Hyundai’s early management style was influenced by Founder Chung Ju Yung and his charismatic personal leadership, which was also strongly tied to Korean Confucianism. Management teams of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in turn, modeled their style after the Founder. In the wake of global expansion during the late 1990s and 2000s, Hyundai’s management style would evolve. In fact, today, there are a number of methods; a few are common and the most notable contrast autocratic and collaborative styles. All are part of what I see as Hyundai Way culture.
The Role of Mentoring
Looking back several years to a team building workshop, a senior Korean manager openly shared some insights on Korean management styles. Within his Korean division, teams were mentored by seniors in one of several styles. For example, some senior managers fostered a "soft" management style of collaboration, while others used a "hard…don’t ask questions and just do it” autocratic style.
Elaborating, he explained that he was taught and preferred to first present the challenge or situation to the team and then ask the junior staff to prepare some ideas and solutions. This collaborator style was in stark contrast to a “top down” style in which communication and direction were one way. The Korean manager further noted that in the case of working in the overseas' subsidiary he found what was most effective was to ask the American colleagues for their thoughts on a matter versus directing the team’s actions. He felt the former approach better tapped the experience and creativity of the local teams.
Additionally, Korean teams and management have been assigned to subsidiaries worldwide and have become increasingly global savvy. This results in the teams being exposed to and embracing local management styles. Moreover, an increasing number of Korean team members have been educated at western business schools and have earned MBAs, exposing them to a broad range of leadership and management styles. At times this can also result in a generational divide with those younger managers, influenced by their western education, in conflict with older managers more rigid adherence to old practices.
A Growing Trend
In my experience I see an overall growing trend toward collaboration—from top leadership to team level. There are, however, exceptions predominately because of the strong in-grained hierarchical model. For example, a Korean manager with a dominant “softer” management style may quickly shift to a more autocratic style. Typically, this is the result of a request or directive from senior leadership overriding their personal preferences in tackling a situation. In a Korean organization like Hyundai it is not appropriate for middle management and even local senior management to question or evaluate the opinions, ideas or orders of one’s superiors. Leadership’s role is to decide on direction and major issues. In turn, the working team's role is to implement or gather needed information. A request “from above” receives priority over other projects and scheduled meetings. If a request comes from leadership, the local Korean managers will expect all to follow and execute. In many cases, local non-Korean teams will see such a request conveyed by their Korean colleague as a one-sided demand but local teams need to recognize these hierarchical dynamics.
As a senior Korean manager once reminded me—“no two Koreans are alike,” so I suggest that correspondingly no two follow identical management styles. Moreover, especially in the case of Korean expatriates working abroad their style might shift depending on the situation as well as change over time as they are influenced and adapt accordingly.
All said, regardless of the management style, one overarching aspect of Hyundai corporate culture still dominates--once a decision is made, the expectation is that the teams move at Hyundai Speed to accomplish.
Part 6 "Conclusions", the final article in the Hyundai Way: Hyundai Speed series shares the author's opinions on a question, “Considering its strong Korean heritage and corporate culture, is the Hyundai business model globally sustainable?”
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