From state high school student to CEO of a global bank, HSBC Global Private Banking and Wealth CEO Annabel Spring’s career is impressive. She has been at the coalface of the financial industry when rocked by crises, from 9/11 to the GFC. Here, she shares advice on building resilience in the face of adversity. She also shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
HSBC Global Private Banking and Wealth CEO Annabel Spring was in her early 20s, and living the dream. She was working in New York for financial institution Morgan Stanley and had just been accepted into Harvard University’s prestigious MBA program. She’d enrolled to help build credibility with her clients.
On her first day in class, Spring’s fellow MBA students introduced themselves and the lineup was impressive. Some were CEOs of high-profile startups; others were military officers who had commanded thousands of men. Even future royalty were in the class. In that moment, Spring’s background in Australia seemed completely insufficient. She felt utterly out of her depth.
“I thought: what on earth am I doing at Harvard Business School?”
However, the first time she won a class debate, Spring’s confidence began to rise. Realising she could hold her own academically against her classmates, she worked hard, overcoming her imposter syndrome and graduating in the top 5% of her class as a George F Baker Scholar. “That was tremendously helpful for my confidence,” she said.
Even more so, were the friendships she built with her fellow students, who became a mutual support network throughout their MBA. These friendships have endured her entire career; Spring always has someone to call on when she’s travelling for work or in need of advice.
While tertiary and postgraduate education can be helpful to progress your career, it is not essential.
“Some of the people that I have admired most, that I have worked for, haven’t had a tertiary education,” Spring says. She cites former Commonwealth Bank of Australia CEO Sir Ralph Norris as an example.
“He had, which I think is essential, an insatiable curiosity, a real thirst for learning and understanding and a passion for people. That, combined with a tremendous amount of hard work, really made for a successful career.”
Be of service
Spring grew up in Sydney, Australia, in a family passionate about advocacy and community service. Her grandfather was on the Board of the The Salvation Army, and her mother taught English to migrant students. Australian suffragette Maybanke Anderson, a feminist and teacher born in the 1800s, was a family role model and a formative influence.
As a teenager, Spring considered becoming a lawyer. Her father told her whatever she chose to do, to make sure it was worthwhile and of service. “That principle has guided my choices throughout my career,” she says, through both her corporate and not-for-profit work.
Recognising that she preferred building businesses to arguing in court, Spring decided to join the financial sector. After graduating with honours in both law and economics from the University of Sydney, she joined Morgan Stanley and moved to New York in 1994.
Responsibility and resilience
Coming from a family that values service means that Spring carries a sense of responsibility and a desire to make a difference in her industry. This responsibility was front of mind when the financial sector experienced massive shocks caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). These crises were also central to her building professional resilience, a skill Spring believes is essential for leaders.
Spring was working in downtown New York on September 11, 2001, when she witnessed the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre (WTC). “My eyes didn’t believe what they were seeing,” she says.
The horror was compounded knowing her coworkers were in Morgan Stanley’s WTC offices. “We lost quite a lot of our colleagues. It was an extraordinarily difficult day.”
Nonetheless, the Federal Reserve was urging bond markets to remain open, to prevent the financial services industry from collapsing globally. So, still in shock and in mourning, Spring returned to work the next day to support her colleagues and the community. She said it was a lesson in resilience.
“Sometimes, just turning up is half the battle,” she says.
The burden of responsibility
Several years later, in 2008, Spring was again at the coalface of a crisis when landmark Wall Street financial institutions began to collapse. It was the beginning of the GFC.
“Lehman went down, then Merrill went down, and in order of market caps, Morgan Stanley was next,” she says. “I realised at that moment that I was part of a team responsible for 35,000 people’s livelihoods, all of our clients and a significant proportion of the financial services industry.”
As Global Head of Firm Strategy and Execution, the responsibility weighed heavily on her and the management team; to this day, it remains the most significant challenge of her career. But, conversely, helping to keep Morgan Stanley running is one of her greatest successes.
Returning to Australia
In 2009, Spring returned to Australia in an executive role with Australia’s largest bank, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). She credits her first boss at Morgan Stanley, Carolyn Kay, with introducing her to her future boss, former CBA CEO Ian Narev, and planting the seed of a banking career in Australia. “Mentorship and sponsorship in those crux moments in your career, in your life, it’s really important,” she says.
Spring built a successful career at CBA, and was promoted to Group Executive, Wealth Management, in 2011. Several years later, the CBA was one of many financial institutions required to give evidence to various Parliamentary enquiries into financial services. During the challenging time, Spring received advice from a female CEO that stayed with her.
“She said, ‘you have to be the manager of your own emotions to manage people and to manage a business,” Spring says.
“And that’s why resilience [in leaders] is really important,” Spring reiterates. “People need to be able to look to you and have confidence that you will be there with them [during challenging times], and we will all collectively get through this together.”
As a leader, projecting confidence can inspire confidence, particularly when the going gets tough. Your team is watching you, and their morale and performance are influenced by what they see.
The glass cliff
Asked whether she had ever experienced a glass cliff, where women are promoted to leadership roles during a crisis, Spring says that all roles are challenging. “You can look at them as a glass cliff, or you can choose to see them as an opportunity to change a business, to improve a situation, to develop yourself and your team… and to do the right thing.”
Spring regards doing the right thing as the first principle of leadership. She admires ethical leaders who have integrity, the ability and desire to listen and learn, and care for and have a passion for people. “People are what really matters,” she says. “You don’t enjoy success alone. You only enjoy success with people.
“And people are the endgame of everything that we do.”
While Spring likes to help others in need, she too draws on the help of others. She has a self-described personal board of directors she turns to when she needs advice. “We go for long walks and talk about life and the universe,” she says.
Prioritising what matters
Aside from her professional support network, Spring credits her parents and husband as her greatest champions. “My husband and I have a tremendous partnership. We’ve moved all over the world together.” His flexibility and that of the companies they have worked for have been a considerable part of her success.
Like Spring, her husband is an executive at a global financial institution. She says they juggle work and life with their two daughters through communication, flexibility, balancing priorities, and having open conversations about what those priorities are. It’s also about specialisation.
“There are some things that I’m good at. There are some things that he is good at and I really appreciate that we both understand that and make it work,” she explains.
Today, Spring is CEO of HSBC Global Private Banking and Wealth at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is a force to be reckoned with. However, her father’s advice to be of service remains front of mind, as she works with clients to not just survive the pandemic, but to thrive.
Asked how leaders can build resilience in the face of adversity, Spring makes three recommendations:
- Look after yourself. Take care of your physical fitness and ensure you get enough sleep. “You can’t be resilient if you don’t look after yourself,” she insists.
- Practice being uncomfortable. Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable means learning, pivoting and changing – all essential leadership skills as the world changes.
- Learn to disagree well and be prepared to debate during difficult times. The ability to debate respectfully often seems to be a lost skill in this era of social media.
Finally, Spring would like to see female leaders prepared to take risks. “Be confident enough to learn, to adapt, and to inspire your team to do the same,” she says.
Indeed, words of wisdom from a woman of conviction. No doubt, she has done her family proud.
Annabel Spring’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA