Alex Jensen talks with two leaders about how the leadership of their companies changed in face of adversity. Lukas Beech, Partner and Head of the Korea Office of August Leadership and Rob Wilkinson, Managing Director of Colliers International Korea.
The legendary leader and basketball coach, John Wooden once said that, ‘Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.’ Over the past two years leaders in all organizations have faced change, many leaders and organizations have been overwhelmed by the amount of change required and succumbed. Hertz, Brooks Brothers, J.C. Penny and Muji are part of a long list of the large corporations that closed as a result of COVID.
Today as a new round of change faces them, Alex talked to two leaders on how their organization reacted to the pandemic, and now how they are assessing which of those changes to keep and which to but back in the cupboard as we reopen and return to a new normal.
Lukas is a twenty-year veteran of Korea. He has been involved in Executive Search and Talent Recruitment for much of that time, he has a diverse, growing up in New Zealand, but with strong German roots he has established himself as a core member of the expat community.
Rob Wilkinson will celebrate his two-year anniversary in leading Colliers International in Korea next January. In those two years Rob has worked to build his office, and expand his business, He has also contributed to both the American and British Chambers of Commerce by sitting on various Boards and Committees.
Both leaders describe how they initially reacted to the adverse business conditions of Q1 2019, how they communicated with their head offices, their staff and their clients in new and unproven ways. As COVID settled in, they both adapted to the new normal and built the systems needed.
They both now are looking towards the reopening strategically. By and large, people still want to work in an office, but not every day. There is a declining need to be visibly busy in an office as businesses become more results orientated.
Leadership in adversity is the true test of a leader.
Today’s episode was brought to you by The Four Seasons Seoul. Stylish elegance in the heart of the city.
Learning flexibility in the face of adversity, the ultimate leadership challenge
Alex Jensen: You’re listening to Koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m Alex Jensen and it’s Tuesday November 9th. Around 9 in 10 companies in this country are undecided on their 2022 investment plans according to a poll by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry and at a time of weakened economic growth momentum whatever optimism is rising with pandemic restrictions being lifted. This is still therefore a vital time for leadership and adaptation. A theme we’ll take on with two guests shortly. Today’s episode is brought to you by the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul.
Alex Jensen: We’ll straight into pandemic leadership and flexibility then as we can welcome Lukas Beech, who has a diverse background, plenty of experience in Korea and is a partner of August Leadership. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast.
Lukas Beech: It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, Alex.
Alex Jensen: It’s been a whirlwind, I’m sure for many people having to adapt very quickly and maybe it’s been a good test of adaptation. The people who’ve done well have probably been flexible. But it also kind of depends what industry are in, a lot of people would have had their hands tied no matter what their skill set, but very briefly, what’s your role in? and what does your company do?
Lukas Beech: Thanks, Alex. Yeah, so my company is August Leadership, we are a New York based global executive search firm. We are relatively young in the comparison with other search firms and that’s one of our big advantages. We were born with the idea of doing search in a more modern way, the idea of deleting international borders and really focusing on clients as a key account, irrespective of their geographies. And actually, the recent economic trends, industry trends of decentralization of remote work have actually played to our advantage. And it’s been a very interesting learning curve over the last year plus to serve clients remotely but still build the trust and build a relationship. So, I’m representing the company here in Korea, we have a small office at the moment in this market and rapidly growing. Indeed, our firm is growing rapidly, globally, I think we are the fastest growing executive search firm at the moment, just to elaborate a little bit more in terms of what the market activities here in Korea have been recently, the industrial sector has been quite active, specifically, the automotive industry has been a very interesting as a sector because of the rapid shifts of economic trends of consumer behavior. The continued move away from ownership towards using things as opposed to owning things. And then, of course, a huge shift away from combustion to electrification, and what that means from a core technology perspective, and all these things have direct impact at the leadership level, because you need talent from different sectors and different industries, which hadn’t naturally been grown within those kinds of companies. So, it’s been a very interesting time to engage talent internationally for the benefit of rapidly changing economies and changing company needs.
Alex Jensen: Well, I’m just curious for a moment, because recently, we talked about the youth job market, we’ve spoken about recruitment more generally. But when you’re looking at that executive level, has the pandemic had a particular impact on the willingness of executives to move to another country or to take up a new role?
