Who is Thomas Kim?
My name is Thomas Kim and I’m the Managing Director of Thomson Reuters in China, and I run all of our businesses there. I’m on a journey of self discovery for myself as a person; I view what I do for work as just part of who I am and part of who I’m trying to become. And as I think about what I try to achieve in my career, it really is a reflection of my values around myself in terms of becoming more self actualized. And really, maybe it sounds a little bit overly simple, but I try to be happy.
So I think about what makes me happy in my life, how do I achieve that in terms of my work-life balance, how do I support my family, how do I contribute to my community, how do I feel fulfilled in terms of what I’m doing professionally, what does that journey look like over time. So to me, who I am and what I am at any given moment is changing and evolving, and that’s the great thing about what I do and the career that I’ve had and the life that I’ve led has been a wonderful journey.
When I think about my legacy, and what I want to leave behind, first and foremost I really think about my family and would I be the right kind of parent, would I be the right kind of partner to my wife, will my children and my partner think that I gave them everything that I want to give them. I thought a lot about what it means to be a family person, and is that in balance with what it means to be a great executive. A great business leader. Someone who is very active in the community. I think all the things we do are so demanding, it’s quite easy to get your life out of balance. And so I do actually check myself every now and then and ask myself, is the balance right?
And so first and foremost when I think about my legacy, I want my daughter to think about me – and if she remembers me when I’m long gone out of this world – I want her to think that she really had the time she wanted with me and really enjoyed it. And I would never want to think that as I am older and looking back on my life, that I would regret the decisions that I made about where I was, who I spent my time with. So that’s part of it.
In terms of my professional legacy and the legacy I have with my community, I want people to feel that I cared about the greater good, more than just myself. And that it was a benefit to work with me as a professional colleague, to work with me as a business partner for our customers and our third parties that we have as stakeholders, and I’d like the employees to think that they benefitted from working with me, as someone who cared about them and developed them.
When I think about the people who made a difference in my life, I think about how whatever contributions they made to help me, to help the team I was on, to help the overall goal that we were trying to achieve as a group – I’m always struck by how that kind of contribution can continue to give over time. And so when I think about the word ‘legacy’, to me, it’s sort of an ongoing contribution that someone leaves behind. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have known enough incredibly generous people who have legacies for me in that way, and I would love for someone to have benefited from something that I worked on with them, or that we did together, and have them think about later, ‘wow, I really learned something from working with Thom.’ And to me, that would be wonderful.
Tell us about your career journey.
When I came out of law school, I joined a law firm and I was doing a certain kind of practice, which was environmental pollution coverage work. And I went into it because I thought I really liked the underlying idea behind the work, which was around fighting big polluters and feeling good about that on some sort of moral and ethical basis. But I realized the actual work itself I didn't like. There were these massive, multi-billion dollar cases and I was a very junior person on these big cases and I wasn't getting the responsibility that I wanted. So then I left that practice and actually went to a smaller practice for a much larger law firm – Baker McKenzie – where I was doing my own casework and I was trying my own cases, and I had my own engagements one-on-one with our clients. And our clientele were typically international customers, many of them from Asia. And that sort of began my connection there.
I hadn't really planned to leave private practice so early. I left it only after three years out of law school. But I was recruited to join, like many people who came out of the Bay Area, I was recruited to join a startup; in this case it was a startup that was a spinoff from the former Reuters company. And so I went and I joined them. And part of that was it wasn't something I was expecting to do, but it seemed as if I missed that window of opportunity, I didn't know if it was going to come back – I didn't know when it might come back. And so even though I was quite happy, I took that big change.
Once I was inside the company, the journey of being a lawyer inside a company to where I am today – where I'm leading a business – it's all quite a natural progression. I think people who are very good inside business are people who are multi players, who play different kinds of roles. And one of the pieces of advice I received very early on, as a young in-house lawyer at that point – so this was about four years into my career – was to really think about what are you good at and what is your personal brand. And so very early on, I identified that one of my skills was fixing problems; and if there were big challenges, I wanted to be known as the kind of person the company could send to fix it, no matter what it was. And so that manifested itself in many different roles that I served with for then Reuters, and then with Thomson Reuters. After we had the IPO and we spun off this company called TIBCO, which is still public today, I helped fold the part of the business that we kept back into Reuters. I then began a career as a media lawyer during some very interesting times, including during the Iraq war, and had some very difficult situations to resolve. Then I did a lot of international practice for the company and oftentimes was sent to handle difficult situations in different parts of the world. And throughout the different roles that I had in Asia and elsewhere in the world for the company, one consistent theme was – if there was something that needed to be fixed, if there was a difficult challenge that we as a company needed to do, I would go and take care of it.
I got asked quite frequently, would you be willing to run a business, would you like to run a business? And I said well, for the right one I would. And so then this opportunity to run our China business came up, and it was frankly one of the biggest professional challenges that I had been given because it's quite a sizable business. It is complex, it is in a very difficult market to operate in, and it would be my first general management role. And I remember talking with my wife Erica and going through all the different positive and negatives to taking on this role, and the one thing that I really latched on to was, one – I did think the company needed me to do this. Two – I thought that I could bring value to the process, and that I could really help people to get this business to the next stage of where it should be, on its own growth path and its own development as a business. And I thought, wow, I'm going to learn such incredible things by doing it. It won't be easy, and who knew if I was going to be successful or not.
There was a high risk of failure. When you're a general manager and you own a P&L, it’s quite different from being an advisor or a consultant or a lawyer. I think you can always view yourself as being a little bit on the sidelines. I think good lawyers and advisers do not do that, but there is still a part of you that has a little bit of psychic relief that you're not ultimately the person who owns the financial result of what happens. But for those of us who own P&L’s, I think there's an incredible sense of responsibility that you feel, partly to the corporation for entrusting you; but I think for most people it's really about success as a business, which means success for all the people who work for you, all the people whose salaries and whose bonuses and whose commissions depend on your success as a business roll up to you. And all the people who rely upon those people to be successful are also counting on you. And to me, I hadn't really ever owned that level of responsibility before; and so to me it really made me appreciate more how difficult and how special it is to have leadership of that level. And so it's been an incredible learning experience for me, and it continues to be.
What is your career philosophy?
I use the word ‘journey’ to describe my career, and I know – especially coming out of California, where I went to school and started my professional career – that’s a word that sometimes people say is overused. But I can’t stop using the word because I really do feel there is a starting point and you don’t quite know where the destination is. But what’s important is what happens along the way.
I started as a lawyer, and I came out of Stanford Law School and started my practice in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. I could never have predicted the different twists and turns, the different challenges that I would take. I think like many people coming out of grad school, I had a long list of things that I thought was going to make me happy, and a very defined notion of what I thought I wanted to do. I thought coming out, that I would want to practice environmental law, I thought that I would not ever leave the San Francisco Bay Area, but both those things did not end up being the defining points of my professional career or ended up what made me happy.
I think what I did come out with that has always served me good stead, has been a willingness to look at the opportunities that are in front of me, a willingness to take on risk; which is a little bit of a weird thing to say for someone who spent a long time being a compliance officer and being a risk manager and being a lawyer. But I’ve always looked at risk as something that you balance and seeing what the upside is, and I haven’t been afraid to take that risk. And I think that part of it is coming from an immigrant background. Nothing I do, in my mind, can be as bold or as brave as what my parents, and the generation that they came with, or other people’s parents or grandparents that were immigrants, had.
And the decision to come to the United States in those days is, in my mind, mind-blowing in terms of how brave that was. And so to me, the kind of different choices that I had about taking pivots in my career, going to different industries, doing different practices, trying something for the first time, being willing to accept the possibility of failure, sometimes failing, learning from failure and moving forward… to me, this has all been somewhat tempered by the notion that there are people who would love to have that opportunity and just haven’t had it.
And I think the legacy that those generations before us, left to us, to make it possible for Asian Americans like myself. I feel both just a great privilege to have it, but also a burden to really make the most of it. And I think if I lived my life very safely, what was the value of all of those sacrifices that those who came before us gave? And so I think I try to make the most of the opportunities that are in front of me; and when I look at my career, it really hasn’t been a logical story that I made up in the beginning, and that I ticked the boxes as I went along.
What I often tell people is that your career makes a lot of sense when you look back. And oftentimes you have to explain why you did things, and then you find the narrative thread that makes sense between one part of your life, one chapter to another. But as you’re going through these changes, sometimes very large disruptive changes in your career and personal life, sometimes it’s hard to know what is that connective thread between this part of what you’re doing and the next thing that you do.
And when you begin a new challenge you don’t always know how it’s going to end. You don’t know, is this going to be the chapter in which you reach incredible success financially or professionally, and so that’s why it’s important; or is this a chapter where you learn some really hard lessons. And those lessons are what then get you to the next part of your life where you really reach that fulfillment. You don’t know that in the beginning. So I try not to think too much about, does this make sense as I’m moving forward, as long as it makes sense as I’m doing it. And then I try to look back at the journey that I’ve been on, try to see what has been that connective thread, and am I directionally heading in the way that I want to be. Because I think that much is important.
And so to me, it continues to be a real privilege and just a fun ride, and I hope that it will always be that way. And I think the moment that what I do professionally isn’t fulfilling me that way, then I think I’d want to reevaluate what I’m doing.
How has your background influenced your success?
