4 Questions For Leaders, By Way of Korea

Fairness, imagination, solos and context in Seoul

This week I am in Seoul, accompanied by good friends and soon, Gabby. We’ve been lucky enough to be joined in our travels by Eric and Jeff, native Korean speakers competing jovially about whose knowledge of culture, language and cuisine is deeper, more current, more authentic. We joke, is it more valuable to have visited the country multiple times since childhood, or are the slang and Gen Z customs picked up over years in Koreatown and hours of popular recent Korean dramas more relevant? We are lucky to have both.

The trip has reminded me of four questions that resonate deeply across both cultural explorations and business adventures. The first is about what’s ‘fair’.

Why are you looking for ‘fairness’?

Traveling around a foreign country, your senses can easily be on high alert for scams or casual discrimination. We all know the stories of cab drivers switching off the meter, of street hustlers. People thrusting ‘blessed’ items into your palm, unwanted CDs in Times Square. Trying to enter many bars in Tokyo, Westerners will receive the 🙅🏻‍♂️ sign ‘not welcome’, and it is easy to be offended. At other times, you might start to feel paranoid that someone is talking about you in a foreign language, but never be sure. It’s an unpleasant feeling and you will be tempted to share your sense of injustice with others.

But as a stranger in a strange land, what do these people owe you? The unwelcome answer is: little to nothing. It is completely up to them as to how to welcome any traveler. The country and its people has been fine without you for thousands of years, and it will be fine without you afterwards.

Complaining about perceived or real injustices takes away from the thousands of other positive and fascinating things you might do each day, limits your connection with interesting people, and distracts you from the decisions you need to make that will make your journey successful. As you travel more, you might evolve your response from outrage at injustice, to annoyance, eventually to a shrug. A seasoned explorer may make no remark. There are better ways to spend your time than ruminating with your co-travelers about the possible xenophobia of a random taxi driver in Seoul, who has now forgotten you exist.

Seeking fairness in business is an equally unwise and fruitless pursuit. When your company interacts with outsiders — Governments, vendors, investors, competitors — there is no value in expecting them to be fair to you, or in wringing your hands when they are not. Do not expect anyone to care.

Within the sphere of your control, of course fairness and equality are values that you can foster. Spread kindness, empathy. Listen, hear, understand. Push in local and national politics for policy that creates fairness and equality. Welcome travelers with kind words and good hospitality. But as a leader in business, spend no time seeking fairness or sympathy for injustice against you. You are far better off focusing on the things you can control, and creating the conditions for fairness within your own scope.

Ask yourself: How might expectations of fairness be limiting me?

What might happen if someone could do a job better than you can imagine?

There are supposedly over half a million restaurants in Korea, many of which focus on local classic dishes. Which means you are competing against an immense number of options for diners. This fosters both incredibly strong execution, and also innovation, for patrons’ attention. The result is that (both Eric and Jeff agree) food in Korea just hits different, achieving heights not found anywhere in the US. If you spent your life only eating the Korean food in New York City, you would not be able to imagine how good the food is here.

One of the pleasures of coaching is that I get to meet and work with some of the smartest and most capable folks. Talented, ambitious people. They have high standards and innovative ideas. Their sphere of experience as startup founders, CEOs and execs is often broad. But it also has its limits.

Leaders tend to calibrate their expectations based on who they have worked with in the past, because true competence, creativity and experience are very hard to absorb from books or other media. You might have read Steve Jobs’ biography, and learned that he was an obsessive about design detail, but until you have worked directly with someone who has a real eye for quality and is prepared to put in the hours to achieve it, it can be very hard to understand what that is like in the real context of your business (and what costs it might put on you and your team to be around). You need to see how people respond to live situations and true adversity before it starts to click.

When trying to change direction, or radically improve results in an underperforming area of the business, I often hear leaders describing the problem in quite fixed, restrictive terms. They might talk about a business development struggle with their own vocabulary, and make it sound intractable because of x, y and z - their partners do this, the market is this, the product is this price because of that, and so we can’t do this, and are blocked from that strategy. But this is often because they are viewing the issue and any potential solutions within their own framework of experience. The nature of a Series A/B/C company is that you are small, and while you might attract great talent, you probably have not had access to world-class talent in every area. Because of this, you are not opening yourself up to the full scope of possibility — you’re restricted by what’s inside your own head. My job is to help leaders get out.

Common startup advice is that you should hire people better than yourself. This is true, but not because they will think like you and be ‘more productive’ or ‘more efficient’. It’s true because they can bring a new paradigm that you have never thought of which unlocks completely untraveled paths.

In sales, for example, a true A+ player will often bring a completely different worldview about how to approach the market, a different way of working with a product team, a radically new distribution approach, or a complete change in team culture. They may bring a combination of interwoven qualities that can change the entire trajectory of your business. Or, they might just change small, subtle things about the way your team communicates and executes that unlocks the true performance potential of the team in ways that you, yourself could not see. These radical improvements happen not because you foresaw them, but because you created the conditions for them to be possible. As such, your bar for new senior hires should not be that they are better at executing, it should be that they open new paths.

