Succeeding in international business: observe and learn

Cultural, historical and social lessons from South Korea.

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Martyn Williams

IT leaders today know that to be successful they must stretch beyond their comfort zones. A strong foundation in technology is essential, but as I wrote about in “Is the road to the C-suite a winding one?," true leadership requires critical skills not traditionally acquired through a technical education, specifically: big-picture and strategic thinking, effective communication, self-awareness and conflict management among others.

In today’s global economy, it’s also true that IT leaders must learn to stretch beyond their geographic boundaries. And that means more than knowing how to navigate foreign subway systems or quickly calculate currency conversions.

It means being open to understanding the factors that go into how business is done in other countries, why it’s done that way, and why it matters. Learning about influences such as a country’s culture, religion, politics, and history can offer insight into how business is conducted, how people might react to you, your team and business proposal, and what kinds of outcomes can be expected. Of course, gaining this understanding takes time and effort, but the benefits that come from doing your homework are well worth it.

Lessons learned in South Korea

Let’s look at an example. In January, I traveled to South Korea with Brown University’s Executive Master of Science and Technology Leadership 2018 cohort and a delegation of Brown senior leaders to learn about innovation from some of the country’s most influential industry leaders. One of the most important lessons that we took away is the importance of understanding the cultural and historical context of any place where companies want to conduct business.  We also learned that there's more than one path to innovation.

During our week-long trip, we met with executives and management from some of South Korea’s powerful chaebols (large business conglomerates). We learned that these organizations, such as Hyundai and Samsung, have been instrumental in the country’s transformation from an impoverished society ravaged by war in the 1950s to the global high-tech powerhouse that it is today. Few cultures throughout history have achieved so much technological progress in such a short amount of time.

Through partnerships with, and influence from, the South Korean government, the chaebols drove innovation from the top – leaders decided which business direction to go in, and employees quickly fell in line behind that goal. Due in part to the prevalence of Confucianism, which teaches that everyone has their place in society, and South Korea’s dominant monoculture and shared values, everyone at these organizations moved in unison toward the common goal set by leadership. Speed of execution is one of the major advantages of this innovation model.

This is a very different approach than we typically take here in the U.S., where we embrace a “bottom-up approach” or entrepreneur-led model of innovation and belief that anyone with a good idea can land in the corner office. Also, there is a commonly accepted notion that diverse teams drives innovation. This strategy work in the U.S, a culturally diverse country, but we learned from our visit to South Korea that there are other ways to innovate and create growth. In some ways, each method of innovation is best suited to its own environment either is right or wrong. But it’s important to understand these different contexts in which business is conducted to maximize the potential for success.

Grasping more subtle differences in a foreign country’s business status quo is important, too. For example, while we were visiting South Korea we not only learned about the transformation that built the country into the economic force that it is today, but also about signs of dissent. Weakened exports over the past few years has led to growing unemployment among young people. Add some recent political changes, and you’ve got portions of the population beginning to wonder if this top-down approach is still the right one. This change in perspective could impact how you approach doing business in the country – for example, it could mean that it’s a good time to explore the start-up culture.

Global perspectives can solve local problems

Innovation is emerging from all corners of the globe - South Korea is just one example. As you set your sights on fostering relationships with innovative companies around the world, it’s important to recognize that approaches to business come in all shapes and sizes, and from different sources. Before attempting to enter new markets or build relationships with organizations in other countries, take some time to gain insight into what guides, motivates, and inspires the population. It will help you to interpret why people act the way they do. Without an understanding of the cultural, historic, and social influences that shape the country, you jeopardize your ability to successfully lead your organization into new territories and with new audiences.

IT leaders can also apply what they learn from other cultures to their challenges here at home. Understanding that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, to reach a goal, or to motivate employees can help leaders work through hurdles of everyday business. Being willing to take a step back and consider other options or approaches – even ones that aren’t traditionally pursued by the organization – can unearth opportunities that otherwise may not have arisen.

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