It's interesting – when people meet me, and the context in which they meet me, they may make some assumptions about who I am or the background that I came from. And I think there's a lot of people that are like that, and I think the people who are very good at building teams and leading groups of people can relate to different kinds of people. And so I think, like many business leaders, I have a very diverse background in terms of different experiences that I've had. I mentioned previously that I went to Stanford University; I was there for undergrad and law school, and had a stint in Silicon Valley – it was through the whole Dot Com boom. So there are some assumptions that one might make that these were the formative years of my life, being someone from the West Coast, and being someone who was involved in the tech boom.
Other people who might have met me later would have met someone who was in New York during another subsequent boom in the financial services industry, and might make some assumptions that I'm somebody who's from the news and media and financial services world of London and New York, and part of that axis that would also be true. I think what is also equally true, and maybe some people wouldn't know professionally, is that I actually grew up in Dallas, Texas and in the surrounding area.
Growing up as an Asian immigrant in Texas during a time when there wasn't a lot of people there who looked like me, or who had the same background as me, had just as equally an important part of forming who I am. And I think when you are this other person, when you are someone who is not part of the norm or the mainstream, there's a couple of different paths that you can go in terms of how you develop. You could retreat into yourself or into your own community, you could find comfort in trying to be with just people who remind you of who you are – that's very hard to do when everyone's different from you. And that can actually take away some of your confidence, that can make you withdraw from the larger world.
I think I took the other path, which was to say, ‘I am who I am,’ and to have great confidence in myself and just be very confident in who I am, and not necessarily try to be like the people who around me because they are different. And no matter how hard I might try, no matter how good of a person I can be in terms of how I relate to people, I cannot change the color of my skin, I wouldn't change the way that my name is spelled, I wouldn't change the history of who I am. And so you have to be comfortable in your own skin. Being able to do that in an environment where people were not like me was great training to have confidence in myself and who I am through all the facets of life.
I think the other thing that I learned growing up in Texas was the deep friendships that I formed with people in Texas. And I think I relate very easily and very naturally when I still meet people from Texas to this day. And so one of the things I find quite interesting about people who are successful in life is, you draw from these different experiences of who you are. And if you're doing it the right way, you find a positive to all the different experiences that you had. So I think it's a great benefit that I've had some very diverse – and maybe some incongruous – experiences together, but it's really allowed me to learn some of the skills that have helped me to be successful.
But really, the most important thing that all these different experiences have given me is a real good understanding about who I am. Who I am inside, what defines who Thomas Kim is, what do I have to hold dear to myself, what do I feel confident about, that I'm never going to be afraid of who I am. But also that confidence allows me to be open minded about what can I learn, how can I grow, how can I be better, because I think sometimes a lack of humility comes from insecurity. If you're more secure, I think you're more open to learning, doing new things, possibly failing, learning from these kinds of a challenges and experiences.
So I really look at my immigrant experience, and I think of my experience growing up in Texas, going to school in California and starting my private practice and my career there, all the years I spent in New York and a lot of time working in London, and my different years working in Asia as a professional and as an expatriate, as all been equally important in terms of forming who I am today.
What are your top accomplishments?
I've been lucky enough to have had a lot of great challenges to overcome and a lot of great opportunities to drive excellence through. But I think when I look back at my career, one time –which is one of the more difficult times that have actually worked – has always been very meaningful for me and I think will always be meaningful for me.
One of the roles that I've had in the company over the years was that, for about a decade, I was a lead lawyer for our news operations. And during that period of time we had the American involvement in the Iraq War, and that was a very difficult time. Immediately following the attacks in New York from 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq and the aftermath, there were many issues involving our news coverage of these kinds of issues. And it really formed the debate that I think some people have forgotten that was quite for vociferous at the time and not so easily defined as it is as appears to be now. I remember after 9/11 it was there was intense pressure for anyone who did anything that seemed to not be patriotic. Anyone who might try to question what was then a very monolithic view, I think, about good versus evil, America versus what other forces that are out there. And voices of objectivity, voices of non-nationalism were sometimes criticized and viewed as being a threat and being dangerous. It wasn't easy in those days to be a lawyer for a non-US media organization that really values objectivity and freedom from bias; people use those words I think to associate themselves with great principles, but I really think Reuters has always taken this truly to heart and we have people who have given up their lives in the pursuit of freedom from bias.
And so as a lawyer representing our news coverage during those difficult years, I unfortunately had some very difficult situations that I had to deal with. With journalists being arrested, beaten, tortured, and unfortunately a number of our colleagues who ended up dying during the Iraq War. And it really made me think about what makes someone care so much about the work that they do, the professional work that they do, that they would risk their lives. And I think even more importantly to me, and I'm a parent so I think about this a lot, which is what would make you care so much about the professional work that you would do that you would risk leaving behind the ones that you love… the people who count on you. It's an incredible commitment to really believe that you're contributing so much to the world and what you're doing, that you would risk not only your own personal safety, but your ability to care for the people who are entirely dependent upon you.
