Culture Klatch

When you start at a new company—especially one based overseas—you expect to experience a learning curve. Ria Stern came to Korean fiber company, Hyosung, in 2005 as its North American marketing director, and since May of 2008 has been the global marketing and brand director. She is charged with selling such products as organic cotton and eco-friendly, recycled polyesters to apparel makers around the world.

Knowing which products will work best for different markets hasn’t been the biggest challenge for this New York City–area native, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in engineering, then earned an MBA in Georgia while working for Dupont. Instead, the 49-year-old Stern has gotten a crash course in the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism, and a hands-on lesson in the art of tailoring—not of pants, but of messages. Diversity Woman asked how she adapted to a corporate culture that often dismisses some of the qualities that American executives prize most.

Diversity Woman: What were your 
preconceived notions about joining a 
Korean company?
Ria Stern: I was recruited by an American ex-boss who went to work for Hyosung. I knew the Koreans had a strong work ethic, which was fine by me, but I outlined some of the issues I was concerned about. I even amended my contract so that I could work four days instead of five if I wanted to. It wasn’t until I got here that I realized the complexities of working with Koreans.

DW: What were those complexities?
RS: I didn’t think language would be such a huge issue, but it can be. It’s not that my colleagues in Korea don’t speak English—they can read an e-mail and respond—but you often can’t have a conversation about a new product, so you do it via e-mail.

DW: How does the work culture differ?
RS: Korean culture and life are heavily influenced by Confucianism, which has influenced the work environment in two big ways. The society is very patriarchal, so there are not a lot of women on the Korean side of the company. In many cases, other than the translator, I might be the only woman on a conference call. The society is also extremely hierarchical—Confucianism has such respect for 
authority, which drives that overall need for harmony. It’s disrespectful, rude, to challenge your boss. If the boss asks you to do something by tomorrow, you do it.

DW: Doesn’t that get frustrating?
RS: I think they’ve had to get used to me, and I’ve had to get used to them. I 
remember doing things like this at Dupont—how I talked to someone in the South a little differently from the way I talked to someone in New York City. You can’t be too aggressive, too straightforward. With the Koreans, they’re very much about not losing face. You don’t challenge people and make them feel like they’re wrong or didn’t understand. And some people in the U.S. can be that way, too. The only difference now is you add 60,000 miles, a language barrier, and the cultural things on top of that.

DW: Can’t you have creative differences?
RS: We don’t have those kinds of disagreements—my peers in Korea tend to defer to me. They recognize that it’s a language thing—they can’t argue with me in English. They also sometimes ask me to send them a note that they can then take to their respective group president, because they know that when I say something is not a good idea, the group president may listen to me more to them. He knows there’s value in a different perspective.

DW: To what extent have you come around to their way of doing business?
RS: When you look at the history of 
Korea, they have made tremendous strides, given that they were occupied by Japan for decades, had a low GDP, and no natural resources. But thanks to companies such as LG, Samsung, and Hyosung, they have 
accomplished a tremendous amount.

And their competitive framework will continue to become more aggressive. I’ve had conversations with my Korean colleagues about what they think the future will look like, and the answer I get is that some companies are becoming more progressive. If you look at the evolution of certain American companies, they value 
diversity in thinking: for instance, high-tech companies that say they never know where the next great idea will come from—the intern, the mail room clerk, the VP of programming. We need to capitalize on 
that kind of diverse thinking power of 
all our employees to constantly increase 
our competitive advantage.

DW: What has been the upside for you?
RS: It’s been an amazing learning experience. As my Korean colleagues and I have worked more together, we share stories about our lives. With one man I work with, his English has improved so dramatically that we can now tell jokes. Another colleague has kids, and we laugh about 
how they’re both into princess clothes. DW

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