Korean multinational corporations have reached a level of global prominence that positions them well as pacesetters for the future of business. Yet we find that often Korean companies have tremendous trouble attracting and retaining the best global talent. Although the best and the brightest can be recruited to work at Korean firms, often their loyalty is not much deeper than the competitiveness of their compensation package.
Having spoken with many internationals who work at Korean multinationals, I can say with certainty that the essential problem that they encounter is clear. There is a fundamentally different culture for Korean employees than for international employees. The cultural divide is clear, so clear that I even know a Korean who lived for many years in the United States as a child and has become a priceless member of his company, serving as a bridge between the Korean and the international groups in his firm. This role should not be necessary within one company's culture.
Most Koreans explain this odd state of affairs as a consequence of the immaturity of Korean companies. They tell me that Koreans are simply not sufficiently global in their thinking to create a truly world-class work environment.
Although I certainly would not deny that Koreans have a long way to go to develop a corporate culture that is welcoming to employees from different cultures and experiences, I disagree with the common assumption that Korean companies need to become just like Western multinationals if they want to attract and retain international talent.
If anything, the challenge for Korean firms is not to give up the Korean culture, which has served as the core of their remarkable growth an innovation, for some bland and predictable Western corporate culture. Rather, the challenge is to make that same Korean corporate culture readily accessible to everyone, universal in implication, and inspiring to people from every walk of life.
The Korean corporation of the future will be successful not because it offers a product with more features at a lower price, but because Korea establishes a "Korean" style of management that can then be reproduced in different cultures around the world by executives who are not themselves ethnic Koreans. Moreover, internationals must want to stay at Korean firms, not because of remuneration, but rather because of the inspiring corporate culture.
Although Koreans may be scratching their heads over such a radical suggestion, it is worth noting that it was the Western multinationals that Koreans have copied for the last 60 years who first adopted this strategy. Oddly, Koreans have tried to mimic every aspect of Western management EXCEPT the strategy of taking one's own habits and culture and refining them into universal standards for management, negotiations, and business etiquette that can be used by any person in any country.
Koreans must recognize that no matter how global they may be, their cultural DNA is Korean and they are undercutting their potential if they fail to introduce the best of Korean culture to their employees and their customers as part of their global strategy. Asian culture is increasingly appealing to Westerners, and Korean culture is the strongest asset of Korean companies.
We need to have both Koreans and internationals loyal to the Korean company for the intangibles: for the essential values that underlie the company's mission. Korean companies must articulate a vision for their corporate culture that ties together all their activities in a sophisticated manner through set values. Those values must come to life for all employees. The values must be more than just running the company efficiently. They must inspire all members of the team to strive for something greater, and they must have an ethical element.
The workplace at the Korean company must be a shared cultural space where a single vision rises above the habits of each employee to form a single team made up of Koreans and internationals. Employees must share a vision and be clear that the company is serious about this point. In an age of a low birthrates, it is critical for Korean firms to establish a new generation of non-Korean CEOs, but those CEOs must buy into the culture of the corporation. They must buy into the corporate culture, which is in turn ultimately rooted in the Korean culture.
Sadly, although the principles of a corporation should be its most important asset, serving as a compass to reaffirm goals and values, the founding story and fundamental culture of Korean firms is all but unknown to foreign employees, and is rarely, if ever, a factor in deciding to join or stay with the firm.
Most documentation I have seen in English about corporate values and goals takes the form of poorly-translated versions of Korean texts that read like vague platitudes and offer little in the sense of inspiration. I have found this situation even for the most important Korean firms.
What we need are booklets describing the corporate philosophy and values written in the most powerful and poetic English that truly inspires and transforms employees, offering a vision for the company that will motivate the members of the team as more than bonuses or perks. Every employee should receive a bound book with the core corporate values written down in the most elegant English which will be something that clearly must be treasured at home. But books do not in themselves transform corporations. Those core values must be made a part of daily experience within the corporation. The values must be universal in application and accessible to everyone. Those shared values are the first step towards creating an open and accessible corporate culture.
The corporate culture must make participants feel that they are part of a larger tradition that is inclusive and inspiring. The products and the marketing produced should be aimed at making people's lives better. Behind those actions must stand a transformative vision for a better world. All members of the company should feel that they are intimately involved in creating a new corporate culture and a better world.
Korean elements need to be integrated into the corporate culture of each company in a subtle, but significant, manner. Korea's strongest selling point is Korean culture, and many of the world's best and brightest are drawn to Korea's music and literature, food and fashion. Yet sadly there is hardly a trace of Korean culture in the offices of most Korean corporations. The most valuable part of Korea is hidden away for some inexplicable reason. Korean culture should not be intended for Korean employees when the foreigners are not around; it must be aimed at all employees and at all customers everywhere.
This article originally appeared in Business Korea.