It's tough to make it to the C-Suite on your own.

Women who want to climb the corporate ladder should focus on building a strong support system early in their careers, a panel of senior women executives at HSBC said.

Long hours are required to work as an executive at a large bank. Women need to be able to step on a plane at an hour's notice, even if they have kids at home. And if they haven't established a close network of friends and family, career opportunities will likely pass them by.

"It's not for everyone, but if you decide it's for you, then build your support system in a way to ensure your success when it comes," said Katia Bouazza, head of capital financing for HSBC's Latin America unit. Bouazza was named as one of American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Finance in 2013 and 2014.

The hourlong discussion was part of a celebration of International Women's Day at HSBC headquarters. The event recognized women who have participated in Upwardly Global, which provides job training and employer partnerships to skilled immigrants.

Patricia Gomes, who serves as co-head of HSBC's financial institutions group, told audience members that a "secret" of her success has been her husband, who gave up his job to be a stay-at-home dad. Knowing that your children are being cared for husband, rather than a nanny, makes it easier to step on a plane to a different country, Gomes said.

"They usually say that behind every successful man there's a successful woman. Well, in my case there's a man," she said, adding that being a single mother in the banking industry is "what's really brave."

Making priorities at home, just like at work, can help women executives navigate seemingly impossible schedules.

And that means not getting bogged down by to-do lists that can be "outsourced," and focusing, instead, on what's most important, Gomes said.

"If it's my weekends with my children, I'm there, and I'm there in body and spirit. I make those 48 hours count," she said.

Women should discard the the goal of finding work-life balance, said Diane D'Erasmo, head of retail in HSBC's commercial banking division. D'Erasmo has previously been honored by American Banker as one of the Most Powerful Women in Banking, as well as one of the 25 Women to Watch.

There will never an easy time to step away from the office. But part of being a successful executive involves not being afraid leave early every now and then to attend your child's school play or sporting events, she said.

"It can't be about balance. It has to be about choices," D'Erasmo said, emphasizing that time with your children "goes really fast."

Patrick Burke, the bank's president and chief executive, walked in halfway through the event, to listen to the discussion and provide closing remarks.

Burke, who succeeded Irene Dorner in November, encouraged young women in the audience to strive for senior-level jobs. He also said that one of his priorities as CEO is to build a pipeline of talented women to promote as senior managers.

Speaking just minutes after the Federal Reserve announced that HSBC had passed its stress test, Burke said, jokingly, that audience members should consider if dealing with regulators is something they really want for their careers.

"Maybe you're just a smart group of people, and you say, 'Look, I'm going to let the regulatory rollout play out for a few years, and then decide,' " he said.

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