And even now when I think about the people that we lost, the colleagues that we lost, it's very difficult for me to talk about it. And I become quite emotional, because even then I realized that they are giving a greater sacrifice than I'm ever going to be asked as a lawyer to give. But it did make me reflect upon the importance of making choices; with how you spend your time, who do you affiliate with, and are you proud of what you do, are you proud of where you work. These are men and women who could quite easily have not taken on these difficult challenges and done this difficult work – in a war zone, in covering news incidents in a war zone, is quite dangerous.
To me, being able to support them and help them during that time was just an incredible honor for me. But it was also very hard, because these sometimes do not have good, happy endings. When we lose colleagues, having to speak to those that they’ve left behind; having to fight to clear the names and reputations of colleagues that were good people, but who are being accused. You know, was this person killed because they were too close to insurgents in this area, was this person killed because they were careless with their own personal safety? These are questions that people will put forward as they try to analyze what led to a journalist fatality.
But these are also personal questions, because you can imagine – if your husband, if your father, if your wife, or if your mother was a person who lost their life, these kinds of questions actually are challenges to the professionalism and excellence of this person that you worked with, this person that you loved, this person who is a hero in your eyes. And so to me, if I feel proud about anything, is that I was part of a group of people who rallied together to try to do what was right; not when it was popular, not when it was easy, but because it was hard then. And because the world did not welcome what we were saying and did not welcome in those days what we were fighting for, it was even more important.
What are your thoughts on the P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles?
The P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles are a great framework to think about how to be successful in many things. But I’ve got to honestly say – until I ran a business, I couldn't really truly value it as much as I do today. Because now I run a business and a lot of people are counting on me to drive us and lead us to success. So maybe I could just highlight a couple of principles that I've been thinking about quite a lot in the last six months, and to show how they are all really interconnected.
I think it's not an accident that the first principle ‘P’ is ‘perseverance’, because I think no matter what you try to do in life, it's hard. And if you give up, if you are not persistent in what you're trying to do, you can't accomplish anything else. So those are table stakes, I think. And sometimes it's a little bit easy for people to not focus on whatever you're trying to do; if it's worth doing, it will be difficult. It'll be hard.
I think overall the principles are very meaningful to me, because a lot of them have to do with non-individualized success. So ‘O’ is for ‘others’, ‘N’ is for ‘networking’, ‘L’ is for ‘leading’; really what that means is the success of anything that we're going to try to do – particularly in the business world, and that's the background from which I speak – it's about people. And it's about how do you collectively work with others to achieve some greater goal that you can't accomplish on your own. If success in business was really about how hard you work, the life would be very very easy. What's most difficult about success in business, and most difficult about success actually in a lot of endeavors in life, is you can't do it by yourself. You need other people. So what is the way you need to think about how you connect with people?
So for instance I would say, currently in the business that I'm leading, one of the things that I'm consciously always thinking about is the different groups, the different functions, the different divisions that work for me, what is driving people's behavior? If there's conflict between two different members of my leadership team, what is the reason behind that? It's not enough just to say, ‘you two should get together’; but really we try to explore, ‘do we agree on what we're trying to accomplish, do we believe that we can help each other, and if we don't believe so, why is that?’ How can we help each other to have greater success, how can I help you, how can I help you in a way that isn't selfish to me? So the networking angle is not about, do I go out and I spend time with people and introduce myself and hand out my business cards and tell people “If you ever need me, think about Thom Kim and give me a call.” But it's really about, if I meet people, are they good people to meet, and could I help them in a way? And I think this attitude of giving is something that's really critical to our business.
What I try to talk with my leadership team a lot about in terms of ‘others’ and this concept of ‘networking’, is you really have an opportunity to build a relationship with someone by giving to them. And if you give of yourself and help someone to accomplish what they're trying to do, you're building credit with that person. And especially if you do something that doesn't have an immediate benefit to you, that person can then see you are someone that is worth having a relationship with because you're trustworthy, and you're not entirely self-motivated.
And you build up this ‘relationship credit’, which is a concept that I've heard other people talk about, and I really loved it so much that I adopted it for myself too. And you don't build that relationship credit if you're self-motivated in all the decisions that you make; if the lens by which you deal with others is yourself, then it's never going to work. But if the lens by which you think about others and the process of networking and then ironically the process of leadership is, ‘how can I help others because I want to help them, not because there's some benefit back to me,’ then it really builds an ecosystem in which all of these principles tie together and benefit each other – and benefit you.
What is your take on the POWER framework?
The POWER framework is incredibly important to getting through difficult challenges that we all face in terms of work. But I’d like to highlight one thing that I think probably doesn’t get talk about a lot, which is the ‘E’, which is ‘does this energize me?’
