Leadership is a journey, not a trip,” said Heekyung Min. “The former is arbitrary and spontaneous, but the latter well planned and executed.” Min’s own leadership journey took her from the global financial sector, to leading the post-merger integration between Hyundai Securities and Prudential Securities in Korea, to heading investment promotion efforts for South Korea’s showpiece free economic zone. Today, she is an Executive Vice President and the Chief HR Officer of CJ Corporation, a South Korean multinational whose business interests range from food and biotechnology to K-pop and films.
Thirty years ago, however, working in finance, the public sector or human resources could not have been further from Min’s mind. At that time, said Min, the options for women in South Korea were limited to music, art, nursing – or homemaking. Presented with these limited prospects, and encouraged by her mother, who had harboured dreams of being a pianist herself, Min enrolled to study music at Seoul National University. But she was not content to graduate and become a housewife: she wanted a career.
A visit to New York during her freshman year of 1977 was a revelation. On a weekday morning on Park Avenue, she saw for the first time women wearing suits and carrying briefcases. They were, she found out later, bankers. “I realised that women could also build careers in fields other than music or art,” said Min, “and that I too could become a pioneer for Korean women to enter into the business field.” The revelation prompted her decision to pursue an MBA with Columbia University’s School of Business in New York.
Humility and gratefulness
In the 1980s, MBA graduates were highly sought after. The perception was that they were almost certain to get multiple job offers. This was not Min’s experience. “At that time, my English was clearly not good enough to work in New York,” she said. “Moreover, I had limited business education coming from my music background.” Unlike her classmates, who all received job offers after their first-year internships, with more than half headed for Wall Street and investment banking positions, Min received more than 20 rejections. “I was responsible for lowering the average starting pay for Columbia’s Class of ’84,” she joked, “but this ability to laugh at myself and be grateful for opportunities has become my strength.”
Then, one week before graduation, an audit firm made her a job offer. “When the HR person of this audit firm called me, I was so desperate I said ‘yes’ immediately! He advised to think it over for at least a week,” Min recalled. “I went home, but I didn’t think about it. I just counted the days off and then called back to say ‘I want the job!’” The struggle Min faced to secure her first job, and the difficulties she experienced as a non-native English speaker in an English-speaking, unfamiliar corporate environment influenced her career development. “Whenever I felt I was not treated fairly at work, I remembered that this firm still hired me when 20 other companies did not. The company believed in me. This drove me to try harder, learn more, contribute better, and simply be grateful.”
Go for the unconventional
Min had another – less conventional – strength in her favour: “I always raised my hand, even when I did not know what I was getting myself into!” After moving to a financial institution, she was involved in a project financing deal, but not because of her subject knowledge; in fact, precisely the opposite. The financing was for a nuclear project in Pennsylvania but, in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, no one at Min’s firm wanted to be involved in the deal. “The work of project financing practically required you to go and do due diligence at the facilities yourself. People were afraid of the risks,” said Min. “But I rationalised that it was the safest time to go, as checks and fixes were probably at the highest level, especially if the client wanted to pass the due diligence tests!”
As with many industries, getting through the door initially is one of the hardest parts to building a career. Min’s attitude and unconventional thinking was the catalyst to establishing a career in the relatively specialist field of project financing.
This spirit of chasing the unconventional remains with Min. In 2007, it was what took her career in a completely different direction. After a lifetime in the private sector, she applied for a job with the Korean government. It was a chance to promote investment in the Incheon Economic Free Zone – a planned hub for international financial, research and freight organisations and investments. She found herself to be a tough sell in the interview.
Most of the interviewers were thinking of conventional prerequisites and simply could not see the fit between the role and Min, a woman. They were looking for a male candidate with contacts in the governmental sector and experience in urban development. But Min positioned herself in a new light: “I had private sector experience, so I was in a unique position to attract private companies by connecting with them in their own language.” It was a compelling pitch, but there was one other critical factor: luck. “It was serendipity that one interviewer saw the fit between the job and I. He eventually became my boss.” Adventurousness, creativeness and a little tenacity – all played a role in putting Min in a position where she was able to take advantage of unexpected breaks along the way.
Inconveniences versus critical problems
Many Asians, coming from largely homogenous societies such as South Korea, Japan or China, can struggle to acclimatise in multicultural hubs. Min believes that her ability to thrive as a global talent – in urban metropolises as diverse as New York, London and Tokyo – was due to the importance of knowing the difference between a personal inconvenience, and a critical problem. The early years of working in New York were very stressful due to the language barrier.
One particular colleague constantly made fun of her English pronunciation and grammar. “I dreaded every Sunday evening because I knew the entire office had a weekly meeting on Monday morning,” said Min. She realised that for her career and her personal happiness, she had to solve the root problem.
She strove to improve her English. “I tried to stop even thinking in Korean,” said Min, “and continually challenged myself to break out of my language comfort zone.” She also made an effort to over-explain when talking to her colleagues, to ensure that they clearly understood what she was trying to communicate and reduce misunderstandings. The issues faced and extra work put in have been challenging, but Min argues that setbacks can become stepping stones. “So there are no real setbacks,” she argued. “There is another reason why I work hard. I enjoy it.”
Heekyung Min, Executive Vice President and Chief HR Officer at CJ Corporation, spoke to Rebecca Siow, current Interim Head of Research & Insights and former Senior Manager at HCLI.
This article first appeared in HQ Asia (Issue 7), 2014.