Irina Seylanyan

Irina Seylanyan

“It is an honour, but also a big responsibility”

In early 2020 HSBC Bank Armenia appointed its first ever Armenian CEO, Irina Seylanyan. Regional Post met Ms. Seylanyan to discuss how she led the bank through the tough year of pandemic and geopolitical tensions, and challenges that female leaders face in Armenia. 

Interview : Areg Davtyan    Photo : HSBC Bank Armenia 

 

This year HSBC Armenia marks its 25th anniversary. How would you describe the bank's development path in Armenia?

HSBC opened its doors for business in Armenia on 16 March 1996. It was established as Midland Armenia Bank J.S.C. and renamed HSBC Bank Armenia CJSC in 1999. During the past 25 years, we have witnessed essential changes in Armenia’s banking sector, with HSBC Armenia playing an important role in contributing to its development by bringing best international banking practices at the early stages of the development of the modern banking system in Armenia and promotion of the standards of corporate governance, customer service and conduct. 
We have pioneered many products and services to customers in Armenia. For example, we can’t imagine our lives today without bank cards, but not many people will remember that HSBC Armenia was the first bank to introduce cards and ATMs in Armenia in 1996, and the first bank to install an off-site ATM, located at the intersection of Baghramyan Avenue and Moskovyan. In more recent history, in 2016 our Contact Centre was amongst the first in Armenia’s banking sector to operate in 24/7 mode and we were among the first to introduce Face ID and Touch ID Authentication for customers and Contactless ATMs in 2018. 
We have also utilised HSBC’s worldwide network and expertise for the benefit of our customers and our country. HSBC was honoured to play a leading role in the Republic of Armenia’s debut Eurobond issue in 2013 and thereafter. 
Our achievements were recognised numerous times throughout our 25 years’ history by prestigious magazines like The Banker, Global Finance and Euromoney. Most recently, HSBC Armenia was named “Market Leader” for trade finance in Armenia in 2021 by Euromoney. We were also awarded the Best Cash Management Bank in Armenia for three consecutive years (2018-2020) and Best Bank for Service for Corporates in Armenia for two consecutive years (2019-2020).

 

You are the first Armenian CEO of the bank. What does it mean for HSBC Armenia and for you personally?

HSBC Armenia is part of HSBC Group – one of the biggest global financial services companies. This is one of our biggest advantages in the local market. The reason for having international CEOs in Armenia and in many other countries where HSBC operates, was to use their knowledge, experience and network from working in different markets for the benefit of our customers in Armenia. HSBC puts lots of emphasis on people development and throughout its 25 years’ history in Armenia HSBC gave more than 60 Armenian colleagues the opportunity to work abroad both on short and long-term assignments, thus allowing them to gain international experience and knowledge. Our employees have worked in a variety of markets, including the UK, France, Poland, Luxembourg, Malta, Channel Islands and Isle of Man, Russia, UAE, Oman, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Thailand, USA and more. Some of them returned to Armenia, bringing home best practice from across various areas. My experience of working abroad for 7 years, coupled with my knowledge of the Armenian market allowed me to become the first Armenian CEO of the bank. 
It is difficult to say what it means for HSBC Armenia, but I think it gives my colleagues inspiration and belief that they can progress to the top of the organisation through hard work, dedication and continuous development. For me personally, it is an honour, but also a big responsibility to be there for our clients and colleagues. 

 

A question we cannot avoid: what is it like to be a woman in a leadership role in Armenia? Is it still challenging, or can we say that there is more gender equality now?

I think being a woman in a leadership role in Armenia is not very different from elsewhere. It is not a secret that female leaders face greater and bigger challenges as they also have to battle against people’s perceptions. 
I’m fortunate enough to work for an organisation which promotes diversity and I never really faced any obstacle from that perspective. Overcoming market perception was a challenge though in earlier days of my career. Our business community is still dominated by men and from my experience, at certain levels it takes much more effort for a woman to be accepted and her views to be heard, valued and followed. 
I think as a country we have made progress, especially in some sectors that were traditionally dominated by men, for example Information Technology. However, there is still a long way to go. We are seeing more female than male students graduating from our universities, so on a professional level there should be a much higher number of women in leadership positions. However, only circa 20 percent of leadership roles in Armenia are held by women. 
Obviously this is also a matter of choice. The question here is whether women are ready to take on this responsibility, or whether they are worried that this will impact on their family life, for example. Are employers worried that women will be less committed as many will have to manage both work and family life? Are men ready and happy to have a strong woman as their partner? All these questions should not be specific to women but they have been posed to women for many years and they have an impact on women’s representation in leadership roles. The pandemic helped us to realise how flexible employers can be and how much more efficient employees can be when they have better flexibility to manage work/life commitments. So, hopefully we will see more rapid change in the near future.

