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[EYE] Corning chief breaks female leader stereotype

Lee Haeng-hee recalls what it took to rise to the top in male-dominated materials business

Women in Korea have come a long way.

Their social and political standings have greatly improved in this traditionally male-dominated society, as can be seen by the female head of the nation.

In the corporate world, however, little has changed. Women in boardrooms or the C-suite are still a rare sight.

Lee Haeng-hee is among those rare ones.

Corning Korea president Lee Haeng-hee (Corning Korea)
Corning Korea president Lee Haeng-hee (Corning Korea)
The president of Corning Korea, the local unit of U.S. materials firm Corning, is the epitome of how a woman’s hard work, passion and tenacity can shatter the glass ceiling.

Having joined Corning Korea in 1988 as a customer services staff, Lee climbed the corporate ladder one rung at a time to finally reach the top in 2004.

“Looking back, I am grateful that I had a workplace where I can work and have my individual value recognized as much as I put efforts,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Herald. “One of Corning’s seven key values is respecting individual value and that’s what motivated me.”

Despite holding the top job for 12 years now, the president continues to be passionate. She is also unassuming and down-to-earth -- a far cry from the stereotypical image of a successful female leader being fierce and charismatic.

At first, Lee had a hard time dealing with the technical terms and jargon of the materials industry. She has an undergraduate degree in history and a Ph.D. in business.

The only solution was for her to put in continuous effort to get familiar with the industry. Every weekend and early every morning, she would go to work and study the products.

“I say that I graduated from ‘Corning Engineering University,’” the 52-year-old said.

“Studying only Corning products was not enough. I had to study the products of customers’ companies to appeal to them (including) why they would need Corning products. I couldn’t bear not knowing the jargon and products.”

Even with such knowledge, the materials business was a tough place for a woman, she said. Corning Korea supplies glass, ceramics and other materials to local manufacturers.

“Some men ignored me by never looking at me when I was talking to them during meetings.

“There was nothing I could do but patiently continue to talk and wait until they felt comfortable to engage in conversation with me.”

Even now, after almost three decades, the industry has not changed much. It is still a male-dominated field where sexual discrimination is prevalent.

“I just got used to the tough environment,” said Lee.

One thing that kept her strong all those years was ironically her mother’s traditional social perception, Lee said.

“My mother was a traditional Korean woman who favored men over women and stressed gender roles. She would always treat my brother better while never complimenting me. Lack of compliments led me to study harder and work harder. I think it also help me be disciplined to survive in the tough reality,” she recalled.

“But she never hesitated to encourage me whenever I felt down.” 
Corning Korea president Lee Haeng-hee (Corning Korea)
Corning Korea president Lee Haeng-hee (Corning Korea)
To survive as a female leader in male-dominated society, she stressed the importance of having male mentors.

“Having male mentors is crucial. Women need to understand men’s way of thinking and behavior, with an open mind. That definitely helps women have broader understanding.”

But most importantly, horning one’s own skills should come first to truly survive in any industry, she added.

“Regardless of sex, all must be professional with full capacity. In order to do so, developing oneself is essential. That way, one can truly bear any challenges, even invisible discrimination against women,” Lee said.

As the president of the company, she believes in the power of empowerment.

In order to boost employees’ work capacities and sustain good leadership, a leader must be able to recognize employees’ individual values and roles, she stressed.

“Once an employee realizes how much he or she can play an important role at work, the worker starts to feel confident and proud of oneself, naturally showing better performance,” said Lee who was picked as one of “10 executives to watch” in 2005 by Asia Wall Street Journal. “Leaders should help them realize their individual values rather than just giving loads of tasks.”

Lee has been an advisory board member of the Executive Education Committee of Korea Management Association since 2006. She has also consecutively served as the chairman of the Korean CEO’s Association of Multinational Corporations since July 2010, which enlists more than 150 global business leaders as its members.

As for her company, Lee said that Corning has served as a “technology bridge” for Korean innovative companies throughout its over 40-year presence here.

Corning opened a liaison office in Korea in 1972, which was expanded to a branch office in 1987. Corning Korea launched in 1996.

“Corning Korea has been playing a key role between Corning and Korean companies by introducing advanced technology and solutions to the Korean market. When thinking of its full history, it seems that Corning has meshed with Korea’s economic development,” Lee said.

Starting from cookware, Corning Korea has expanded its technology innovation to substrate for auto, lab ware, optical communication components and network, and cover glass for smartphones.

From the ’80s, the company has supplied cellular ceramic substrates to Korean carmakers and provided cutting-edge emissions control technology that keeps pace with the country’s toughening environmental regulations. It has also regularly held technical conferences for Korean car and components makers to share technology trends and information.

“(Corning Korea’s) goal is simple. It seeks to put in the utmost efforts to contribute to the country’s development by supporting Korean companies as an essential partner to raise their competitiveness and enter the global market,” she added.

Reaching the goal is only possible through a stable relationship with employees based on respect for each individual, Lee said.

“Corning is guided by an enduring set of values that defines our relationship with employees, customers and communities. It believes that how we do things is as important as what we do. The individual is a key component of what is going to make us successful as a company.”

By Lee Hyun-jeong  (