A Korean marathon - Intercultural Insights
Culture & Countries
A Korean marathon
March 28, 2017

Where did Mr Eric Surdej, a senior executive trained in a business school, having occupied international managerial posts in prestigious Japanese companies (Toshiba, Sony), find the nerves of steel to manage the French subsidiary of the Korean company LG for eight years? Especially considering the pace at which these eight years went by among the “efficiency fanatics” to quote the book’s subtitle, between Villepinte, the French head office, and Seoul. Eight years to build a bridge between two cultural environments which are totally unlike, regarding both human and professional relations.

Although no one can run four of five marathons back to back, this is nevertheless the impression that Mr Surdej gives the reader when discussing the working life of the Koreans, and that of half of himself as his colleagues nicknamed him the half Korean. This endless marathon isn’t a leisurely jog but a sprint, in which the slightest deviation needs to be explained and justified to your managers, to whom you need to swear each time that it won’t happen again. It’s an ongoing struggle: meeting targets, stoically supporting management extravagances and striving endlessly to carry the LG brand, its products and values ever higher and ever further. This is what is immediately perceptible when reading these accounts of Korean life: the workload, the omnipresent boss, devotion to the company, the constant search for greater efficiency, the recording and analysis of everything and anything to rationalise, measure and control it, etc. Although we can only take this account at face value as it is naturally subjective, and maybe coloured by disillusionment, it has nevertheless perfectly achieved its goal, helping us to deliciously discover what goes on behind the scenes. In this, it actually reads more like a novel.

If we quickly consider the challenge that Mr Surdej set himself by becoming General Manager and then Chairman of LG France, the first time a non-Korean has served in such a post, his book is first and foremost the story of an amazing feat of intercultural adaptation. As the reader soon comes to appreciate, the task is an extraordinary one, and involves moving from a Western mindset in which people also achieve self-fulfilment outside work to a Korean mindset in which self-fulfilment only comes through work (with the exception of a few relaxing moments on the golf course). The Korean spirit as described here is focused on targets and objectives, tapering down towards a focal point: the move from red to green in the reporting table. Only perfection will be accepted and perfection is 100% of the objective. Getting 99% of the way there will therefore be seen as a failure by Korean managers and will require you to explain the reasons, travelling to Seoul if necessary, even if only for a 20-minute meeting. Satisfaction with the work accomplished therefore has no place in such an organisation. Just like Sisyphus, with humility, each evening you push your heavy rock back up the slope to see it roll back down again the next morning at reporting time.

This book is also a tale of one man’s progress, that of the Frenchman inside a Korean organisation, one which is hermetically sealed off to foreigners (and women), and who gradually gains access to the decision-making caste. The viewpoint presented in no way seeks to be objective: the human experience is very present here, and very rich, including many anecdotes recounting everything from the simplest professional situations (like the fact that Korean staff members receiving a phone call from their superiors must reply at the latest by the second ring) to an incredible group ‘mystical-warrior’ experience. Because our Frenchman found himself in unbelievable situations, such as the evening all the managers met up in Korea for a sort of teambuilding exercise, outside, in the freezing cold, gathered around a fire and successively proposing rousing, manly toasts praising the glory of LG and promising to do everything to obtain better results. And in this context, everything really does mean everything. No private life, no family life, no holidays, just LG.

Concerning subjects such as management, hierarchy, Japanese-Korean relations (with the former considering the latter as uneducated peasants, and the latter viewing the former as an enemy to be destroyed and the source of their sheer determination to succeed), there is plenty to be covered in a series we are launching with this first post. Koreans such as those Mr Surdej discusses would certainly agree. They are warriors, always ready, attacking different markets by applying the same method based on ultra-rationalisation, the ultra-division of tasks and measuring the efficiency of the way these are processed. It’s a culture of facts and figures, of rankings, where failure is simply banned and where human relations are direct, brutal, with the manager having total authority over his staff members. A very demanding and trying environment having direct and serious consequences for people’s health and family lives, demanding many sacrifices and some pain. Mr Surdej explains that one of his Korean colleagues who was under great pressure to comply with a request from Seoul didn’t go home for several days in succession, barely sleeping, grabbing just a few hours’ sleep at the office. Inevitably, he suffered a breakdown. When Mr Surdej went to the hospital upon hearing the news, the Koreans from his team were there too. When they learned that a colleague was no longer in danger they then turned to him and asked when the colleague in question would be back at work!

One section of the book particularly marked me and I believe effectively sums up the way in which the author leads us to view the Koreans. When he was taking part in a managers’ seminar in Korea, the days were naturally very long, with the teams being supervised by company officers there to ensure that the notions raised were satisfactorily processed and taken on-board and that the nights were spent cramming. No one went to sleep. This included the author, who each evening slipped out of his bedroom to go for a run in the area around the camp where they were staying. A little further ahead, he saw young LG staff members, who were also there for a seminar, running with some difficulty in the night, in small clusters. All were on the verge of dropping. He later learned that these high potential staff were required to run each evening… A half marathon.

When you put this book down, you’re exhausted by the work, the reporting, the handshakes, the trips between Villepinte in the Paris suburbs and Seoul, by the targets, the pressure and with the feeling that you have just undergone total immersion in a Korean company and now finally have a better understanding of this little-known world. Your legs are aching from so much running.


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Akteos is the leading provider of intercultural training with country specific courses for 100 countries and over 250 consultants worldwide.

There is 1 comment

  • Bill Watson says:

    Thanks for an interesting review, my hat is off to Mr. Surdej, I have observed this behaviour but never been an active participant. Sounds like boot camp! Here are some notes that interculturalists that will be dealing with Koreans might find useful:

    Korean culture: a thumbnail sketch

    • First kingdom 24th C. BCE (4500 years ago); called “Chosun” (land of morning calm)

    • A long and violent history of humiliating foreign invasions & occupations: China (108 BC-313 AD) Mongolia (1259-1368), Japan (1592-1945), USA (south, 1945-52) USSR (north, 1945-52)

    • Unique history of abuse. but still managed to achieve independence through “toughness”

    • Koreans are very emotional—sentimental, quick-tempered. Pathos is commonplace, a “people of many sorrows” birds, bells, streams “cry”

    • Dominant value = hahn, a word that doesn’t translate easily– it combines the feelings of frustration, bitterness, shame and insecurity, bred from centuries of oppression

    • Hahn became the postwar motivation to achieve & save face. It is the core of the work ethic, not Confucianism (which is the source of protocol).

    • Humour and generosity are strong cultural attributes.

    • Koreans are very status conscious, divide society on class lines; aristocracy is more competitive & less unified than Chinese, but similar kinship relations

    • Family connections are the only road to upward mobility, but tenacity, talent & hard work are needed to get anywhere.

    • Militaristic discipline in commerce, rank & obedience to authority stressed. Hofstede scores: PDI UAI MAS IND
    60 85 39 18

    • Intensely political atmosphere in modern Korea.

    • Most have reservations and ambivalence about Western values

    It’s OK to talk about Chinese influence on traditional Korean culture, but not Japanese influence. Japan-bashing is a national pastime.

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