Chapter 3 Place, or no two equal
Part 2Two Scenarios
Hierarchical status driven interactions, communication norms, and the day to day situations that surface can dramatically impact the overseas’ workplace. On a number of occasions I have been tasked to assist clients in overcoming impasses. Most often I see a common thread--one rooted in a mismatch in status, title and position.
For example, a major American brand was negotiating with a large Korea retail group interested in a licensing arrangement. Time had passed with little progress to the dismay of the American CFO/ COO who had felt initial talks with the Korean company’s CEO would lead to a solid agreement. When I quizzed the American executive on the negotiation channel for the potential partnership, he indicated that all communication was with a Ms. Shin. The US executive quickly added he had never personally met Ms. Shin and that all interactions were via email. He also pointed out that she was very professional and capable.
After some further questions, the CFO/ COO mentioned he had Ms. Shin’s contact information. Upon review, I determined the Korea team member’s rank and position—daeri or Assistant Manager to the American executive’s surprise. He had assumed he was dealing were with a more senior level manager. My follow up was that we needed to ask Ms. Shin to kindly arrange a meeting between the American CFO and the Korean Group’s CEO to rekindle the negotiations and resolve issues that appear to have stalled the talks.
In a second example an American company was supplying product to a Korean manufacturer. The American plant manager who oversaw a division of the company was frustrated in dealing with ongoing supply issues and follow-up. Although he saw the Korean team overseeing day-to-day operations as cordial, little was ever resolved. Because of these unresolved issues the American company was now considering dropping the account, although it was a major revenue stream.
Again my approach was to determine the title and position of the Korean teams directly involved. They were in fact chajang (Deputy General Managers)—and from what I could determine oversaw all the day-to-day operations at the Korean manufacturing plant. Meeting with the American executive, I noted the position title on his business card was General Manager (GM). Quizzing him on the title, he explained that within his manufacturing sector a GM was commonly responsible for overall plant leadership. That said, in Korea a General Manager is seen as a highly respected member of the team but a tier below leadership positions. In turn a plant manager in Korea would hold a Managing Director or Vice President level ranking.
Probing deeper I asked if the American plant manager had ever met his customer’s leadership. He noted they had met briefly years earlier, but on his 2-3 trips to the Korea each year the meetings were with the chajang Deputy General Managers and limited in scope to day-to-day operations. What became clear was that issues were not being resolved in part because they never moved beyond the working team level. What should have been reconciled between the leadership of the two firms was never elevated within the Korea company because the Korea team viewed the American executive as their peer with senior manager rank versus a Managing Director or Vice President.
My coaching was to reposition the American plant manager as leadership with a Vice President rank. Meetings were then arranged with Korean senior management to tackle the outstanding issues.
A better approach
In short, determine titles and positions early in the relationship. Also, request an organizational chart and provide one to the Korean team. In some cases adjust American rank designations to better align with the Korean organization.
Remember titles and position are based on time and seniority with one’s age matching the position. With age in most cases tied to rank in the Korea workplace, norms dictate entry-level staffing are in their early to mid 20s, middle management those in their 30s and leadership individuals in the 40s and 50s.