Dr. Ha-Neul Seo: “Decide early on how important it is to know where you’re going”

Decide early on how important it is to know where you’re going. Some people are motivated by short-term goals or the next immediate challenge, while others have a 10-year plan. Know where you want to improve and what you need to get there. I like to have a plan, even if it’s granular for the […]

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Decide early on how important it is to know where you’re going. Some people are motivated by short-term goals or the next immediate challenge, while others have a 10-year plan. Know where you want to improve and what you need to get there. I like to have a plan, even if it’s granular for the first few years and allows for flexibility in the future.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ha-Neul Seo.

Dr. Ha-Neul Seo is the Vice President of Global Recruitment and Employee Development for global education company EF Education First. In her role, Ha-Neul develops and implements strategies that help EF find and cultivate great team members worldwide. A former physician and management consultant, Ha-Neul is passionate about lifelong learning and using her experience to help others.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My parents emigrated to the U.K. shortly before I was born, and I was raised in a large industrial town in the northeast of England called Newcastle-upon-Tyne, known for coal mining and ship-building. As a first generation British-Korean in a very homogenous place, I was always going to try and become a doctor or a lawyer; that was your standard Asian parent’s dream at the time!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve always appreciated “this too shall pass.” When the going gets tough, it helps me to practice resilience and know there will be better days. On the flip side, it reminds be to be grateful. For example, it can be challenging in the pandemic to balance remote work with being a present mom to my kids when we’re all at home, but I try to cherish it because it’s time I wouldn’t have had with them otherwise while they’re so young.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

My career has taken a few turns, but drive, integrity and growth mindset have gotten me to where I am today. Drive and integrity go hand in hand: the determination to achieve and the psychological responsibility to achieve them in the right way. These come from my mom, who has always been a big part of my life. She didn’t sign up to be a single mom of two, working in a foreign country at a young age with no work experience, but she stepped up to the challenge and built a successful career as an entrepreneur. Her sacrifice is always top-of-mind for me.

I’m someone who always needs to see progress, so growth mindset is hugely important to me. The U.K has gone through several pandemic-related lockdowns, and so, given that there isn’t much you can do at the moment, I’ve started to work towards a postgraduate qualification in human resources. I’m always looking for opportunities to stretch and learn new things.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

Personal purpose has always been important to me, and I knew early on that I wanted a career where I could make a difference in people’s lives. I became a primary care doctor, studied public health in an effort to have impact at a system level, and then spent a few years as a management consultant with a global firm.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

As a lifelong learner, my own pursuit of new skills helped me realize that I wanted to be in a career where I could help people expand their own abilities and perspectives. My interest was piqued when I was offered an opportunity with EF Education First, one of the world’s largest international education companies; its focus — helping people embark on unique learning opportunities, whether by learning a language, experiencing a new culture or traveling somewhere new — was in line with my professional goals.

EF has a motivated, entrepreneurial and fun-loving team of over 50,000 people working across 600 offices and schools in more than 50 countries, and it’s empowering to help the organization find people who can convey the impact of EF experiences to a diverse, global customer base. In my current role, I’m very lucky to get to tackle some big people problems, whether it’s creating new interview and onboarding approaches, developing a new manager training program or working on a global people analytics strategy. While this may seem a world away from being a doctor, I still use many of the skills I’ve developed in my previous careers. If you think about it, being a physician and being an HR practitioner aren’t so different: they both require an interest in people, a degree of empathy, and in both cases, you’re trying to collect specific information from which you’ll draw conclusions and formulate a plan to address a need.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

While I loved the people-centric parts of medicine, it felt as though my potential for positive impact was decreasing: the role became more administration-heavy and those “difference-making” moments felt fewer and farther between. I was also preparing for my first child and knew that, from a work-life balance perspective, a medical career wouldn’t be sustainable on my own terms. Consulting was a step in the right direction, but the revelation was that I didn’t have to stay in medicine or life sciences to be useful — there were plenty of other paths that would allow me to achieve personal growth and have impact.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

Once I realized I could be effective beyond medicine, I had this epiphany that a new career wouldn’t mean starting over from the ground up. I didn’t need a whole new set of skills — rather, I had plenty of skills that would be transferable so long as I was willing to do the work to fill the gaps. EF is a place where people who are willing to learn, problem-solve and be scrappy are rewarded, and I knew that a role here would give me a lot of opportunity. As someone who occasionally battles imposter syndrome, this was a huge moment for me, and I’d encourage others who are hesitant to “enter the career unknown” to examine their own experience for versatile strengths as well.

A big piece of talent management is helping people identify what they like and are good at, and then developing a plan that helps them best utilize these skills. The same was true as I charted a new course for my own career. EF offers many opportunities to grow into your experience, and by helping me become more aware of my own top strengths through tools like CliftonStrength’s StrengthsFinder assessment, the organization helped me consider how I might best contribute in my new role. For example, one of my strengths is “discipline,” meaning I work well with structure. This was really important as a physician, and now I use my discipline to create organized processes for long-term global talent projects that can take 18 months or longer to deliver.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

It’s been a very exciting journey; my team’s work enables others within the EF family to develop their skills and support one another as we work collectively to offer new, educational experiences to our customers (this could be everything from teaching English to Olympic and Paralympic volunteers, judges, athletes and dignitaries to developing travel opportunities that help students better understand how what they learn in the classroom applies to the world outside it). I’ve recently been focusing on developing a leadership training program for staff managers globally, making sure our people feel supported when it comes to managing their teams. It’s going well, and we’ve had more than 1,200 staff from 50 countries participate so far.

