Executive Women in Business: My Journey Down the Rabbit Hole


In honor of the official American Business Women's Day on September 22nd, and the invaluable contributions female executives have made to global business, BlueSteps have launched an 'Executive Women in Business' Initiative for the month of September. We will be featuring content focused on the personal experiences of top female executives and the lessons learned along the way.

Take a look below at the first of five BlueSteps members who won a competition to submit their stories of progression as women in business.

My Journey Down the Rabbit Hole
by Dr. Linda Myers

Alice fell down a rabbit hole and landed in Wonderland. I flew across the Pacific, landed in Seoul, and to my astonishment, discovered that I was the first foreign female executive ever to have been hired directly by a South Korean chaebol, the Korean word which means family owned business conglomerate.

My journey down the rabbit hole into South Korea began in the early summer of 2007 and concluded in the late summer of 2010, encompassing the global financial crisis of 2008. With a dearth of information from the Internet and the library, no resources from my professional association, and one translated history and corporate culture presentation upon my arrival, absolutely nothing prepared me to serve in a leadership role in a male dominated Confucian culture. I was totally on my own.

Taking a chance to live and work in Seoul taught me the finest first-hand lessons about how Asians in general, and Koreans specifically, adhere to the traditional collectivist Confucian cultural traits of harmony, hierarchy, in and out, group thinking and behavior, and how honorifics and school ties relate to loyalty, favoritism, status, and rank.

Chaebols are the most coveted workplaces in South Korea. Each one is a holding company, a massive confederation of businesses structurally resembling our solar system which were born from the ashes of the Korean War (1950-1953) and grew with the assistance of government favors and tax breaks.

The 4 largest chaebols: Samsung (Lee family, $108B), LG (Ku family, $79B), Hyundai (Chung family, $71B),and SK (Chey family, $64B), own an array of diverse operating companies that account for far more than flat screen televisions, cell phones and home appliances. They own engineering and construction companies, high end retail stores, the country’s telecommunications, oil and gas refineries, hospitals and funeral homes, shipping companies, theme parks, baseball teams, art galleries, museums, universities, and more.

Each chaebol has a saboon (a motto), a saga (a song), and an economic research institute that keeps it abreast of global trends and opportunities to help further its global reach. Each is described as having a different corporate culture with Samsung regarded as the most regimented and clandestine.

Korean college graduates spend many, many months, from early morning until well into the night, preparing for one of the most critical days in their lives, the one that virtually determines their entire future: a full day during which they sit for a proprietary chaebol entrance exam that gauges aptitude, attitude, and English capability. Many spend an entire year studying to retake the exam with the hope of finally getting in.

A typical Korean work day can range between 12 and 15 hours followed by dinner and drinking, and until about a decade ago, 7 days a week was common. This exemplifies the loyalty that companies expect and receive from employees. Similarly, school days can be nearly as long, with English school integrated into or supplementing an already demanding educational curriculum. Saturday school is standard.

Today, in just shy of 60 years, South Korea has power housed its way to rank among the 15 most prosperous nations on earth. Its economy is heavily dependent on international trade, and in 2009, was the 8th largest exporter and the 10th largest importer in the world. The Koreans rightly and proudly describe this growth as the Miracle on the Han, which is the name of the river that horizontally bisects its capitol, Seoul.

Before receiving an email that began, “Dear Mr. Myers…” I had never heard of SK. Realizing, intuitively, that this was an honest error made by someone who could not distinguish Linda as a female name, I moved past this cultural faux pas and began to take the ensuing dialog more seriously. Little did I know that this was the first of a series of faux pas to come, many of which I would be responsible for as I tried to negotiate my role, salary and home travel. Not surprising, my cultural confusion increased as I moved farther from my own culture and into another.

Working at the headquarters of a South Korean chaebol is vastly different from being expatriated to work in the South Korean subsidiary of an American, Middle Eastern, Australian, or European company. In the chaebol, the Koreans are in charge. In the foreign owned company doing business in Korea, the foreign leader has more leverage and can exercise it with the backing of the foreign parent company leadership. Non Koreans and even Korean Americans who have been raised outside of Korea often share similar cultural misunderstandings with Korean born Koreans.

Despite a challenging beginning I was determined to move forward. I was not new to cross cultural experiences; I had lived them all my life. Both my parents were totally deaf, and both were educated, exceptional lip readers. My mother and her family were World War ll immigrants who came to New York City through Ellis Island; Dad was born in Manhattan, second generation English. As a preteenager, I was selected as one of four U.S. representatives to attend an international cross-cultural summer program in southern Norway with 9 other international delegations. During my junior year of college, I studied and traveled in the UK and on the European continent. By the time I reached my 40th birthday I had been to all 7 continents and worked on three of them. However, I was not being recruited for this. I was being recruited first, for the Harvard credentials that I had earned, and for my competencies in global human resources.