Lukas Beech: Certainly, there’s been additional hesitancy with regard to families moving, as you may imagine, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of just difficulty of going and seeing a place before you decide to move there. But I think beyond that there’s a general shift in a willingness to see things flexibly. And when I think of leadership at the executive level, I really think of it in terms of talent deployment at the leadership level because we see such a dramatic acceleration of business. We, across so many industries but it’s driven very much by the digitalization of many things that speed as the is increasingly a competitive advantage and deployment of executive talent within those rapidly changing environments is really the only way for companies to continue to succeed. And it’s really that ability to move quickly and to deploy talent, irrespective of gender of geography of even industry centralization, there’s an increased willingness to be more dynamic in that sense.
Alex Jensen: So, we wanted to talk to you particularly about the idea of leadership and flexibility during the pandemic, what sort of impact, you had to deal with on your workplace, relatively small as it is as you described sometimes the challenges can vary enormously, I guess depending whether you got 550 or 500 staff to manage?
Lukas Beech: Yeah, certainly, I think the work from home idea has significantly affected our work but also our industry, I think there’s been a lot of that change across the industry and that’s fraught with challenges and opportunities. On the challenges side, clients have had a no external visitor policy. And that’s mostly about protecting themselves from COVID, and from unnecessary visitors, so to speak. And it’s made it quite challenging to meet our clients face to face. Also, it’s met a challenge to meet candidates face to face as well. Having said that, because of the general understanding of the necessity to do that type of separation or take those precautionary measures, there is an increased willingness to do things remotely. And to trust new technologies in the past, you would never hire an executive without actually having had a cup of coffee at least together or met face to face and shaking, shaking a hand and that’s changed. So, people are willingness willing to take those risks and willing to make hiring decisions at a very, very senior level based on perceived value across these new technologies.
Alex Jensen: And so, what are the skills that your team related to, I guess that changing environment have had to develop almost instantly?
Lukas Beech: Definitely, the ability to engage people in a meaningful way, in the past telephone calls were more about initiating a conversation or peripheral communications. But now, obviously, you know, when I say telephone calls, obviously, there’s an evolution into video, a video has become such a normal way of communicating. But being able to truly understand and evaluate people’s capabilities, people’s talents, and people’s competencies through a video call is a more, it’s more challenging, because you, you lack a certain amount of gut feel, I would say, and so we’ve had to adapt in terms of our own abilities to interview correctly and to evaluate correctly. But then also using more professional tools to deepen our evaluation of executive talents so that we can provide that that value back through to our clients who actually rely on ability, not only to identify, but actually to evaluate and really understand motivations and understand culture fit and personalities that way beyond what you can read off a piece of paper.
Alex Jensen: And so, as we go forward. What are the changes that you’d want to keep? What are maybe some of the things that you would like to say goodbye to forever?
Lukas Beech: Definitely, I hope that we can re-engage clients more actively face to face, it’s happening slowly, I just recently had an opportunity to go and meet the leadership team of LG Electronics face to face, which was very nice. Actually, it was a hybrid meeting, some of them had called in, and others were there in person. So, it was an interesting hybrid meeting and I think that’s maybe part of the new normal as well. But on the other hand, I think what we don’t need is, we don’t need a retrenchment back to doing everything face to face because that limits you in terms of geography, it limits your willingness to attempt to engage talent outside of your geography and it also slows things down. So, if you’re, if you have a candidate in Silicon Valley or in Frankfurt, then traditionally it was always a question of okay, now, we’ve had a few conversations now fly over to Korea and meet us face to face and I think those kinds of things we don’t necessarily need as much anymore. So, I think there’s, there are definitely pros and cons. And, in general, I see things positively as a trend in terms of people’s willingness to accept what they would have otherwise maybe not accepted in the past.
Alex Jensen: And a lot of what you’re doing is looking for talent globally, clearly, as you described before, but you’ve got your own team there as well and has the battle to attract retain, which is to optimize the best talent within your team changed as a result of the last few months?
Lukas Beech: Yeah, it has. I think the one of the big changes is that we rely more on people that are more mature and the management of themselves that don’t need somebody hovering over them to a encourage them or be support them or check that they’re doing their work. So, there’s definitely an advantage to bringing on people who have experience business maturity and their own initiative, their own drive to manage themselves. And that’s been a critical success factor on our side to be able to engage such colleagues for our for our organization.
Alex Jensen: It’s been really useful getting your thoughts on, on leadership and I think that for others in various industries, they could benefit. Do you sense though, that this would change significantly from industry to industry based on the people that you know, that you’ve built relationships working in Seoul? And are there any other tips that you might share beyond your own experience?
