Examining what it takes to be a country manager of a multinational pharma company in some of the world’s most challenging markets. Here, Eugene Kim, Seoul office leader of executive search firm Egon Zehnder outlines the new profile he looks for in potential candidates for country manager positions in South Korea.


Transformation is necessary, not just to preserve market share, but also to remain relevant in the marketplace

What Qualities Do You Look For in a South Korea Country Manager?

More and more, multinational companies are asking Korea GMs to transform their local operations; not merely grow revenue and increase profitability. They want Korea GMs to develop and implement new business ideas regarding how the local team creates value and manage operations that fit into the larger picture of the global organization.

This need to transform comes from being in a market that is heavily regulated by the local government, while new, more agile competitors are appearing faster than ever before. Transformation thus is necessary, not just to preserve market share, but also to remain relevant in the marketplace. Even under the best of conditions, this is not an easy task and what makes this particularly challenging for the Korea GMs is that they are likely to require strategies that are quite different from those that have worked before.

In the past, requirements were straightforward, one checked if the candidate had (1) a solid record of accomplishment of growing a business, (2) demonstrated strong leadership, and (3) possessed people management skills. A command of general management disciplines and techniques was necessary and setting aggressive goals and delivering were a must.

Nowadays multinational companies want the above and more. Therefore, we need to check if a candidate has (i) demonstrated creativity in addressing strategic challenges; (ii) applied innovation to achieve specific business objectives; (iii) collaborated cross-functionally and globally to build alignment around a vision and plan of action. These competencies are different from increasing the output of a production process or the performance of a sales team. Instead of directing his or her “troops” to a defined goal like a battlefield commander, the transformative leader needs to act more like an orchestra conductor, assembling people and resources and creating an environment that allows creative interaction to unfold.

Of course, the leader is still responsible for meeting benchmarks and timetables — but must do so by “orchestrating” rather than “commanding.”


Is there an Ideal Profile/Professional Pathway?

There is no set path; it is a journey. What I mean by this is that candidates aspiring to become Korea GMs must not focus on the position at hand but more towards what they will be learning from the given role. The days of self-promoting a candidacy based on the name value of the company worked for, title and the size of the team managed are gone. “What did you do?”, “How did you do it?”, “Why did you do that and what were you thinking?” become more relevant and important than just going about business as usual.

Therefore, I would challenge candidates not to be afraid to take a step back in order to try a different function or gain experience in a field one has no knowledge of versus promotions and larger responsibilities. A few years ago, when Digital was the keyword and corporations were in a rush to hire Chief Digital Officers (CDOs), everyone was focused on bringing in candidates who had the most technical expertise. Now leading companies are asking us to find CDOs who can even be chief human resources officers (CHROs). Being comfortable with technology is a must but orchestrating (rather than commanding) creativity and connecting the people to the organization is KEY. This is a core challenge that every leader faces, not just CDOs (including Korea GMs). Transformation involves risk-taking – understanding and being prepared for the extent of change can significantly mitigate risk for both the organization and the executive. The only way to prepare for this is to gain exposure/experience in complex situations, achieving something remarkable as early on and as much as possible in a candidate’s career.


Which Challenges will they Need to Address?

For candidates who have a good grasp of what I have mentioned above and understand the full implications – I would advise them to prepare themselves for the following: Rather than focusing on the brand of the company and size of your team, focus on the role you are taking on and if it will enable you to have an impact on the company. Rather than diligently executing the direction given to you (which will enable one to achieve targets and goals), see if you can come up with your own strategy, making sure you know where your ideas come from and how they came about. One will need to constantly reinvent oneself and this cannot be done by just being part of a well-oiled machine. One may get lucky and become a Korea GM by having blue-chip companies and fancy titles on their CVs but getting the job and doing it well are two separate things. Challenge yourself by taking on the most complex change project you can find, lead your team to achieve something remarkable versus just going after a target. If needs be, really try to change your superior’s view on something. In order to do the things you want to do, first, you will have to do the things you do not want to do, and do them well. To reach your goal, you need to be willing to make a certain amount of sacrifice.