 

In general, how would you assess the involvement of female professionals in the country's financial sector?

Women account for around 55-60% of the workforce in financial services in Armenia. At the entry-level the representation of women is even higher, so overall involvement of female professionals in the financial sector is high. Despite this progress, women still represent probably only one in five positions in the financial services C-suite. Certain leadership roles are “traditionally” occupied by women, such as Heads of HR, Chief Accountants, Heads of PR / Marketing / Communication, but we still have very little representation of women in other leadership roles. Representation of women on Boards in the financial sector is almost non-existent.

 

2020 was a dramatic year for Armenia: first the pandemic, and then the latest geopolitical tensions, and we can still experience the grave repercussions of both. What has been HSBC Armenia's biggest takeaway from these challenges? 

2020 really was a very difficult year for our country and for all of us – I would say an unprecedented year, which will have a lasting impact on our society and economy.
From a business perspective there are many takeaways, but our biggest takeaway is the importance of having robust business continuity plans in place. Obviously, nobody could plan for what happened last year, but having a robust operating framework and flexibility to adjust it quickly to the changing environment helped us to overcome challenges. While impacted themselves, banks have a unique role to play in ensuring stability and supporting customers in the challenging environment. Our main challenge was to continue providing uninterrupted and efficient service, while ensuring safety of our employees and customers. I’m very pleased with how we responded to the challenge – we maintained a high level of business continuity and were able to provide our customers with the support they need. I have been humbled by the dedication and commitment that our employees have shown in incredibly tough circumstances and thank them for all they have done and continue doing for our customers and each other, while managing their own, at times extremely difficult, situations at home.
Other aspects that I would like to mention as a takeaway is the importance of caring about the well-being of our employees, regular communication from the top of the organisation and focus on adaptability and resilience. The past year also proved how important honesty and transparency are in developing trusting and supportive relationships and a sense of inclusion and togetherness in an organisation – even when working remotely. 
This crisis also created some opportunities. It forced us to pivot, innovate and adopt solutions that may otherwise have taken years to achieve. So, we should ensure the positive outcomes stay with us on a permanent basis and capitalise on those. 

 

HSBC Armenia regularly implements different CSR projects in the regions of Armenia. Why is it important for the bank to be involved in community development? 

Sustainability underpins our strategic priorities and enables us to fulfil our purpose as an international bank, which is to help businesses thrive and contribute to the health and growth of the communities where we operate. We believe that we do not exist in isolation and that giving back to society is as important as the business we do.
Carrying on HSBC Group’s long legacy of implementing different community projects, at HSBC Armenia, for more than two decades, we have supported and delivered projects which positively affect the lives of community residents, open up new opportunities, and bring hope to less advantaged groups of people.
A significant portion of our community support is directed towards helping people develop the employability and financial skills they need to thrive. Advancements in digital technology and events such as COVID-19 are rapidly changing how we work and live, and affecting people’s finances and livelihoods. That’s why we are committed to building future skills – for our customers, employees and people in the communities we serve. In addition to our support of future skills, we also extend support for causes reflecting local needs. We are committed to providing financial and other help in response to unforeseen and sudden challenges including natural disasters, humanitarian crises and pandemics such as COVID-19.
Finally, we also encourage our employees to volunteer their time and expertise to a range of causes. Volunteering makes our colleagues feel part of the projects we support and adds a huge amount of ownership and connection, ensuring that we see the projects through. On top of benefitting the communities we serve, volunteering brings a feeling of great personal accomplishment, enabling people to build connections, develop new skills, and gain fresh perspectives. This makes us stronger as a team and connects us even more closely to our customers and communities.