Branded Culture – People, People, People Makes Good Business Sense

I have a confession to make. I’m a fan of Irene Dorner. It’s not that

she is one of the most powerful bankers in Malaysia. It’s not that she

had a highly successful banking career with HSBC in the UK,

spanning Marketing, HR, Treasury Operations and has led a 400

branch region in the UK from number 4 to number 1. It’s not that she

has blazed a trail to become HSBC Bank Malaysia’s first female

CEO in over 125 years of operation. While these are definitely

remarkable, what is most impressive is Irene Dorner herself. She is

warm and approachable. She can be humorous. She is a great

communicator. She influences through who she is rather than

through the position that she holds. She can make the tough

decisions when she needs to. And, since arriving on our shores in

2007, Irene has certainly made a positive difference to the HSBC

brand in Malaysia.

Branded Customer Service

©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | | Page 2 of 5

HSBC is a highly successful player in the Malaysian banking market.

I wanted to explore Irene’s thoughts on how to build a culture that

delivers a great customer experience and that delivers positive

financial results at the same time. As I found out, the “secret” starts

with “People”, and it ends with “People.”

In fact, Irene’s message, which is weaved throughout her

communications to staff and in her presentations to the outside

world, is “People, People, People.” Nice and simple. We explored

this in more depth.

There have been a number of “aha” moments in Irene’s career that

have led to her people-based philosophy. She related how she had

been working in the Marketing Department for HSBC Bank in the

UK. A burning question was, “How do we engage our customers and

make them feel special?”

She explained how First Direct, a subsidiary of HSBC in the UK, at

the time a call-centre based bank, was renowned for delivering a

great customer experience. First Direct customers used exactly the

same ATMs as HSBC customers. When First Direct customers were

surveyed about their experience with the ATMs, they would say it

was fantastic. However, HSBC customers, who weren’t that ecstatic

about the bank’s service, rated their experience with exactly the

same ATMs as being much lower. “The difference was how the

customer feels when approaching the ATM,” she said.

“We came to the conclusion that having a clean branch gave you a

ticket to the game. What the customer wanted was to be known as

an individual, to be treated equally, as an adult, to be recognized

across all touch points – electronic, phone and in person.”

Irene moved to HR where she realized that the needs of customers

are the same as the needs of employees. “They are people needs,”

she said. “Treat me as an individual, treat me as an equal, know

what I need. This is what employees want.”

“Others say that you should put your customers first. I say that we

should put our people first,” she said. “If our people don’t feel good,

they won’t give their best. Giving them a good working environment

is one thing. But it is more important that you know them as

individuals, provide them with good development opportunities and

that they feel that they count. If they feel that they count, they will

bring enormous energy to work.”

Put your

people first

The “secret”

starts with

people, and

it ends with


©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | | Page 3 of 5

“If you ask employees what they do outside of work, you will

discover an astounding amount of talent and creativity. People do

amazing things such as playing musical instruments and dancing.

Over here, there is a lot of talent in karaoke. Amazing talent. But, for

some reason, when people come to work, we expect them to

unscrew their heads and ask for a different set of behaviours.”

Irene explained that the problem is that, in most cases,

organisations ask, ‘How much do I need to make?’ rather than ‘How

do I get my people right? “Yes, my people definitely come first. If you

can get them fighting fit, then they will deliver great service. They will

engage the customer. And it becomes a virtuous cycle – the

customer will give positive feedback to our employees,” she said.

Another defining moment came at a business breakfast. The HR

Director of a major global brand was present. This brand was

associated with fun and entertainment. The HR Director explained

that things were not like this at all on the inside of the organisation. It

definitely did not sound like fun to work in this company! “I realized

that there was a major disconnect between the internal brand and

the external brand. This would be reflected in poor people

engagement surveys and, eventually, lower levels of customer

engagement.” Irene said that it would not happen overnight – but it

would happen over time. This led to a strong philosophy: “We are in

the people business. People’s needs – whether employees or

customers – are fundamentally the same. What we project to the

outside world must be the same as what we project to the inside

world. If there is a disconnect, things will come unstuck –


HSBC Bank Malaysia has invested a lot of time and resources to

engage its people. “Our ON-Brand initiative had a major impact in

releasing the energy and ideas of people.” The key challenge for

Irene was to focus this energy to create business results. This was

implemented through the development of a simple aspirational

communication that included “+5+5” ie plus 5% in employee

engagement and a plus 5% increase in customer.

The third “People” is the community. Irene said that an organisation

like HSBC cannot make the profits that it makes and not put

something back. “We owe it to the people in the community.” she

said. HSBC Malaysia puts its money where its mouth is through an

active Corporate Sustainability program, encompassing education,

the environment, community involvement and the arts.

If you get

your people

right, they

will deliver

great service


invests a lot

of time and

resources to

engage its


©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | | Page 4 of 5

The road to progress is constantly under construction. And it has to

be paved with good communication. “You have to communicate

consistently, constantly and simplistically,” said Irene. “HSBC senior

management has held roadshows in 2008 and 2009. The

aspirational message was the same, as was the message of People,

People, People. This is reinforced through our weekly TeamTalk

process, in my speeches and presentations. The strategic message

has not changed in 18 months. We have changed the format, but we

have not changed the message.” And rest assured that HSBC CEO

Roadshows around the country in Malaysia are not boring! This year

the message was wrapped around a game show theme. It’s certainly

serious business, but it doesn’t mean that senior management can’t

deliver the message in a fun way!

The key challenge after that, Irene explained, is to walk the talk.

“You have to put a lot of your own person into this. People then feel

that it’s okay to do this,” she said.

For change to happen, it’s important to have senior management on

board. I asked Irene how she achieved this. “You must have honest

and frank conversations about their behaviour. For example, I might

say, “Did you realize that when you speak you come across as…?

Some accept your views, while some may not. But I don’t back down

from my view.”

So what of 2009? Irene said that the bank will not deviate from its

People, People, People mantra. “If we deviated, it would be

calamitous!” she said. Irene explained that it is now important to give

people tools to play the game well. They need to be provided with

certainty. Their interest needs to be maintained.

And finally, what about the legacy that Irene Dorner wants to leave

behind. Irene had thought about this before taking on the position in

Malaysia. “I want people to say that this is a better place since Irene

was here, but she didn’t buck the hard decisions.”






©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | | Page 5 of 5

There’s more that I can tell you from my interview with Irene. Her

belief in senior management visibility, the importance of trust. The

importance of taking the hard decisions when necessary, and more.

Let’s wait to read about these lessons when, I hope, one day, Irene

writes her best-selling book, People, People, People. Until next



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