat and head home.

You returned to banking after a ten year career break to raise your child, what advice would you give to women who are considering returning to work after a long period of absence.

Keep believing in yourself, in your abilities and value your unique experiences. During my first day back in an office environment after ten years, I felt like a deer in headlights. Someone asked me to save a document to the ‘shared drive’ and I didn’t have any idea what that meant. What I quickly learned is that I hadn’t had ten ‘lost years’ but ten years of growth in another kind of job which was just as valuable experience as if I had been working in banking. I had a maturity, confidence and wisdom that others lacked. I would also encourage a woman who has recently returned to work to stay authentic. If you don’t understand something, speak up. More than likely someone else in the room didn’t understand either. (Unless you’re being asked about Basel III and you’re still trying to remember Basel II, then Google is your best friend.)

How did you get into the banking and finance industry?

As a young professional, I used to like to say I was ‘born to bank’. That might sound a bit corny, but this career has long given me a great sense of purpose. In 1984, I spent a year in Shanghai at a time when few Westerners visited the country and China was viewed as an exotic, backwards-facing country. Afterwards, I entered Columbia University’s International Affairs graduate programme, set on working in international economic development, possibly for the UNDP. However, I quickly found that banking could be just as powerful an endeavor as international aid. Banks help communities and societies grow and facilitate international trade. I was particularly drawn to international project finance. While banks are not without their controversies, financing bridges, roads, power plants and hospitals ultimately helps developing communities and people realise their potential. Following that vision, I spent many satisfying years helping to finance large scale infrastructure projects in Asia.

What is an essential quality of a successful manager?

A successful manager has four key qualities:

1) She is focused on the future, is a strategic thinker who champions change and innovation.

2) She inspires and acts as a role model. She needs to be authentic but lead by example but also able to communicate with impact to motivate others.

3) She knows how to build diversified teams and is focused on her team’s being able to work effectively together as well as on their individual development.

4) She knows how to balance growth and risk, embracing new opportunities while managing the risk that often comes with being at the forefront.

If you could have one wish for the Banking & Finance industry what would it be?

To see more women in senior positions. While women join banks and finance companies in equal proportion to men (50/50), companies tend to lose women during the child-bearing years. A smaller pool of women in middle management results in fewer promotions, which signals to high career minded women that better opportunities could be sought elsewhere, leaving less of a pool for the boardroom. One example that would slow the trend is for firms to have ‘on-ramp’ programmes targeted at women who have left the workforce for an extended period. From my own experience, I would have benefited from a structured programme to help me understand my strengths, gain some self-confidence, review roles suitable to my experience and interests and overall make the idea of working again less daunting.

Tell us something about yourself you think people would find surprising?

When I read the book The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer as a child, building cultural bridges became a lifelong dream. At 17, I started studying Mandarin and later spent a year as an exchange student in China. I eventually made my way to Hong Kong where I joined HSBC and lived for 22 years. Early in my career, I covered China for the project finance team and worked with Chinese and foreign joint ventures, helping to broker understanding between governments, contractors, project sponsors and international and local lenders to get projects financed and built.

While I may look and sound like a middle-aged white woman, I have internalised my many years of living in Asia. My go-to comfort food is congee. I celebrate Chinese holidays such as Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival and because my husband also happens to be Korean, I participate in traditional Korean ceremonies honouring his family ancestors, not to mention the array of ‘hanbok’ (traditional Korean woman’s dress) hanging in my closet. I ended up building cultural bridges both on a professional and very personal level.