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Soul-Searching in Seoul: One U.S. Expatriate’s Cautionary Tale

Assessment of Linda Myers' situation


Linda Myers’ experience in South Korea is a cautionary tale for any expatriate. She was very attracted to the opportunity to finally become an expatriate and accepted a management position in human resources at Seoul-based SK Telecom. This was an exciting prospect—to be an expatriate in Asia’s fourth-largest economy while helping SK Telecom become a more global company. Myers brought impressive credentials to her new employer, including years of experience as an expatriate consultant helping executives from top U.S. multinationals like ExxonMobil and Hewlett-Packard make successful transitions to their overseas assignments. Yet soon after arriving in Seoul, Myers began wondering if she had made a huge mistake. Despite experience in previous jobs requiring considerable overseas travel (including months-long stints in the Czech Republic and Ecuador) and her expertise as an expatriate consultant, Myers was unable to grasp the nature of the problem, much less operate effectively, at SK Telecom. During the next two years, Myers came to realize that her direct style clashed with the formal and polite style of her Korean colleagues. She also learned that SK Telecom had few Western employees in general and only a handful of women in senior positions. Myers discovered that she was, in effect, a trailblazer—one of the few U.S. women to serve in an executive capacity at any Korean company. Eventually, Myers concluded that she and SK Telecom had divergent views about her role in the company. Myers had become frustrated, demoralized, and exhausted—an outsider who was marginalized and precluded from having the impact she desired. So what happened? The signs of things to come started early, when Myers was initially emailed by an SK Telecom recruiter—who assumed she was a man. She obviously eventually took the job, feeling it was simply too good to pass up. Once she arrived in Seoul, Myers was surprised that she received no official orientation or even much specific help from her bosses regarding how to adapt to her new surroundings. She was also struck by how homogeneous things were at SK Telecom and in South Korea more generally, where less than 3% of the population has foreign roots (versus roughly 20% or more in places like London, New York, and Singapore). But Myers was completely shocked by the struggles she had communicating with her Korean colleagues inside the company’s hierarchical management structure. Her inability to speak Korean turned into a major impediment, and Myers felt she had no choice but to ask for an interpreter to attend certain meetings. Getting information from Korean colleagues who did speak English also was difficult. Forced to ask questions to learn anything, Myers felt that even her polite questions were interpreted as criticisms. Nevertheless, after just four months on the job, SK Telecom promoted Myers, asking her to lead SK Holding’s Global Talent group. Myers became frustrated, however, at her inability to push through any significant changes in HR policies and practices. This was especially vexing because Myers saw herself as an agent of change for the company—a view that senior leadership at SK Holdings apparently did not share. Indeed, Myers felt increasingly ostracized in her new job, hamstrung by the language barrier and what seemed to be a deliberate effort to exclude her from important conversations and meetings with top executives. Things eventually got so bad that many of her colleagues simply would not speak with her. The other shoe finally dropped in 2009, when Myers was told that her contract would not be renewed. While disappointed that she did not have the impact on the company that she would have liked, Myers also felt a sense of relief that she would be leaving. On reflection, Myers felt she had made some important mistakes. One lesson was summarized by the phrase “easier said than done.” The extensive experience that she had in prepping others for expatriate roles did not make it any easier to implement that advice herself. Moreover, much of the training she provided to other soon-to-be expatriates did not have much specific applicability to the SK Telecom environment in Seoul. Despite her own personal preparation efforts to read about and understand Korean business culture, Myers estimated that, in hindsight, her efforts were superficial and missed about 80% of what she really needed to know. Another realization was that Myers’ view of progress and change did not align with her more conservative Korean bosses, something that she should have done more to clarify in advance. In terms of her own style, Myers also concluded that she should have been more patient when introducing changes to her Korean subordinates. For example, soon after arriving in Seoul, she tried to create a more informal environment by telling her Korean subordinates to stop using her title and address her as Linda. Unfortunately, this backfired and caused her subordinates to lose respect for Myers and to perceive her as weak. Likewise, Myers admitted that she tended to jump to the conclusion that every misunderstanding she had with Korean colleagues was due to cultural differences or poor treatment because she was a foreigner. After one disagreement with a Korean manager, which she chalked up to a cultural misinterpretation, Myers spoke to another colleague about how to handle the situation. The Korean manager was very embarrassed and upset when he found out that Myers had consulted with another colleague about their misunderstanding. After leaving SK, Myers returned to her roots, again serving as a consultant to help other people prepare for their expatriate assignments. Her experience in Korea, Myers believes, made her a better consultant. As she put it, “those years in Seoul taught me to question my own actions and assumptions. I realized that my leadership style had been shaped by a particular environment and that my way was not always best.”53

Write a 4 page essay in APA format (not including the cover page and reference page). . Please use the APA Template to complete your assignment. Note that you must conduct research and your paper must have 3 scholarly references. This means that you must locate peer-reviewed articles.

Read the case study Soul-Searching in Seoul: One U.S. Expatriate’s Cautionary Tale and answer the following questions in an essay.

1. What is your assessment of the situation that Linda Myers found herself in? Who is responsible for her difficulties as an expatriate?

2. Does it surprise you that Myers encountered so much trouble in Korea, particularly given her prior experiences and positions? Why did she struggle to respond more effectively? What is the implication of all of this?

3. If you had been advising Myers, would you recommend that she take the SK Telecom job in the first place? Why or why not?

4. Were there additional steps that Myers could have taken to better prepare for her role at SK Telecom (both before she accepted the job as well as after)?

5. How might cultural beliefs regarding the basis for compensation affect an approach to rewarding expatriates and host-country/third country nationals in the same firm?

6. Provide annotate bibliography. Summarize one the articles you locate from the APA reference for the article you located. 

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