I always say to the people that I work with – and maybe this sounds very basic, but I really believe in it – ‘are you happy doing what you’re doing?’ And when I mean happy, I think the word ‘energizing’ is a good way to look at it; it’s not that everything we have to do professionally is something that is easy to do, that makes us smile and makes us feel like we’re having fun the way that a small child is viewing an activity, but as a professional. Do you think that the challenges you are facing, the challenges that you’re trying to manage, the opportunities that you’re going after, does this give you a positive energy in your life?
So I think the concept of ‘energize’ is much more complex than a simple view of ‘happiness’ and ‘sadness’ because some of the things that really drive growth – and definitely the things that drive business growth, not individual growth – are very hard things. And sometimes it’s very difficult to get through those things. But do you get energy from trying to accomplish that? Is the idea of what you’re trying to accomplish giving you fuel to get to where you want to be? Is the journey that you’re on giving you the energy that you need to accomplish these goals? Or is it sucking the lifeblood out of you?
And I think it’s important to ask yourself these questions because life is too short to be pursuing goals that you question whether or not – even if you were to achieve them – would they be worth the price that you pay? I think that if you are clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, and you know that you have a choice in how you spend your time, you have a choice in how you allocate your resources; then the ‘energize’ element of it becomes empowering because ‘I have chosen to do this. I have chosen to take on this challenge.’ Yes, it is hard. Yes, sometimes I don’t know if I’m going to be successful or not, but because it is an act of volition, I have energy from it.
I think if you feel that you don't have a choice, if you feel that what you’re trying to accomplish at work, or what you’re trying to do with your career is just a burden on you, then I think it can take energy away from you. And so I really think you need to find out what gives you energy. So when I talk to young people who are asking me for career mentorship, I stress that work is incredibly hard. Work is incredibly draining. So you have to find the thing that you want to do that gives you this energy. Because in the hard moments when you’re trying to figure out how to solve that problem, how to crack the code, how to figure out the puzzle; you want the activity that you’re doing, the career that you’ve chosen, the path that you are on, to give you the energy to accomplish that. You don’t want that to take the energy from you.
And maybe this is something you have to learn over time, and make choices. And I tell people its okay to realize what I’m doing now, how I’m making my choices isn’t giving me the energy that I need. So maybe I need to re-evaluate that. I think it’s okay to make this kind of evaluation, to make this kind of decision, because I do know that when you’re doing the right kind of work, on the right kind of challenges, there is an incredible amount of energy that you get because this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is what you’ve been trained for. This is the opportunity that you hoped you would get. And even when it’s hard, even when it’s difficult, rallying people to meet that kind of a challenge, thinking about how incredible it would feel if you would be successful, really drives you to achieve what maybe you thought was impossible. So I think it’s really important to make sure that you’re energized by what you do, the choices that you make, and how you go about trying to accomplish what you want.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
Growing up in Texas as Korean was hard in the 1970’s. First of all I'm not sure many Americans even remembered where Korea was, even though the Korean War had been fought not too long before. I think when people thought about Asian-Americans, they used a lens through which they only saw Chinese and Japanese. And I remember growing up, I received a lot of questions around “Am I Chinese? Am I Japanese? – and the racial slurs that actually were thrown at me were usually based upon these assumptions. There was still also I think a lot of bitterness around the Vietnam War, so there was that angle as well. So part of my identity as a Korean-American was very complex, because one – I knew I wasn't white, and I knew that I looked like these other Asian Americans, but I knew that we didn't speak the same language, we didn't come from the same culture. And the specific nationality that I came from, at least in the 1970s in Texas, it felt as if there just weren’t enough of us to know what our identity was. I came from a small Korean community that was living in Dallas at the time.
So much has changed. What I think has been completely unpredictable by me as a child would be that there would come a point later in my life where actually great global trends would be coming out of Korea – around music and fashion and art – and that it would become a great point of pride for me. What I didn't realize was that there were many other young Korean Americans like me who grew up identifying themselves as being individuals, and that our connecting thread would be that we are descendants of Korea living in America; but that we would actually form what I'm really proud of which is an incredibly unique and exciting culture as Korean Americans in the United States. And I always take great pride in what my peers, fellow Korean Americans, are doing in terms of interesting businesses that are creating great art, that they're producing an amazing number of cool restaurants and clubs, and galleries that are being formed.
And so now as my daughter – who is part Korean American and part Taiwanese American – as she's growing up, she can not only identify herself as an Asian-American, but at least from my perspective as being Korean-American she can see there's a thriving, an amazing culture of being Korean-American. And we spend, whenever we can, some time to go back to Korea so she can see the culture from which I came. So to me it's just been a wonderful blessing that my identity has also evolved, and it's been easier to associate with, as I myself have become older and more successful. But I think also just what it means to be a Korean American, what it means to be Korean, is better understood now than it was before; and I should take great pride in not only being Asian-American but specifically being a Korean American. What I tell my daughter is it's been a great time to actually have Korean heritage, because it has greater meaning now and is easier for people to understand – and to be I guess really honest, it's cooler than it was when I was growing up. And so there's great fun in terms of sharing in that culture.
