‘The top person must want change’

By Korea Herald

Leadership and communications coach Kim Hoh talks about effective apologies, management

  • Published : Feb 13, 2015 - 19:10
  • Updated : Feb 13, 2015 - 19:10
“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” crooned singer Elton John; “Hard to say I’m sorry,” belted rock group Chicago ― indeed, the word “sorry” appears to be a difficult word to utter, so caught up are we in not wanting to appear weak.

However, according to Kim Hoh, founder and head coach of THE LAB h who specializes in crisis management and communication, “sorry” is the word of the strong. 
Kim Hoh (sixth from right) conducts a workshop at Hyundai Card last year. (THE LAB h)

“People think apology is a loser’s language. But apology is actually a leader’s language,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday at his office in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

“Apologies require a lot of mental strength,” said Kim, who has authored a number of self-development books, including one on how to apologize.

Taking the example of Cho Hyun-ah, the former Korean Air vice president who was given a one-year jail sentence Thursday over her globally notorious case of “nut rage,” Kim said Cho’s very first apology got things off on the wrong foot.

Finding fault with the in-flight service of the first-class cabin crew on her New York to Seoul flight, Cho had verbally humiliated the crew and physically assaulted them before ordering the senior cabin manager to get off the plane. The pilot returned the taxiing plane to the gate so that the cabin manager could deplane.

The public was infuriated by the incident, taking it as yet another example of abuse of power by a member of a company’s founding family. Her apologies were deemed insincere as were her tears ― many saw them as crocodile tears ― and the cabin manager testified that she never sincerely apologized to him. The court that sentenced Cho to one year in prison on Thursday also considered her apologies inauthentic.

Further upsetting the public as the case unfolded were the allegations that Korean Air officials tried to coerce or persuade people involved to testify favorably on behalf of Cho. Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, Hyun-ah’s father, is reported to have asked his executives why no one had told him the truth.

“The case illustrates the dilemma in crisis management. In discussing the crisis, company executives will find it difficult to tell the owner (the chief) to step up to the plate. They will, instead, say, ‘We will take care of it,’” Kim said. “Internal politics hamper effective response in a crisis situation.”

The solution, then, is for the chief to get a third-person opinion. “When the brain is stressed, it is difficult to make logical decisions and we respond emotionally. Don’t trust your judgment when you are stressed. Get opinion from trusted friends, not your company executives,” Kim said. “That person does not have to be a consultant. You need someone looking from the outside in, not from the inside out.”

Kim cites actress Kim Hae-soo’s response to accusations of plagiarism as an exemplary case of apology. “She apologized immediately, about an hour after the accusations came to light, and took action ― relinquishing the master’s degree,” he said. The incident occurred just as her new drama series was to launch, but the drama enjoyed great ratings ― all because the actress apologized the right way.

Kim’s office has a panoramic view of Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Blue House behind it. Asked what advice he might offer if the Blue House ― frequently criticized for its lack of communication ― were to seek any advice, Kim said matter-of-factly that changes can occur only to the extent that the top person desires it. “The top person must want change,” he said.
Kim Hoh, founder of THE LAB h, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday at his office in Seoul. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)

Kim stressed the importance of listening. Of all the elements of communication ― reading, writing, listening and speaking ― listening is the highest-level skill, according to Kim. “It’s not that people do not know this; it is that people don’t practice it,” he said.

The chances that a staff member will truly speak his mind are virtually nil, according to Kim. “They feel that they stand to gain no credit for it,” said Kim. What the leader can do is request an honest opinion, Kim explained. “Create a structure that makes the employees comfortable to say what they are really thinking,” said Kim.

In the case of the Blue House, the president should request her public opinion team to attack her from the perspective of an outsider, Kim suggested.

Kim, who served as managing director at PR firm Edelman Korea for four years, founded THE LAB h, a leadership and crisis communications coaching firm, in 2007. “I had always harbored the idea that I would make a change when I turned 40, and headhunters advise changing jobs when you are at the top,” said Kim in explaining his career change when he was at the peak of his game. Growing unsatisfied at his position requiring him to conduct general management, he planned a change. “The plan was to work for three years and then leave. I carried it out,” he said.

“You should date your company, not marry it,” said Kim, noting that workers should work at creating an occupation while working for a company. “Occupation is something that you can do alone, even after you leave an organization,” he said. With the average life expectancy growing, people really need to think about what they can do after they retire from their current positions, Kim advised.

As for college graduates who are struggling to find jobs, Kim said, “We all know what jobs are promising. We fail because we do not know ourselves,” he said.

Kim’s first piece of advice is to really exert effort to get to know oneself. “You have to know yourself at least by your early 30s. From 35-45, you need to build your career,” he said.

The second point to remember is that you can create your own job. “There are diverse jobs out there. You need to think micro,” he said. “You need to find what you like and then do it.”

It is also important to know how to accept rejections. “If the rejection rate is eight out of 10 and I don’t take action because I am afraid of rejection, then two will be lost opportunities,” he said.

“While all know the way, few actually walk the way,” Kim said, observing that this is the characteristic of the vast majority. “You have to take the first step. Then opportunity will arise.”

By Kim Hoo-ran (