Working as Expatriate Businessman in Korea (II)
Soft Landing Consulting
One of the most effective ways of working as an expat in Korea 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 whoever is 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 realize 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 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 an agent of change, it is much easier to sell a development to good friends than to distant employees.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that Korean employees, including those with good intentions, 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 identify 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 agents of change.
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.