|Working as the Korean Operations' Change Agent|
By Tom Coyner
Sept. 12 & 23, 2008
For those who got away for the summer holidays, welcome back to Korea. And for those just transferred to Korea, welcome! If you are an expatriate, you have a very important and unique role in your Korea operations. That is pretty obvious. But what may be less obvious is the unofficial role you are likely to be fulfilling – that of change agent.
If you think you are not a change agent, consider this: thirty years ago many of the jobs in your office, currently held by Koreans, would likely have been filled by other expatriates. Then, there was not enough local talent with the professional and language skills to fill those jobs. Today, however, there is a large pool of English-speaking Korean professional managers who very conceivably could be handling your job. But, of course, they are not. You are. And I dare suggest is the reason you are in Korea is either to upgrade the Korean office and/or to ensure the Korean operation is not left behind as your company globally responds to pressures.
Regardless if you accept my suggestion that you are a change agent, one of the biggest challenges for anyone hold such a responsibility is having to sell change to the Korean employees – particularly when change may come unexpected and unwelcomed. Let’s face it. Most people don’t like change, unless they are the initiators of such. But often regional or head office requires change for the overall benefit of the company as well as the Korean branch.
To functionally pass on marching orders may be met with many “yeses” from your Korean employees, but quite possibly your executive fiat will also generate sullen resistance and possibly passive aggression – something the Koreans as a nation have hundreds of years in perfecting in the face of overwhelming foreign adversity.
To prevent that from happening, as well as to overall be a better manager during your Korean tenure, allow me to pass on some ideas that I have picked up from some thirty years dealing with Korea.
First and obviously, do your homework. Spend the time and effort to learn the basics of Korean culture, history and society – and above all, get a grasp on how Confucianism operates on in Koreans’ daily lives. While several decent books can be sourced at Amazon.com, major bookstores in Seoul, one of the best ways to get up to speed is to check out the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch (RAS-KB), that has cheap lectures on Korea on the second and fourth Tuesday evenings at the Somerset Palace residence hotel in Gwanghwamun, as well as very inexpensive weekend tours. At the RAS, you can find foreign residents and English-speaking Koreans who make it a point to regularly upgrade their knowledge of this country. Besides offering the world’s largest selection of English books on Korea, this is a very good venue to network with other business people who have been in Korea for several years.
Speaking of networking, that brings us to my second point: develop mentors – both Korean and foreign. And I might add, try to discover mentors both within your company and outside. A good mentor should ideally speak Korean fairly well or better, but certainly has a good grasp of how this country operates in business circles. While “old Korean hands” may provide quick insights, the more important mentor may be an experienced, English-speaking Korean business professional who takes a genuine interest in your success. Though you may find such a person within your company, I suggest you also foster a relationship with a mature Korean outside of your employ.
One way to do so is to get involved in a community service organization. The only English-speaking such organization, albeit largely made up of senior Koreans, is the Seoul Rotary Club. But I know of at least one European manager who has, at best, simple knowledge of Korean, but who has joined a local Lions Club as the lone foreigner. In any case, these organizations provide excellent opportunities to learn about Korean society and business while developing life-long friendships with Korean business professionals.
Now, returning our focus to your office, the one piece of advice I have heard over the years, almost as often as the need to understand Confucianism, is to develop sincere personal relationships with as many of your employees as possible. That means taking a genuine interest in them as people, with families, as well as co-workers.
One of the most effective ways to accomplish these relationships is to regularly practice “management by walking around.” The last thing you should do is stay holed up in your office with a bilingual secretary or whomever acting as your filter. Of course this is not unique to Korea. And as W. Edwards Deming once wrote: “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realise they have one in the first place.”
Try making it a regular point to at least three times a week walk about the office and ask employees about their jobs, how long they have been with the company, where do they live and how much time they need to commute. Use such questions to inquire about their families, try to get to know about their children’s education progress, the health of their parents, etc. Also, for future political purposes, it may be helpful to know which universities they attended and what are their hometowns – but I’m digressing.
In doing so, try to really get to know your employees while demonstrating that you are genuinely curious about them as people and ultimately care about their welfare as well as their productivity. Because when “crunch time” comes and you are called on to be change agent, it is much easier to sell a development to good friends than to distant employees.
Also, it important to keep in mind that Korean employees, including the well intended ones, will often avoid bringing “bad news” to your attention if they cannot fully trust you and if you have not repeatedly gone out of your way to encourage problems to be brought to your attention. Perhaps more than many parts of the world, there is a strong desire or hope for the problem to simply go away so the subordinate need not endure the unpleasantness of reporting distressing or even potentially troubling information. Consequently, one should try to indentify and encourage Korean employees who are willing to pass on such knowledge while the problems are still small. If you handle your relationship with them consistently and fairly, these same people can be your own change agents.
Finally, the toughest challenge can be if you are younger than some of the senior Korean managers and you are also required to make unpopular changes. More than gender, Koreans differentiate on the basis of age. Under such circumstances, a bit of humility while maintaining your authority, that includes accepting full responsibility, can go a long way. Specifically, ask for advice from your senior managers, stating you recognize in part why the upcoming change may be difficult for some Koreans to accept, but after much discussions with your superiors, you have no option but to move forward. Given you are lucky enough to have some senior Korean managers on your staff, you would like to know how they would handle the situation if they were in your shoes.
By asking for your senior staff’s counsel, you may learn that making the change can be achieved more easily than feared if done “Korean style,” and you might even get some influential buy-in from your senior staff. At worse, when the change is going to be tough, you will have at least be given credit by your local management team that you asked their help before moving forward.
As I often conclude my talks on this topic, I remind my audiences that Korea is a great place to do business. This is one of the best places to learn how to succeed in mainland Asian commerce. And perhaps best of all, if you make the effort to build personal relations with your staff, and should you stumble, you will likely find your co-workers being willing to forgive you for being only human -- and even more willing to help you succeed next time.
Tom Coyner is president of Soft Landing Korea (www.softlandingkorea.com), a human resources and sales-focused business development firm, and co-author of Mastering Korean Business: A Practical Guide.