Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Language Barrier : The Asian Business Conundrum - Your best speakers are not always your best employees

I first heard this from David Miller, outgoing managing director of Leo Burnett Korea as I was coming in to the country as a managing partner with our office there.

"Your best speakers are not always your best employees", he said and went on to explain that as a new foreign manager that I would have an immediate withdrawal
reflex and lean immediately on those who could speak English, bypassing a whole building full of people who could possibly solve my problem. And he could not have been more right. Foreign companies are absolutely classic at populating meetings full of elegant orientals who can certainly talk a good game, but are miserably inept at managing anything when the job gets back to the shop. And this can happen in two ways:

1) They are Asian of national descent but were raised overseas. In Korea they are "Kyopo". In Vietnam they are "Viet Kieu". And while western managers are just fabulously happy to have people like this on the ground, the locals can many times resent them because they didn't grow up in country, don't really know the culture, and talk funny. Additionally, can be perceived by the locals that the imports are
getting a better deal than those who have fought for their country and don't deserve it - so they often have great difficulty getting anything done inside their native culture.

2) They are miserable managers. And therein lies a huge problem in Asian education, western hiring practices and any sort of management whatsoever here. The preference for excellent English over excellent thinking. Has anyone noticed that Putin never speaks English at a summit? Or that any other number of foreign leaders from everywhere from France to Argentina don't either, yet run perfectly solid countries with minimal crap over time - yet many African leaders with Indian and Pakistani ones thrown in, speak perfect English but have box-of-rocks countries that are rife with problems.

Back in the US you see it in a way that is almost comical, but common. At Leo Burnett we had an ac
count manager named Bob Chen, who was of Chinese American descent, and had been put in charge of the Nintendo account, a one hundred year old Japanese company. No one seemed to be worried that the histories of Japan and China at war over thousands of years could be an issue but the decision was much more simple than that. In a 50 storey building with 2300 employees, we didn't have any Japanese. Rumour was that management was running around the office looking for "yellow people" before the pitch and Bob was what they could find. Close enough, right? Bob worked hard but he didn't really understand the business and certainly didn't know fuck all about Japanese management. There was another instance, in which Sony had expressed a preference for German design in it's ads - you know, real clean, spare, cold stuff, so a German designer was shipped in. What a nice guy, but the entire account staff just regarded him as an alien. America has just been fabulously insular forever whilst claiming to be a "melting pot" but that's been largely crap. Happenings this week are the first hope I've seen. Ever.

But the problem has now reversed itself for me. It's the local companies who plant good English speakers in front positions and then direct with old men and an opium pipe from the back room. Whenever I walk into a meeting and meet a room full of perfect English speakers, I am immediately suspicious. Not a one of them is a decision maker. They're props. Actors, TV talents. And the sooner indigenous and foreign companies alike realize this, the further they will come towards getting a great group of different people working together. Not myself or a one of us is going to be able to erase this prejudice, but as managers we can recognize it and take real big extra care to include everyone in the projects. I leave you with two examples from my initial assignment in Korea.

From Wild Wild East:

Jinook Kim was our motorbike delivery man at Leo Burnett. He was also a TV producer, but as the low cub on the totem pole, was stuck with delivering tapes, first to the censors, then to the TV stations at god-awful hours in the morning. But Jinook's boss was such a complete bum, that had acquired such an earned disdain from me that I came to rely on Jinook for anything of importance. His boss, a Mr. Park, had been trained at Columbia College in Chicago, arguably the top broadcast school in the city, and it was obvious that during his time in Chicago, he had done nothing but take the train from Korea-town, attend class, and go back to Korea-town and drink beer with his buddies at the end of the day. He could speak English but was creatively worthless, had never been to the Art Institute, a Sox or Cubs game and didn't even know who Al Capone was (I'm serious).