Lukas Beech: Yeah, certainly, I think one of the bright sides of this whole discussion is that women leaders have a better chance at getting ahead at getting into very meaningful executive positions, perhaps on the basis of diverse communication skills, but also, I think, on the basis of changing, changing expectations and changing patterns of behavior from the employer side, naturally there are still traditional barriers across different industries, gender barriers, or cultural barriers or other kinds of barriers that we would consider under the diversity and inclusion paragraph. But I think, even if we look at the automotive industry, which has been traditionally quite a male dominated industry, now that we see a shift into automotive becoming more of a digital industry the opportunity for women executives, is actually improving significantly and we’re seeing that across our clients that are tapping into this previously underutilized talent sauce.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, this kind of reminds me part of the ESG conversation that has been so dominated by the environmental side and perhaps to some extent by the corporate governance side. But in trying to bring about shifts in the social aspect of ESG, it would occur to me that placing foreign executives is an automatic way to do that, because in a country like Korea, that in itself will bring about diversity. But then, in your role, you can go further, for example, they don’t have to be the executives from the typical countries that people have been used to, would you say there’s a real opportunity there to?
Lukas Beech: Absolutely. And I think we see that especially across, for example, West Asia countries like India, like Pakistan where there is incredible talent but has been traditionally overlooked. But those, those kinds of pools of talent resources are becoming increasingly accessible. And, I mean, we’re really talking about the top end of the pyramid, in terms of individual performance, leadership, performance, corporate, the ability to grow a business, and all these kinds of things. And I think, when you look at those measures, the deployment of international talent from previously overlooked markets is something which is a tool and an opportunity for companies. And that’s actually compounded by the relative lack of supply in more traditional technology markets. For example, in North America, in Western Europe, there’s a significant shortage of executive talent with the right technology capabilities or management capabilities or industry capabilities to step into those more modern roles. And I think that’s where there’s, you know, the opportunity to catch under tapped markets is increasingly close to our fingertips.
Alex Jensen: Just to finish on a more personal note, you’ve been in Korea for several years already, you will have had fond memories like me and many others of the pre pandemic era. Now that we are in this living with COVID era. Is there anything particularly that you’re looking forward to in the coming months?
Lukas Beech: International travel? I think I’m not the only one that’s looking forward to that. But our next I got a trip coming up to Singapore, in a couple of weeks to go and see clients to go and meet colleagues. And I think that’s something which I think I’m personally looking forward to a lot. Honestly, I think we’ve been incredibly lucky here in Korea that the pandemic restrictions have been relatively free and open. And you know, when I talk to my other colleagues globally, they’re quite envious of what we’ve had the opportunity to have here. Having said that, you know, the idea of going out later than 10pm of meeting more than four people for meal of actually getting back into doing business forums and networking with other executives is something which is starting to happen and I’m looking very much forward to that happening further.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, I mean, I totally agree with you that the inconveniences here have been just that rather than life changing, crushing restrictions for most members of the public, I’m talking about not some of the businesses that have really felt the pinch, because they’re in a sector that has been directly affected by those inconveniences. But, but then again, like little things like being able to take a stroll in the park without a mask on I, for me, that would that’s added up to a really annoying factor and having to constantly think about these restrictions and be sitting there watching like television and seeing people in old movies without wearing masks and feeling like they’re in another world, you know, it’s just, it’s just going to be nice, isn’t it? Just to be able to start to open up, although, of course, the mask thing is, it’s probably going to be the last thing to go.
Lukas Beech: Yeah, I think that’s here to stay and I think that’s probably one of those things where if I look at my nieces that are around the age of 10, 12 years old, they’ve spent the last couple of years going out always with a mask. So, for them it’s become, it is a normal thing to do. So, I wonder whether they’ll be going out without a mask in the future, even though you can. So, I don’t know, I think a lot of those things will have knock on effects. For me, personally, I’m looking forward to the ski season coming up to the we’re enjoying beautiful fall weather here. It’s just a, It’s a lovely time of year to be outdoors and mask or no mask. It’s always great to enjoy the spots of nature that we have here in Seoul and around Seoul of course.
Alex Jensen: It’s an excellent point that you made, by the way, shout out to the kids. When the pandemic started, people were saying, you know how we possibly can get schoolchildren to wear masks all day, I think they’re actually doing it much better than the adults. Lukas, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure having you with us on the podcast.
Lukas Beech: I appreciate the chance and shout out to the listeners, and I hope that was hopefully interesting and helpful to some of them.
Alex Jensen: We’re continuing on with the same theme of leadership and flexibility we can get an alternative view from a different industry, Rob Wilkinson is Managing Director at Colliers Korea. Great to be able to welcome you too and thank you.
