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Interview: Christina Ahn, MD Morgan Philips Korea

Interview: Christina Ahn, MD Morgan Philips Korea

Having spent her life equally divided between Korea, the US and Greater China (Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan), Morgan Philips Korea MD, Christina Ahn, is perfectly placed to talk about the cultural and socio-economic factors that are so crucial to doing business in Korea and how to identify and attract top talent in this thriving global economy.

Despite being impacted by the pandemic, the Korean economic recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. As Ahn points out, “According to government statistics, in the second half of 2020 recruitment activity by multinationals had dropped by around 80% and for Korean domestic conglomerates that figure was closer to 50%. Aided by the optimism regarding the impending vaccine rollout, we’ve seen a significant pick-up in the first two quarters of 2021.”

Organisational agility

The pandemic has forced companies to rethink their hiring strategies, particularly for graduate level hires. “The biggest change to recruitment during the pandemic was the shift from mass hiring of new university graduates by major Korean conglomerates towards a more on demand recruitment of experienced hires,” says Ahn. “Companies like LG, SK and Hyundai have realised that staying agile has become the new normal in order to stay competitive in these uncertain times.”

In terms of industry sectors and specialist skills sought by employers, “we’re seeing demand soaring for digital, cloud and AI specialists but there are talent shortages, so sourcing and hiring senior leaders in technology is a challenge for many companies. Korea is at the forefront of innovation so the demand for Life Sciences and biotech is also high as it is from consumer as well as FMCG brands”.

Language and culture

With the demand for high quality bilingual candidates increasing and executive recruitment becoming more about skills than national borders, the growth opportunity for global and bilingual candidates as well as executive search providers is growing. “Making the right hire with the right mix of experience and local knowledge is key. Many MNEs have realised that you need a combination of global experience with a keen understanding of the complex cultural nuances of the local business and labour markets,” she stresses.

Ahn continues, “Until now, the 600+ headhunting firms in the local market have largely been unable to meet clients’ expectations for global standard professionalism. Morgan Philips Korea aims to engage with customers at this level of high touch consultancy to ensure that organisations are provided with the talent that meets their increasingly global outlook,”

Female role models

In a recent interview with the AMCHAM Korea Journal, Ahn spoke about the importance of aligning executive search and HR consulting. She explains, “Traditionally, recruitment was seen as more of a transactional function within HR, but with the changing business landscape and the need to engage the workforce in creative ways in remote and hybrid work situations, culture, values and hiring based on alignment of such values are becoming more important. The whole role of HR within a company has turned more into a highly strategic and advisory role, especially more so in the last two years and since the pandemic. The need for alignment of a company’s organisational culture, HR strategy and the transactional aspect of recruitment is being felt now more than ever.”

There is also increased demand for more diverse and inclusive talent in Korea with an impetus to promote more women leaders into senior positions, spurred by recent regulatory changes requiring ESG driven governance practices. But as Ahn points out, “Women in Korea lack proper mentors and role models so we have to collectively bring about change [Ahn herself sits on AMCHAM Korea’s women’s leadership committee, the board of the German Chamber of Commerce women’s mentorship programme and the British Chamber of Commerce’s women in business committee]”.

‘Generational shift’

Although a more diverse and inclusive recruitment culture is gradually taking shape throughout society, there are still obstacles to overcome. “Although the government has initiated ‘blind’ hiring practices that omit information such as gender, name of school etc. much of recruitment still takes place based on age in Korea due to cultural norms related to language and seniority,” states Ahn. “This unfortunately often results in great talent immediately being ruled out due to a very narrow age difference from the age range specified in the job description. There is a generational shift taking place with a large cultural gap between we call here in Korea the ‘MZ’ generation [Millennials and Gen Z] and Gen X. The difficulties in recruiting in Korea can be partially attributed to this.”  

As for standing out during the interview process, Korean candidates need to promote themselves better. “This is very unique to our culture as Koreans are educated and taught to show a lot of humility which equates to not speaking. But how do you showcase your talent without being more assertive and aggressive? Of course there is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. While humility is an important leadership attribute, to get to those levels you have to also put yourself out there, raise your visibility, understand how others perceive you and increase your own sphere of influence.”

If you’re looking to appoint your next senior level hire in Korea, you can contact Christina at christina.ahn@morganphilips.com

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