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[Indepth Interview] In praise of Korea’s tiger mentality

‘Tigers are strong, hungry, fast and dynamic. All these things fit well with Korean businesses.’

Mar 28,2012
Martin Hemmert, the first foreign, tenured professor at Korea University Business School, is going to publish a book about Korean businesses dubbed “Tiger Management” this summer both at home and abroad. He started working on it four years ago after studying materials and conducting meetings with employees and executives at Korean companies.

In his eighth year of living in Korea, the German professor, who says it feels natural for him to be here, compares Korean businesses to tigers that are always hungry and pounce when they see what they need. In an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, Hemmert applauded the Koreans’ ppalli ppalli (hurry, hurry) mentality, saying that it is better to be fast than slow.

Q. What are the basic ideas of “tiger” management?

A. We can look at it in two ways. I settled on the tiger because it is a symbol of Korea. The Korean people are like tigers in terms of attributes that we normally associate with tigers. Tigers are strong, hungry, fast and dynamic. All these things fit well with Korean businesses. That’s why I named it tiger management. One consideration was the dragon, but it sounded more like Chinese. The basic ideas can be looked as three areas - business strategy, leadership and human resource [HR] management. In my opinion, you can find that all three features of tiger companies fit very well together. All these three constitute one system of management of tiger companies.

When it comes to strategy, one basic feature is Korean businesses are very forward-leaning and aggressive in terms of planning what they want to do. They always are willing to develop new products and services and move into new industries and markets geographically.

In implementation, they move very fast, ppalli ppalli. They are also very flexible in two ways. Korean companies are internally flexible, when groups decide to do something. They can sometimes very quickly utilize all the resources and money they have and work intensively on it. They are also externally flexible. External flexibility is needed when you need to make partners do something. For Korean firms, working with anybody is okay, if they have values. They are not very picky about it.

I got basic information on Korean companies by studying existing materials comprehensively. But I also had hearings with actual management. I met with employees from various levels ranging from lower to upper-middle management to get different perspectives. About many things, their opinions were pretty much the same.

What are good examples of tiger companies?

Korea’s largest conglomerates like Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and Hyundai Motor Group. But not only those chaebol companies, but also some venture companies can be described as tiger companies. They include NC Soft, Ahn Lab and SM Entertainment. SM Entertainment was quick enough to tap into the Hallyu [Korean Wave]. I heard that they do casting outside Korea to recruit talent. Another interesting company I studied is iRiver, the MP3 maker.

Not only Korean conglomerates, but also small and medium-size companies are similar to larger ones, have pretty much the same features, being dynamic, aggressive and fast.

Can the tiger theory be applied to other companies like Apple?

Some companies outside Korea could be such a company. To some extent I studied Apple, since I’m an innovation researcher, but not deeply. Apple can be compared to something lighter but also fast and dynamic. Maybe a rabbit, but I am not sure. Samsung has a very systemic approach, while Apple is closer to a venture in my understanding.

Don’t you see problems in the ppalli ppalli mentality of Korean people?

Some features that Korean companies have also can backfire. You always need to consider boundary conditions to see the ppalli ppalli mentality work out well. You need to keep strong dedication to get something done, not only superficially saying “I want to just do something quickly.” In the Korean context and generally this type of management, leadership is very important. If a corporate leader sets a wrong direction, it can go terribly wrong. If you have a strong and good leadership, that can inspire everybody and bring out strong spirits in companies. In this case, being ppalli ppalli doesn’t need to be a problem. But you need to look at boundary conditions to avoid sacrificing quality.

Personally, I like being here most of the time. In Germany and Europe, I find it discouraging because things are moving too slowly. People lack a sense of urgency. I like it much more here. People get things done much faster. That’s a much better attitude. On the other hand, Korean people want me to do things quickly since I’m also a member of Korean society here at a university, but it was very rare that I thought this is too much or I don’t like it. So I think doing something quickly is a good approach.

What have you discovered about Samsung’s leadership?

Chairman Lee Kun-hee is a good example of tiger-style leadership. He sets very high goals and motivates people strongly. But he also creates a sense of crisis within the company all the time. Although it’s stressful for inside people, it’s very effective from a business point of view. Normally crises come from outside, such as the oil crisis and the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Mr. Lee and other Korean leaders systematically create crises inside. They push employees to do something quickly, saying if you don’t do this, we may go bust.

Why do you think Korean companies have good HR management systems?

Korean companies are very picky when they hire employees. They have high expectations in skills and knowledge. They also look at personalities. That’s why they seemed very committed about HR management.


By Song Su-hyun [ssh@joongang.co.kr]


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