Rob Wilkinson: Thanks, Alex.
Alex Jensen: We can start I guess, again, most logically by learning more about you and your company.
Rob Wilkinson: Right. So, Colliers is a global professional services and investment management company. We support developers, tenants, and investors with their real estate needs wherever they may operate. I’ve been with the company for a little over a decade, most of that time in Hong Kong. But for the last two years now I’ve been managing the Colliers business in Korea.
Alex Jensen: So, you will hear more recently than Lukas then and I guess most of your time in Korea has been overshadowed by the pandemic. Is that right?
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, it’s been an interesting time to say the least I arrived in January last year, when you know, the pandemic hadn’t really had much of an impact in Korea yet. And the plan was, you know, grow, grow, grow. The mandate was really to recruit and then at the roundabout, the beginning of March, you know, there’s a big cluster in the south. And obviously, our strategy had to change a little bit. But we’ve been very fortunate here, I think that the government’s handled it very well and there’s not been a lockdown, for example. So yeah, we’ve been we’ve been happy.
Alex Jensen: Well, how difficult did it make it aside from the support that you have had, and I’m sure staff locally have helped you settle in, in what must have been extremely difficult. But the difficulty in terms of negotiating the effects of the pandemic on both workplace and workstyle, when you didn’t have a full grasp of what Korea was like before? Can you describe that challenge for us?
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, I think I mean, I think it’s pretty fair to say that Korea has quite a conservative working culture. So perhaps the most obvious impact on the pandemic was the dramatic increase in employees working remotely. So, I don’t think the staff here were used to that when we asked them to work from home, you know, other markets were probably a little bit more advanced in that trend, and Korea was already moving in that direction, but probably at a slower pace than other countries. So that was probably the biggest, biggest impact. And for the most part, I think it’s been pretty successful. Now, I don’t think we’re going to go completely in the other direction where, you know, officers are going to close around Korea and everybody’s going to be working remotely as being discussed in the US for example. I’ve certainly not heard of any companies looking to close their office and ask everybody to work remotely. I think the office is here to stay. It’s very important, I think, for collaboration and engagement, fostering company culture, maintaining that sense of belonging and all that which is best done face to face.
Alex Jensen: I mean, I understand you were already very familiar with virtual meetings personally, from what you’ve said there was a little bit of a transition there for the Korea team particularly. But did you have to get your head around any particular things like for example, some of us have stuck with Zoom, others have gone to other alternatives from Microsoft and Google their couple of the big ones. And then there are skills associated with that sharing information presentations, virtually, and maybe any other skills that people had to get accomplished that very quickly. Can you talk us through that site?
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the most important skill is effective communication. And I don’t just mean the technical side of the tools such as Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, which you mentioned but also how to build rapport virtually. So fortunately, at Colliers as we were already using these tools, as you mentioned, so we didn’t have too much of a lag in terms of getting everybody up to speed. But I did hear of some companies that, for example, hadn’t given their staff laptops. So, they had to completely roll out new tools and systems and processes just to be able to keep working. But I think it’s also important to note that the shift to hybrid work for it to be successful, it’s not just about the technology but it’s about the culture of the organizations and whether they can put in place the processes that enable the technology to support their staff, so that they can stay connected and collaborate. So, you know, video conferencing, and collaboration tools, messaging, social media, and all the rest of it can be effective agree creating that sense of community which we have when we’re in there, which we’re in the office but only if the organization’s focus on involving their culture to embrace that changing nature of work.
Alex Jensen: As you said before, it’s not likely that we’re going to shift completely to tele working in Korea, and there’s no indication of it. In fact, I think a lot of big companies have already during this living with COVID period started to say to their staff. Look, we’re now readjusting, and you can make some decisions personally, but I think for a lot of workers, they prefer to be in the office environment in this country. Are there any other aspects or features of the pandemic that have been positive that you think? Okay, we’d like to hold on to this.
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, I think maintaining that flexibility is something that’s quite important, you know, if you’re going to try to find a silver lining or something positive from the pandemic, I think it’s that a lot of companies have learned that they don’t need their staff to be physically visible, you know, that they don’t need to be in front of them to, to make sure that they are working and maintaining productivity and efficiency and all the rest of it. So, I think, you know, Korea has reportedly some of that some of the longest working hours. So, allowing some of that flexibility which can support staff colleagues work life balance, I think it’s the right thing to do and I definitely want to maintain that. You say that a lot of companies are kind of ordering their stuff back and that may be the case. But I think some companies will use this flexibility as a differentiator. Something to attract and retain, you know, top talent.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, it’s a real mix right now. And I think we’re probably going to see a few months of just monitoring what people do and how they respond. But there’s definitely a lot more flexibility than there was before the pandemic so that certainly we can be sure. What we also heard from Lukas was about the challenge of attracting and holding on to the best staff at this time. You said recruitment was a big focus when you arrived in that January. I just can’t imagine how you had to tear up the playbook. But what’s your experience of that side of things now?