Confucian Culture
South Korea is a Confucian society and Confucian principles dictate the behavior of South Koreans from birth until death. Confucianism is primarily a system of ethics, not religion, and within ethics, even more a system of social relationships. Everyone is Confucian, including the Christians and the Protestants. At the core of Confucianism is the "Five Relationships" of “king to subject, father to son, elder brother to younger brother, husband to wife, and friend to friend. The hierarchy is strict and even "friends" only applies if the two were born the same year and even then not quite, because the one born a month or a day or an hour ahead is senior. A first born twin is the elder. Koreans are very confused when Americans claim that someone clearly not their own age is their "friend."

These five relationships carry over to language which reinforces inequality not only in words, but in every sentence. There are 6 "levels" of spoken Korean also known as “honorifics” which are controlled by, and also define the relationship of the two speakers. Two Koreans cannot begin to speak with one another until they have defined their mutual relationship, hierarchically, by position or age. Once carefully and correctly confirmed, a conversation ensues in one of the six levels. An error creates a highly embarrassing and uncomfortable scenario. It is better to speak no Korean at all, than to use the incorrect honorifics.

I learned quickly to nod my head in an abbreviated bow when I saw someone I recognized. I learned to sit at a conference table according to my rank with the interpreter I had to request, to my left or behind me. I learned to quickly push myself away from the conference table, stand, and bow from the waist the moment our CEO stepped through the door to begin our Monday morning executive meeting. I learned not to ask too many questions regardless of how carefully I worded them lest they be construed as criticism. I learned never to write with red ink; this color is reserved for recording a death in the public record. I learned that participative leadership is seen as weak leadership; a more commanding leader is admired. I learned that I would never become an insider in Korea no matter how much Korean I learned or how long I lived there.

In and Out
For Koreans, the world is composed of two sets of people - those they know and those they don't know. If you know somebody, then you have a relationship, and are very obliged to treat him or her politely, kindly, and with every courtesy. It is the single most important reason why the ritual of exchanging name cards is so important. That formal introduction is the moment when the other ceases to be a non-person and becomes a person. In and out explains why Koreans are so clean in their homes, offices, and restaurants, and remove their shoes when entering.

In general, Westerners are loyal to abstracts or ideals, and Koreans are loyal to people. The constellation of relationships for a Korean has three main groups - family ties, school ties, and regional ties. Family ties can be very broad by Western standards, including what we would consider quite distant relatives. School ties include elementary school buddies, middle- and high-school friends, and college connections, all of which are critical for the progress of one's career. Approximately 80% of the management of the top Korean chaebols is graduates of just three universities called SKY schools: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University.

For the first time, in an Eastern culture, I learned to question my own actions and assumptions. Becoming more culturally astute meant that I was pushed to realize my leadership practices were shaped by a particular Western environment, that my way was different, and not always correct in that context; there are other equally or more viable ways of getting things done in other places around the globe. Awareness of cultural dissonance is a critical skill for business people, academics, and their families who may be expatriated anywhere, critical for young persons, particularly MBA graduates who are often required to spend part of their career outside their home countries, and for global citizens, which we all are, whether we choose to be or not. Many Asian countries import their English language teachers for supplementary elementary, secondary, and corporate practice.

Beyond awareness is the critical ability to suspend judgment, an exceedingly difficult state in which to put oneself. We observe, distinguish, and judge all day long to make decisions for ourselves, and judging becomes second nature, influenced heavily, if not exclusively by our environment, our experiences, and above all, our culture. If you can suspend judgment then you can become vastly more open to experiences our world has to share. Mine was an experience of a lifetime, filled with triumph and frustration, joy and sorrow, and in the end, rich with lessons learned and conveyed, enduring bonds of friendships, and the satisfaction of knowing that in many ways, both visible and invisible, my presence had made an important difference.

Dr. Linda Myers

Over the last 20 years, Dr. Linda Myers has been recognized for her leadership as a global human capital practitioner and consultant for Fortune 100 companies across industries from pharmaceutical, biotech, and healthcare, to telecommunications, IT, engineering and industrial systems, financial and insurance, energy, and professional services.

Today, Dr. Myers leads WorldWise, a global human resources consulting company that partners with its clients to build and sustain sources of global advantage.  By adding measurable value to the employment lifecycle from solutions in selection and onboarding, to leadership, management development and   succession planning, building capabilities through change management and training, Dr. Myers supports the delivery of labor skill advantage, not simply labor cost advantage. 

About BlueSteps

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