Who are the people who have influenced you most?
I think anyone who's successful has had a large number of contributions from a lot of different people. Certainly I think about all the people who have helped me, and have helped me to be who I am today, and help me get on the journey to who I hope to be tomorrow. There's a long list of people that really have inspired me in so many ways – people in the community who have given me an opportunity when we were immigrants to this country and really needed a helping hand. People who role modeled, contributing more of themselves to others than taking for themselves.
I would say one of the people that really struck me early on was my father's sponsor when he was a graduate student at Southern Methodist University pursuing his Master's Degree in Theology. We are Korean Americans, and I was still living in Korea at the time with my mother and my two sisters while my father was in Dallas Texas as a graduate student trying to get his Master's Degree. And he was living with Reverend Elliott of Dallas, Texas who was sponsoring him and was letting him really benefit from working out of African-American church – Hamilton Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas – and sponsoring him in many other ways; living in his home, and helping him with guidance and inspiration.
And at some point I became quite ill while I was still in Korea as a young child, and I got pneumonia. And it was very difficult, as you can imagine, for a graduate student to put themselves through school – even though my father was on a scholarship – and also to contribute enough money to help support his family in Korea. And at some point my father thought about dropping out of school; you know this lifelong dream of trying to get an education, a higher degree, this lifelong dream of coming to America. And his ambition was to eventually become an erudite scholar. So for him, pursuing this Theology degree was not only a career aspiration, but also it was a fulfillment of something that was core to him. So the thought of having to give that up to come back to Korea and to take care of his ailing son was a very difficult decision, but my father is an honorable man and he came to that tough decision and he told his sponsor Reverend Elliott that this is what he had to do.
And Reverend Elliott – if you think about this in the 1970’s, I think that there weren't a lot of stories yet written about the interaction between Asian Americans or Korean Americans and the black community. So I think people were reacting in terms of, ‘I am a person who is in need and I know you’, and I think Reverend Elliott thought to himself, ‘you don't look like me, we don't come from the same background, but you're a young person who's in need and I want to help you.’ And so he went to the members of his church and he said, ‘I have a young graduate student who's living with me, who's having a hard time financially, and if we could help him then he could continue to pursue his studies and his family could be well. But if we don't, he's going to have to give up his dream of getting his Master's Degree in Theology and this could be life-altering.’
It wasn't an easy thing, I think, for Reverend Elliott to bring to the members of his middle-class and working-class African-American community. People work hard, they weren't a wealthy community of people who had extra money set aside for philanthropy for people from another part of the world who they didn't know, who they didn't have a long life connection with these people. And at first it was hard to really get people convinced that this is something that they had an obligation to give, but Reverend Elliott believed in so much that he challenged his congregation and he said to them, ‘we read about the lesson of the Good Samaritan and we talked about as Christians our obligation to help others and to give. But when we have this opportunity in our own lives to help someone- a stranger in our midst- can we rise to the challenge of doing that?’
And he told his congregation that if the congregation couldn't feel that they themselves should also have an obligation – as the people in the situation who could help – to help, he didn't know if he could lead them as a pastor. He essentially put his own self on the line to help people that didn't look like him, who he didn't have a family obligation to protect, who he didn't owe anything to. It was again a stranger in their midst. And this community, this hard-working African-American community in Dallas, Texas, raised enough money to actually fly my mother, my two sisters, and me from Korea to the United States. Without the contributions of this community who knows how my life would have turned out?
What is your call to action for individuals?
I think we’re on the cusp, as a society, of trying to decide which way it’s going to go. I think there’s been some longstanding principles that I thought would never really be questioned and challenged around wanting to help those who were less fortunate than ourselves… wanting to continue the great contributions that immigrants have given to this country… wanting to help those who need a little bit of assistance to more actively and fully participate in our economy, and the economic promise that this country bears.
There are some who question right now whether this is a valuable pursuit for our country. There are those who question whether now is the time we should close our doors to immigrants. Now is the time that some are questioning whether there isn't enough opportunity for those of us who are here, and that maybe we should be thinking more about how do I take care of my own small community and be worried about others, and worried about the threat that others pose. I think there’s a real need for those of use who are able – in many different ways – to contribute to do so. Now really is a time to act.