Rob Wilkinson: Well, I mean, attracting and developing industry leaders is as a company, one of our priorities and as I mentioned earlier, a major focus of mine when I came here, and it is again. I think the in terms of talent, attraction, and retention, we haven’t seen too much of a change really from the pandemic, however we are seeing some people demanding that flexibility that I talked about. So, you know, they’ve experienced work from home they’ve experienced work from somewhere else. No longer will they accept sitting in a traffic jam or on a subway for an hour and a half or two hours to come to the office just to check their email. I think the office, the role of the office has evolved. And I think it needs to continue to do so to attract people to come. So, I think it’s, there’s no doubt it’s going to be an integral part of the way we work. Some employers will choose to come to the office all the time some won’t. But you need to give them a reason to come to the office, I certainly wouldn’t want to go sit at my desk in the office just to check my email if it takes me two hours to do that because I can do it somewhere else. So, it’s our job as employers really to, to give the office a purpose. So, for me that will become somewhere of innovate for innovation, problem solving, and collaboration. And if you create that environment, I think people will want to come to the office.
Alex Jensen: I think also another feature of this that we haven’t talked about is the, you know, in terms of inspiring talent, particularly, is to have that structure in place? So, I imagine for an up-and-coming person who sees themselves as being a potential leader one day, they’ll want to know that there’s a ladder there. But if you’re spending your life outside of the office, not building those personal relationships with higher level coworkers, it’s they might feel that they their path is blocked somehow. Do you think that’s a valid point?
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, I do think it’s a valid point. I think, firstly, there’s no cookie cutter right answer for everyone. But I do think that there are benefits to some tasks being done in the office. Certainly, it’s harder to have those kind of spontaneous water cooler conversations where you can understand a sense of what’s going on in the company, you can get information and training from people just by being around them. That’s harder to do with technology, however good the tools may be. So, I think there’s certainly a balance that needs to be struck and kind of a hybrid balance, we talked about, giving people the flexibility but also encouraging them to come to the office, you know, if there’s a purpose in doing so.
Alex Jensen: Just to finish on you personally. How are you enjoying Korea? there are things that I would have done in the decade or so before this pandemic that I would love to share with you but they’re not quite happening yet again. But are there aspects of life here that you’ve been able to really enjoy despite all the COVID-19 stuff going on? Because frankly, we haven’t really had a full lockdown.
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’ve been very happy here. I live here now with them with my wife and two girls. As you say, there’s not been a lockdown. We’ve been able to get out and explore a bit we’ve we went skiing last winter, for example. We went to Jeju this summer, we do a lot of hiking. So just this past weekend, we did the Seoul city wall, it’s about 22 kilometers across the four mountain ridges around Seoul. I’m a bit in a bit of pain right now.
Alex Jensen: Well, great way to get out and see Korea and you’re in the right country if you like hiking.
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, absolutely. Without having full lockdown which, you know, most of the countries many other countries did have which would have been very challenging. We’ve been able to come to a new country, meet people really dive into the culture and get to know get to know a new home. We’re really liking it.
Alex Jensen: Is there anything particular that’s changed since the living with COVID transition, either already in the last few days or with your planning for the immediate future? Do you think that it’s actually making a difference to living and working Korea?
Rob Wilkinson: Yeah, I mean, the living with COVID from a day-to-day basis. The main difference is gatherings more people can gather. So, we’re already looking at maybe doing a staff Christmas dinner if we can move to that phase two of living with COVID which we haven’t been able to do. We weren’t able to last year. So yeah, as we get into the festive season, I think a lot of people will be excited about that being able to celebrate things like that little bit more as we move into the next phase of living with COVID.
Alex Jensen: Well, Rob Wilkinson, Managing Director at Colliers Korea, hope to be able to raise a Christmas toast with you if I don’t see you beforehand. I wish you all the best in the meantime.
Rob Wilkinson: Thank you very much and thanks for having me on.
Alex Jensen: Thanks to both Rob and Lukas before that for being on today’s episode, as well as a big thank you to our sponsor the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, and this is a time aim for leadership to shine. I wish you all the best for the days and weeks ahead. But see you again tomorrow.