Ask yourself: Are you restricting your company’s future because you personally cannot imagine it?

How long have you been playing your solo?

One of the joys and discomforts of group travel is that you start to observe repetitive dynamics within your meals, your walks, your departures, your arrivals. You might find that someone always plays the role of navigator, because they know the local language or are most adept with the apps. Someone else always wants to take a cab. Someone else is eager to drink.

A common refrain: one person might dominate the conversation, taking a long time to tell a story that starts to leave other folks bored. You see phones being picked up, side conversations begin, boo. I think of a jazz band, where each player might be given 16 bars for a solo - but perhaps the bassist keeps going on long after their allotted time. It starts to throw the whole thing off as they noodle away for 24, 32 bars. The other band players might look around at each other — everyone else can spot it but the bass player. Woof.

In startups, a leader must set strategy and vision, build a strong team, raise money. The founder might have an incredible drive and deep domain expertise, plus the responsibility to keep the whole damn thing moving.

Over time, this skill and drive can start to become as much of a hindrance as an asset. I’ve been there myself. The company starts revolving around a specific paradigm, a specific way of thinking about how things should be done, that ends up being more restrictive than helpful.

How do leaders make sure that this original vision does not get out of step with reality? How do they make sure they’re not playing that bass solo for too long, de-motivating their colleagues and hurting company performance. The answer is difficult - you need to strike a balance between leadership and seeking corrective feedback from everyone around you. This is difficult in realtime, and equally hard over months and years.

Can’t I just train those around me to give me feedback when I’m off course? Maybe. But this is only part of the answer. The downside is that relying purely on this approach means you are giving everyone else a job, and giving yourself a free pass when things go off the rails. You end up with a lot of “Oh, you should have told me.” In contrast, could you improve your self-awareness while also being open to feedback? Create a stronger feedback loop by participating in it? It’s a two-way street and your responsibility is to create the conditions for communication while actively seeking dissent, contrarian views, unpopular opinions.

Ask yourself: Can I sense imbalance? How well do I hear feedback? What are people not telling me?

What are you missing about the bigger picture?

One of the things that ends up happening as you travel in foreign lands with a local guide: Apparent paradoxes are resolved and confusions are cleared up when locals are able to share invisible broader context and history with visitors. For example, one of many conditions that have allowed the Chaebol of Korea (e.g. LG, Hyundai) and the Keiretsu of Japan (e.g. Mitsubishi, Sumitomi Mitsui) to become and stay so large, complex and entrenched, is the intertwining of corporate and political power, and the functions of the state that they play. You might ask, is it better for a large company to keep poor-performing employees around at low pay, or for them to become unemployed, placing the responsibility for their welfare upon the state instead? It’s a good question - and better than just joking about how ‘inefficient’ the chaebol system is compared to ‘lean’ US orgs.

The inescapable subject in comedy (certainly in the US) at the moment is around what you are ‘allowed’ to say and what you are not. Comics like Dave Chappelle have become so obsessed with this question that it eclipses all other aspects of their act — and in my opinion this is when they become incredibly boring. Older white male comics get into doom loops of obsession. “You can’t say anything anymore” is repeated ad nauseam.

In a sense, they are right — they can’t make the same jokes anymore. But not in the way they think. Earlier comedy audiences have been, for example, ‘all white’ — or nonwhite, or non-cisgendered folks have been in a position where they did not feel they were able to express themselves when offended. So comedians could, in effect, say anything with impunity. Now, if you do a Netflix special, thank goodness your audience reach includes a much more diverse segment of society, who ain’t having it.

Of course, the bigger picture is that systemic inequality and racism and prejudice is, obviously, still around. Until this improves, that more-diverse audience will still, of course, be triggered by jokes about the situation. To use an extreme example, if you’re being held hostage, you might not find jokes made by your captor about kidnapping particularly funny. Even if they are objectively a fantastic comic.

All this to say - if you try to argue whether comedians are really in a bind, or whether Dave Chappelle should be able to make jokes about LGBTQIA+ culture, you will go round and round in circles, unless you zoom out and examine the bigger picture. Comedy exists in society, the audience exists in society, and society informs the paradigm for comedy. As long as discrimination exists, people will be triggered by jokes that target the discriminated group. This is obvious and invisible at the same time, like the behind-the-scenes state services of large conglomerates.

Why is this relevant in business? In the abstract, you are exploring a problem by zooming out and understanding context. Looking for context is a fundamental problem-solving technique that is easy for leaders to forget. We get so caught up in our existing understandings of the market, of our competitors, of our team, that we fail to see bigger systems at play.

Ask yourself: What might I not yet know? When might a bigger picture give me a better answer?

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