And that can take a lot of different forms. I think, first and foremost, it takes individual courage to realize if you have benefitted from an inclusive community… if you have benefited from being in a country that allows people to succeed even though they come from different places, speak different languages, have different backgrounds – this is a privilege that we were given, and that we have now an obligation to ensure that others can enjoy this as well. It’s not clear to me that if people don’t fight for this right to pursue their own opportunity in this country, that it will always be there. And I think we have to rally together and to take action.
So it’s not enough to read the news and be upset that things are not going the way that we would like. I think that that means specifically that people have to speak out when they can. People have to contribute their time, their money, their personal commitment in terms of actively leading initiatives; I think that it means that those of us with some voice have to challenge those who are trying to drown out the voice of many who cannot speak for themselves. I think that we have to challenge the assumptions that there is not enough opportunity for all of us. I think that we have to challenge the assumption that we will return to some glorious past by focusing on ourselves, and not upon increasing the opportunity for all that are involved.
And so whatever people can do, they should, and it will take different forms; but each of us, and I do this for myself, have to challenge ourselves and to think, ‘is there more that I can do individually, specifically, concretely, with real action.’ It’s not just enough to think to yourself, ‘I wish that things would get better.’ Can I help organize, can I help contribute, can I lead, can I give of myself in different ways to try to achieve this inclusive community that I benefited from in terms of an ideal that we were striving for as a society, and that personally that I was quite proud of all the progress that made. Even though certainly there’s a lot of work left to do, I think the progress that we had made up until the recent past, I felt empowered by. I felt energized by. And I’m not willing to say that is a failed experiment in American history. I’m not willing to say that that chapter is over. And I think those of us who believe that that was a worthy goal of striving for, have to now – at this moment – take action to really preserve that for not only ourselves, but our children and our grandchildren.
So this is an interesting time. It’s an interesting time to see what the country will do on an abstract level. But it’s much more interesting because it’s interesting to think about what would we do, what will I do - will I actually take the action that I need to take as an individual to make this happen. To create positive change. Or will I just stand on the sidelines and hope that it’ll all work out? And so I look forward to seeing what the future holds, but more that I’m going to do what I can to help drive us to that future. And I think that if we all do that together, if we can rally together, then I have great confidence that we can pass onto future generations the wonderful opportunities and benefits that we received.
What is your call to action for corporations?
I think companies really have an interesting and beneficial problem to solve; which is, how do you unlock the human potential that you have in all the employees that work for you. And so to me, diversity and inclusion from a corporate perspective is a true win-win. And the reason why I say that is because if you are striving a workforce that is at its full, self-actualized potential, where people truly can achieve the highest form of utilization of each of their individual talents, then you’re unlocking a tremendous amount of human capital that really is the largest contributor to success.
I know that for Thomson Reuters that when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, we’re looking at it not as something that we want to do because there’s some sort of branding value to doing it, but we’re looking at it as a challenge that we have. And I do say challenge because it’s a lot of work that all companies – my own included – need to really do, and that there’s more we can do. But I certainly feel proud of where I work for our continued focus on trying to be better on these issues, which is how can we make sure that each person who works for our company has a real opportunity to fully develop their career, to fully realize their potential.
Part of that really is some hard work. Part of that is looking at metrics… looking at different groups of people and seeing the different representations they have at different levels of management and leadership. Part of that then is taking specific action relative to those metrics and saying, ‘if we’re not happy with this, what will we do to drive improvement in that.’ Part of it is having tough dialogue internally to say, ‘we’re not where we should be on this,’ and to own that. For me, what is empowering as a leader – as part of my company – is we’re having these conversations where we say we need to be better in this – how can we be better in this.
And I don’t think that my company is perfect, and I’m sure that everyone has challenges in all their businesses, but you can never get to where you want to be if you’re not going to be honest. And you can’t be honest if you don’t know the actual current state of affairs. And so I think part of it is assessing what your situation really is, looking at those metrics and saying, are you happy with those metrics or not. And then really putting together a concrete action plan to drive those metrics forward. And that means that the corporation has to act. The corporation has to put its own weight behind driving that improvement.
This will not happen on its own; it’s not enough to say, ‘we have great employees, that in their affinity groups, or in their employee resource groups, that they will take care of it. Diversity is something that the African Americans or the black employees will take care of, or that the Gay and Lesbian employees will take care of.’ That is passing off corporate responsibility onto employees. You do need employees to take action on their on – for sure – but you cannot undervalue what the corporation needs to do from the perspective of enabling these groups to have access to resources. Of really preparing people for success – providing training and opportunities. Monitoring the population demographics of the different pools of leadership, asking yourself ‘do you have a deep bench, and is your bench as diverse as you want it to be, and if not, how do you improve your bench.’ Looking at how you then therefore, after you promote people from a diverse background, do you put them in opportunities where they can be successful.
