What does "success" mean at HSBC?

By Alison Hanrahan

Alison Hanrahan is Global Head of Marketing Strategy for Commercial Banking at HSBC. As part of her degree programme at Clarkson University, New York State, Alison studied as an exchange student at CityU. She returned to Hong Kong three years ago to work in the Asia marketing division of HSBC. Here she talks about her education, how she became passionate about marketing at HSBC, taking time out, and her next move: London.

Playing with children while working at a local school in Uganda

I studied at Clarkson University in Potsdam in Upstate New York. One of the things I wanted from that education was the chance to see the world. Clarkson had just started an exchange programme with CityU, so I grabbed the opportunity. I was in Hong Kong for about six months in total, seeing Asia, and travelling. It was the first time I had left the US. Now I have been to around 70 countries. All of that kick-started when I came to Hong Kong and got a lot of perspective on things.

I was overwhelmed by Hong Kong. There are vast differences between Upstate New York and Hong Kong. We are talking about lots of farmland, my childhood home had dozens of acres around it. So coming into CityU, sharing an apartment the size of my closet with another person, was a huge adjustment! Hong Kong is such a vibrant place, the people, the smells, the traffic, it was all overwhelming at first.

I was studying on an International Business Programme – a combination of liberal arts and business, and in Hong Kong I focused on the business side. I was really impressed by the whole operation at CityU and the fact that it was going on in English, most people's second language. It seemed to me like an amazing achievement.

The final year at Clarkson was very difficult for me. I wanted to be "out there". Going back to Potsdam I felt, how can I get that feeling back of exploring and seeing new things? It was a tough transition year. I took extra math courses at Clarkson, so at that time I was consciously going down the route of specialisation.

Starting at HSBC

Representatives from HSBC came up to Clarkson, and I interviewed with them, and got a position in their management training programme. I started this rotation programme with various roles in the different places: in Chicago I worked on philanthropic affairs running an event with over 300 volunteers at a local school on the south side. In New Jersey, with tax payer financial services, I built a database using customer data. In Florida I created a national marketing campaign to educate customers on adjustable rate mortgages during the mortgage crisis. In New York City I worked for a commercial banking marketing team, and in Las Vegas as credit card collection team leader.

I then went to London on a three-month project, and was asked to stay on and take an international contract with them. So I wrote a proposal which was then accepted, and took a role in core products in current accounts, and created a new proposition for business banking. First of all, we conducted a series of researches. The idea was that everything was to be digitally led, so that people would not have to visit the high street branch. At the time it was all relatively new. It was a good combination of math and marketing. The proposition was launched in ten countries. Travelheavy, seeing the world, and working in marketing, I absolutely loved it!

Herding Elephants in a private game reserve, Zimbabwe


I was invited to go back to New York but decided that I wasn't ready. I wanted to explore a bit, and follow my interests – which is wildlife. So I requested from the bank that I take a year's sabbatical. I had to write a proposal.

So that forced me to sit down and ask myself: what do I want to get out of this year? Where do I want to go? And that helped me because otherwise I may have just taken a long holiday on the beach! But instead I was really specific about what I wanted to do, and learn. So I ended up managing my trip in the same way that I would manage a project at the bank.

I went on unpaid leave for 12 months, and travelled in Latin America and Africa. I started in Panama, and then went to Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru, worked with bears, with turtles, with whales, and then around Africa and got my field guiding certificate. I lived in Kruger Park in South Africa, and took an educational course in order to get certified to give safaris throughout Africa. I spent the rest of the time going to Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya, and doing different things. I worked in a lion orphanage, an elephant orphanage, I saw gorillas, and worked in a school.

I am still passionate about wildlife and work with nonprofit organisations through volunteering and donations. I have an autographed picture of David Attenborough hanging in my living room, and the guest gifts at my wedding were animal "adoptions" via donations to the World Wildlife Fund.

After the year's sabbatical, I went back to New York and took up a role in marketing for business banking.

Village children in Malawi

Getting creative

When I first got the job at HSBC I did more financeheavy things, but I realised that I didn't like it. My broad degree gave me options, and then I discovered marketing. It's a combination of numbers and people, getting out, planning campaigns, being creative. I really like what I do. If you are not working close to your interests, you won't have that passion and you won't be as good at it.

A lot of marketing is about creativity, about connecting with the customer. It's about hearing the voice of the customer. I started as a generalist at HSBC, but now, without ever having got a marketing degree, I would consider myself a marketing specialist.

My current role is in marketing, which at HSBC is a global function. I work in commercial banking and manage campaigns across Asia, as well as all marketing activity for 14 of the 19 markets in the region. There are significant differences across countries. Local events are tailored by local teams. So for example in Hong Kong we are less likely to build an event around the basics of global trade – because it is engrained in the business ethic here already and by the nature of the geography, most businesses know a bit about trade. But in somewhere like Indonesia which is a growing economy, and where companies are starting to expand into places like China, you might well build an event to teach more of the fundamentals of trade. We might send trade specialists from China to Indonesia, build up discussion panels, and so on.


Our family is moving from Happy Valley here in Hong Kong, where we love being close to Tai Tam and taking our dog for walks, and swapping it for Putney in London. We are very much looking forward to living in London. We've just had a daughter and it is important to be closer to family. My family will be just a quick hop over the Atlantic, only 6 or 7 hours or so to Upstate New York, and my husband's family will be a 20-minute train ride away.

In London I will be working with HSBC as the Global Head of Marketing Strategy, which is a segment within Commercial Banking. When you work internationally there comes a point when you are ready for something new. I think at this point we are ready.

What do we look for in graduates?

In the three years I have been in Hong Kong I have interviewed and filled a lot of positions in marketing, and one thing I've found with some of the graduates, is that there seems to be an exercise of "ticking the box." Making sure you have community service, leadership, etc. on your resume. I think this is blown out of proportion. Yes, you absolutely need a strong resume, but when I sit down with someone and look to see if they are a good fit, I look for things like passion. Have they done things they are interested in? Do they have a point of view on something? Are they able to articulate that point of view? And if I ask why they feel that way, are they able to tell me in a coherent way as to why? There are a lot of things outside ticking those specific boxes that I would look for – and I think my colleagues would look for too.

The whole thing has become somewhat formulaic at the moment. If someone sits down and isn't able to have a great conversation, isn't able to expand on "Well why did you choose to play the violin over the piano?" then that's probably not going to work. You should have reasons why you are investing time in different projects, and you should know why and be able to talk about it, not because someone told you that this is what you needed to do. Do something because you have an interest. Don't say: "I want to get to HSBC." Follow your interests and see where that leads you; then pick a profession, then pick a company.

So I think less focus on building up a resume. More focus on finding something that you are interested in and getting involved in that – and if that leads you to financial services and HSBC, then bring that into the interview.