Expat Leadership Case Study: Franklin Goes to Seoul

Considering, accepting and planning an expatriate leadership assignment is a difficult task.  There are layers of complexity that can kill your progress and motivation.  We have conducted many interviews with expat leaders to gain insight on the journey.  These are their stories.

My friend Franklin was one of my most diligent and highly regarded expat friends.  He deeply understood business and how to get things moving forward, even in tough situations.  As a young VP, he was sent to Seoul to help rebuild one of his company’s healthcare businesses that had been neglected for a long time.  It was his first time working outside the US.

“My job was to pull the plug on about 50% of what was going on and rebuild it in the company’s image.  We needed to modernize the operation and inject a healthy dose of our company’s culture into the business,” he told me.  There were some good people there, Franklin told me.  But they’d have to change how they operate, fast.

An American working for a European company in the South Korean business ecosystem.  Simple, right? Of course not, but it was his job to make it work.

Franklin knew he was in for a tough job that would have high hurdles.  But he had no real idea what awaited him.  In the 10 years he had worked for his European-based company he had seen his American business culture clash with European ways and values.  US colleagues weren’t especially interested in compromise.  The Europeans were highly invested in company culture.  The Seoul organization was somewhat of a mystery.  An American working for a European company in the South Korean business ecosystem. Simple, right? Of course not, but it was Franklin’s job to make it work. 

He felt the pressure first from his boss, Jim.  Jim had pushed hard for Franklin to have this opportunity.  Upper management thought he was too young but Jim was successful in convincing them that Franklin was tough, smart, and worth the risk.  Once he secured the offer, he approached Franklin with high enthusiasm…and high expectations.  

“It’ll cost the company close to a million dollars a year to keep you and your family there,” Jim said with a sly but serious grin.  “You cannot fail.”

Franklin felt the weight of the statement.  Jim listed the business objectives and Franklin felt challenged by them, but ultimately accepted the role and felt he could be successful if he hit the ground running and made change happen fast.

Franklin received word that his new team wanted to have a conference call to set expectations before Franklin made the physical move to South Korea.  Franklin was awash with details of moving, visas, family concerns, wrapping up his US affairs.  Franklin sent his regards and said that he appreciated the offer but that he would “speak to them all when he arrived.”  At home this reply would have been perfect.  But his team began to worry if they had made him upset.  The team was courteous but pushed back a bit in a subsequent email.  Franklin cheerfully said he would be there in two weeks and looked forward to getting to know each other then. In hindsight, Franklin saw this as his first mistake.

Two weeks later Franklin made his first trip to Seoul, alone without family, to meet his team and get to know the business. Upon arrival he was bewildered by the reception.  At the front door was the entire team, in suits and formal clothing, lined up with very somber looks on their faces.  They smiled tightly and began bowing and introducing themselves with name, formal title, length of time with company and a brief greeting.  It was tense, rehearsed and unexpected.   

Later in the day when the business review started, Franklin was both amazed at the depth of knowledge of the team but bewildered as to why they were spending time on very minute details.  As the senior leaders of the company, they should be focused on the big picture parameters, the company KPIs and overarching strategy.  As the meeting went further and further down into the details Franklin was a bit dismayed.  Quickly he observed that the team’s English skills, while conversationally good, was very rudimentary in the business level.  It was very slow going.

“To be honest, I was jet lagged and tired, and I just started making judgments…one by one,” Franklin said candidly. His Western culture/background was coming out. He wanted to take action fast so he could meet Jim’s expectations. And right away he was worried that the team might significantly drag down his efforts.   Franklin admitted that his own fatigue played a role in his quick judgments…but it seemed quite simple: business people at their level should be focused on the big picture…not every tiny detail.

“I spoke a lot about our company’s vision and mission and how we should move the business forward.  But they were reviewing successes and failures of very small items…items I didn’t think they should be worried about in a business review,” Franklin continued.  

Franklin learned over the next 6 months that the attention to minute detail was a product of his Korean colleagues’ upbringing. In Korean schools, a student’s primary responsibility is to know every tiny fact.  When called upon, Korean students were required to provide perfectly specific answers to every question.  In Franklin’s mind saying “I don’t know, but I’ll get the answer” was a great response to his questions.  To his colleagues in Seoul, however, that answer showed lack of knowledge in their role and could be grounds for demotion or dismissal. What was made clear after 6 months was difficult to understand on the first day.  So, by his Western standards, he judged the team as sub-par.  

On Wednesday of his first  week, Franklin called his wife back in the States. She was deep in preparing for the upcoming move with their 2 kids.  He didn’t have the heart to tell her, but he was doubting if they made the right decision.  So much change had to happen before this branch could even start to be organized the right way.  So many minds to change and so many big picture items to work through.  All he could think was that he was buried…buried in minutiae and meaningless tiny facts showered upon him by his team.  As his wife finished the discussion about what was being done to prepare the family for the move, she asked Franklin “So how’s it going there?”

Franklin didn’t know where to start.  

“It’s fine…” he said

It’s clear in hindsight that Franklin was not fine.  He had experienced the first waves of cultural dissonance that could potentially grow into something much bigger.  The choices he had were: getting help, hoping for the best or winging it with solutions of his own.  Franklin eventually reached out to a professional coach who helped him understand his own preferences and biases.  He was able to quickly tweak his course towards ultimate success with his teams…but not without some pinch points.  We will follow his story in subsequent articles.

Case studies are based on dozens of interviews with expat leaders.  Franklin’s story is real but some personal details and names have been changed.  We will follow his story in subsequent articles.  


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