Pursuing servant leadership
BMW CEO focuses on painting big picture
By Kim Tae-gyu
Experience has taught this reporter that journalists have to allow almost five minutes when interviewing high-profile figures to break the ice get an understanding of their personalities.
Yet, BMW Korea CEO Kim Hyo-joon was different. With an unpretentious but serious manner, he was ready to be interviewed anytime, anywhere.
In particular, he did not value himself as above criticism ― a very rare trait for CEOs, especially one at the helm of a big firm for over 10 years.
``Whenever I wake up in the morning, I ask whether or not I am doing my best to be a role model. I ask myself if somebody else could be better at my job,’’ Kim told The Korea Times.
``Ultimately, this is not my company and authority is not given to me alone. When I have done all I can do or I am burned out, I will have to pass the job to someone else, even if my term has not yet ended.’’
Obviously, theu are text-book answers that all CEOs can provide. But a couple of seasoned interviewers really believe that he means what he says.
And there are good reasons to do so ― among them, his reputation as a leader of the automaker over the past decade coupled with his frankness, also atypical for highly successful CEOs.
``I began at rock bottom and got my bachelor’s degree at age 40 at an alternative college. Along the way, I saw so many great people with various societal experiences at home and abroad, which I could not even think about,’’ he said.
``Deep inside me, I believe that such great people can make better decisions than me, and this prompts me to resort to experts nearby. While building such a network, I always feel that there are so many guys better than me out there.’’
This approach has been the keystone of Kim’s democratic leadership ― he delegates most of his power in the belief that his staff are better than him.
``I am required to oversee wide-ranging areas so that I can channel an hour at most per day to a specific segment. But our executives and managers delve into issues all day long,’’ he said. ``As a result, they are more specialized than me.’’
But his stewardship is not all laissez-fair, in particular when it comes to large-scale projects such as the BMW Korea Future Foundation and a mega-sized driving track to be built near Seoul.
``My job is basically about painting the big picture that those in specific sectors cannot begin to paint,’’ he said.
An official at BMW Korea said that Kim’s strength is that he does not second-guess the decisions or activities of his lieutenants. Plus, unlike finance managers, he does not split hairs.
Clearly, his leadership is done with humility but on detailed topics, he doesn’t just sit on the sidelines.
``On specific policies and measures, his influence is more than skin deep. He is very good at putting flesh and blood on ideas under development,’’ a BMW Korea insider said.
His no-nonsense philosophy under which he does not bite off more than he can chew seems to have made Kim one of the most outstanding CEOs in Korea.