Do you think it’s just enough to make sure that certain people get a role, or part of our success from a diversity and inclusion perspective is, are those people successful? Are we also thinking about the retention of talent? As opposed to just how many people do we hire from a diverse background, how many people do we keep? And then looking at also what kinds of roles that these people are in. Do we have a good diversity across roles, or do we find that our statistics of diverse and inclusive represented populations are aggregated in specific types of functions and specific business units.
So there’s a lot of hard, nuts and bolts work that corporations have to do to improve what we feel are our statistics in regards to diversity and inclusion; but, this is going back to the P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles, you’ll never get to where you want to be if you’re not persistent. So we have to look at our metrics, we have to put action plans against them, we have to execute them, and we have to continue to do that to get to where we want to be.
What are your thoughts about the iD community?
The iD community is really interesting to me from the perspective of, ‘can we get people together who share ideas and who are connected and can help each other.’ Not from the perspective of advancing ourselves individually, but these shared values around trying to have more diversity and inclusion within our organizations. This shared value that we have about empowering the different communities that we come from, and this value that we have that diverse communities together are greater than diverse communities apart.
So to me, the power of the iD community is in the word, ‘community.’ Can you pull people together and really unleash the collective power that we have together, as opposed to trying to tell people that, ‘you have some values, I like your values, let me know how that works out for you.’ I think that if we can build a network of people that have different perspectives, different capabilities, different needs, different ways they can contribute and give, and we connect people together, then I think that’s where the power of the iD community comes from – this notion that there is power within our groups of people that we don’t yet know because we haven’t yet connected. And that once we connect, and once we start sharing – and once we start sharing best practices, once we start sharing opportunities, including sharing challenges as well – that we can accomplish so much more together.
And if we can view as our goals as something we’re all striving for together as a community, then I think that really the power of what that can unleash is very hard to calculate. So I’m really looking forward to as the community continues to build, continues to grow, that there’s this energy and that there’s this momentum that is growing from people sharing, people giving, people connecting. And that encourages more people to contribute to the community. And the stronger that it becomes, then the more powerful the community effect can be. So the growth dynamic of that, the potential of that is something that is very exciting to me.
Tell us a something about you that no one would guess.
I talk a lot – I give a lot of public speeches – so there's very little I think that people don't know about me. But I would say one thing probably is that people maybe make an assumption that for me, I'm very focused on being successful at my career and what I'm doing. And I think one of the things that it was really made me successful has been – I'm really not. I view what's most important about what I do in my life is the personal choices that I make and being comfortable with who I am. Every day I wake up and I realize that I have a choice. Going to work is an act of volition for me. Doing what I do every day is a choice that I make. And because I don't view what I do professionally as something that is an obligation to me, is a chain tied to who I am, I have the freedom to do everyday what I think I should do. To say what I think I should say. And sometimes to challenge other people, at risk to myself professionally, if I feel that's the right thing to do.
And I think this fearlessness that comes from realizing that I am more than a business executive today, or more than a lawyer like I was at the end of last year, more than the role that I play; that my business card is not what defines me. It actually allows me to be more successful professionally. So that doesn't mean that I don't care, that I am not focused on being excellent at what I do. But I am not driven by the fear of failure. I am not driven by this notion that there is some goal, some title, some role that I have to achieve. I actually dream a lot about retirement and retiring to Hawaii – that's my goal.
And so to me, having that freedom actually makes me quite happy. As much as I like to talk about what motivates people, and how you become self actualized at work, and how do you rally people together; at the end of the day what I always tell people about myself and what I really wish for everyone that works with me is, ‘am I happy?’ Am I happy, are you happy, or is everyone in the team happy – and I think that basic question, and understanding why you do what you do and the choices that we make is a very powerful notion. Life is too short to feel that you're doing something that you shouldn't be doing. Life is too short to regret the choices that you make. Life is too short to fail to realize that actually you have a choice.
You are the actor in your own story. You're the hero of your own book. You're not a participant in some sort of greater big story where you're just a minor character; the story is about you. And once you realize that you are the central figure in your own story, it's incredibly liberating. It's incredibly powerful. I think about this all the time, and it allows me to actually be much more relaxed at work and therefore to focus on what I need to do. Because I'm not questioning what am I doing and why am I doing it on a minute-to-minute basis, and the reason why is because I am taking the time on a regular basis to thoughtfully ask myself, ‘am I happy doing what I'm doing today? Am I on the journey to where I want to be tomorrow? Am I on the journey to where I want to be in a few years?’ And that gives me the confidence to do what I do.
So it's a very complex, but a very simple way to think about everything that you do in life, and I'm very mindful about thinking about this. And that gives me the ability to do all the things that I do. But it really comes from not being defined by who I am at work, but allowing myself to be who I am no matter what I do. And then let that manifest itself in success, which I hopefully think it will, but to always be comfortable in my own skin, and to always make the choices that are right for me and to be happy with who I am.