Jinook, conversely, couldn't speak a lick of English but spent his entire day in the office, while waiting to do his evening editing and deliveries watching videos. Hundreds of videos. I called him Tarantino, (he had no idea what that meant) because Quentin Tarantino taught himself to write and direct films by working in a video shop. Jinook had gone to a crappy trade school and was treated like dirt by the other Koreans. He was also paid less than even a secretary and was my lowest paid staff.

Over time I came to realize than Jinook's talents lie not just in his technical and creative ability, but in his negotiating skills in getting persnickety censors to approve stuff at 4am.

One day we had a huge issue with a Reebok commercial. The censors had rejected it because it featured Shaquille O'Neal having his head shaved to reveal a Reebok logo on the back of his head at the end. Harmless. But the censors had called head shaving "degregating to the human spirit" and refused to put it on air. We, of course, had just received the film from the US and put a Korean voice over on it.

Arriving the next morning, I was apprised of the situation and informed by Jinook that he had already created a solution. Remember, Jinook could speak no English to me aside from things, like video, movie and Speilberg.

He showed me the revised cut and my jaw dropped. It was fucking brilliant. "How, how, how", I said, "did you think of that?", I asked him. "Because, I know your mind", he said, "I know your mind".

Jinook had simply re-cut the commercial, using the same voice over to run the entire film in reverse, beginning with Shaq and a Reebok logo on his head, and ending with a happy Shaq and a full head of hair. Crisis averted. Censors appeased.

My second story comes from the same company and a different employee, a writer.

Ms. Lim, was regarded as our top writer and had a well earned reputation for churning out mildly humourous and engaging radio commercials for BMG music on artists as scintillating as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, and we know where they are now don't we.

All writers and artists had their copy and ideas approved through me and it was usually done with Mrs. Woo, our department mom and creative director, providing the translation.

I reviewed the script and made a comment about changing the joke at the end and what I got what an obviously incensed Ms. Lim. "You no speak Korean", she belted, "You no read Korean. You no!", and she stormed out. As was sometimes the case, I just suspected that this issue world be referred to the president and he would over ride me, so I didn't loose much sleep over these cultural flairups.

The next morning I arrived in my office to find a wide ribbon of beautiful rice paper rolled and tied with a bow on my desk. I grabbed my coffee and sat down to open it. As I stretched it out, it was written with a simple black pen but in a penmanship that was elegantly Ms. Lim.

I am paraphrasing here and imitating her dialect but this is the general gist:

Dear David;

When you come here, I no have confidence for you.
You not Korean. You no speak Korean.
How know you Korean writing?
I mad to managers about give us you.
But last night, I thought about your idea,
and it is good one.

Thank you,

Ms. Lim

Ms. Lim and Jinook ended up on a film trip to Chicago later that year to make a television commercial for Kelloggs. We ate at at all sorts of restaurants, they visited my house, met my wife and generally had the time of their lives. They were the first Korean staff to have ever worked outside Korea. On the shoot, we had big, 10" plastic cornflakes so that we could shoot high speed film and get proper definition on the "milk spash" shot. Jinook wanted to take one home but we had to say no. Trade secret stuff. Koreans can copy anything, even plastic cornflakes. Jinook's salary was appropriately raised from $12,000 a year to $18,000 by the end of my tenure.

Jinook ended up being one of the city's top commercial directors, working for the best production company in Korea and may even have his own company now. Ms. Lim became the principal freelance writer for my company, CarlsonCreative, and enjoyed a stellar career as an advertising writer. Both of them learned to speak impeccable English.

And there is the moral in this story: Infuse your employees with passion for their discipline, reward them and let the benefits come back to you. The English will come as they want it to come, if you inspire and support them.

For more on Creativity, Education and the like, check below:

"Do Our Schools Kill Creativity?" - Sir Ken Robinson
Brand Marketing and Staff Training in Vietnam
2009 Marketing Predictions
The Language Barrier - An Asian Business Conundrum

1 comment:

  1. This is an inspirational post. I was il so couldn't get my diggs going and I am in a different country so need to find my passwords lol. I really enjoy reading your posts.


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