EF has always been very entrepreneurial, so developing savvy, driven teams is a key priority; we trust our people to work hard and work smart, so they get big responsibilities and are encouraged to tackle problems with a creative mindset. Our people are passionate about the world and making it better, which is why our mission — opening the world through education — resonates with them. Their passion and our culture are big reasons why I think we’ve been lucky to receive some awards and recognitions around our employee offerings. It’s the same experience we offer our customers: the chance to travel often, see the world and learn something new about yourself and your place in it. There’s so much momentum around what we do. My job is to make sure our teams have the support they need to make this important work reality.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I will always be motivated by my mom’s drive to achieve, and my husband has been my top supporter since day one. He’s also a former physician who turned to a career as a healthcare venture capitalist, so he cheered me on as I weighed whether or not to take this step. I can be naturally risk-averse, while he’s always had this great sense of adventure, which is inspiring. Embracing change and risk has translated well to EF, where the company culture encourages people to translate mistakes into learning opportunities. This was a big cultural shift from medicine and consulting, but it’s very enabling for confidence and creativity.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

One of my first projects at EF would turn out to be among the most memorable. Each year, EF releases the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), the world’s largest study examining how the world learns and uses English. The report uses data from the EF Standard English Test, a free option for non-native speakers who may be required to pass a fluency test for university admission. To celebrate the launch of that year’s EF EPI, I was charged with building and managing a global team of EF staff who would organize and execute a launch event at the U.K.’s Houses of Parliament in London; our goal was to raise awareness of the importance of English language learning and the critical role English can play in everything from economics to societal beliefs. The experience was very indicative of life at EF: it was refreshing, if not slightly surprising, to see staff from around the world, from the U.K. to Hong Kong, proactively raise their hands and tell me how they could add value. Our scrappy team of 20 embodied the EF core value of “nothing is impossible” to quickly put together an incredible event, and it was very powerful to see the collective strength of my new colleagues firsthand.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

I think many people struggle with confidence to some degree, myself included. I’m analytical but action-oriented, so when I make assessments, I do so quickly, then jump right in. If something doesn’t go to plan, I make sure I revisit the scenario and figure out what went wrong so I can learn how I might improve for next time. This again goes back to EF’s culture, which promotes growth mindset.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

I give my husband a lot of credit for cheering me on as I’ve gone down my very curvy career path. His encouragement has certainly helped to propel me forward.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

Leaving clinical medicine and entering a people function was a complete departure from my comfort zone, and this is where a willingness to make mistakes became very important. I had to evolve my thinking to see risk as opportunity, rather than a reason to be paralyzed by fear. Instead of looking back at what’s happened, you have to think about, “What am I going to do now? Where do I go from here?” If you take a moment to analyze the situation and come up with key learnings, you’ll be able to chart a new, more direct path to where you want to go.

In a way, it’s the same experience we’re encouraging our customers to have. Philip Hult, our global chairman, talks about how being thrown into the deep end is the best way to learn, and our customers do this every time they set foot in a new place or experience a new culture. If you want to grow, you have to step outside your comfort zone.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization”my second chapter and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Adjusting to a new career can be overwhelming, but stay grounded by reflecting upon your personal core values and those of a potential employer, and how they intersect. Also consider how the organization lives and practices its values — EF is very vocal about its culture book and seven core values (check them out in Fast Company). We make sure our staff continuously encounter them, whether through professional development sessions themed around each core value, or our annual awards for North American staff, where we reward those who best embody each core value with an international travel experience.
  2. Prioritize building a solid network that will help you connect different parts of your organization. Being well-connected and leaning into your relationships will help you quickly figure out best practices, be more efficient in your role and be more creative given diversity of thought and experience; my experience working on the EF EPI launch event is a great example of this, and there are countless other examples across our organization, whether it’s multiple EF language products collaborating on our work with the Olympics and Paralympics, or our partnership with the Nobel Museum that creates opportunities to blend student educational travel with leadership development. It’s also helpful if you can quickly identify points of influence — the people who aren’t formal senior leadership but have decision-making power or can drive things forward.
  3. Decide early on how important it is to know where you’re going. Some people are motivated by short-term goals or the next immediate challenge, while others have a 10-year plan. Know where you want to improve and what you need to get there. I like to have a plan, even if it’s granular for the first few years and allows for flexibility in the future.
  4. A new role can be an opportunity to reset the balance in your life. As you nurture your professional growth, make sure you focus on your personal wellbeing at the same time. This can be tricky when you’re ramping up at the start of the new job, but, if possible, you should aim for a balance that’s sustainable longer-term.
  5. You aren’t expected to know or do it all. If you’re a self-starter and have a handle on the transferable skills you bring to the table, a good company — and a good culture — will help you bridge the gap. While my to-the-point communication style served me well in medicine and consulting, I received feedback early on at EF that my internal communications were too direct, and my team helped me adjust to be more in line with EF’s casual, playful culture. Transitions aren’t seamless, but so long as your organization has a culture of learning, you can use the experience to move forward.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

At EF, we like to think the world is a better place when people understand each other. If I could inspire a movement, I would ask people to prioritize meeting those from different backgrounds and cultures on a regular basis, e.g., monthly. Whether someone is of a different ethnicity, grew up speaking a different language or works in a field light years away from your own, there’s always something you can learn from others’ diverse experiences.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. She’s super effective as a leader while being very human and accessible.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn all about EF and our mission of opening the world through education by visiting https://www.ef.com/wwen/ .

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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