#inspiredbystories

An International Mind

by Natascha Zeljko

With cultural roots in South Korea, brought up in Germany: Sylvia Shin, global head of Strategic & Innovation communications at Bayer AG is no stranger to international life. She worked in Tokyo, London, and now she’s back in Berlin. We talked to her about diversity, new work, and why she enjoys change. Get to know this vibrant, inspiring woman

Diversity is a hot topic right now. What is your personal experience with it?

There have been  two memorable touchpoints  in my life: I have my cultural roots in South Korea and came to Germany as a young girl with my corporate expat parents. Everything was new to me – the language, the culture. I was completely thrown into cold water. Such an experience naturally shapes you as a person and made me who I am today. I feel quite comfortable on foreign turf and equally find my way into new cultures as well as people more naturally. This has always helped me also in my job. Before Bayer, I worked for Sony in Tokyo, London, and Berlin. I love megacities because I feel they are inherently diverse and bear tolerance for differences of all kinds. There is simply a different attitude. You come back from these overseas assignments with an experience of growth, because you reach your own limits.

I love megacities because I feel they are inherently diverse and bear tolerance for differences of all kinds.

In what way?

Sometimes the simplest things challenge you. Tokyo was extremely challenging in that respect. I didn’t speak Japanese, I had to get by in everyday life and find my way in a completely different working culture. You have to understand how people tick, decipher their cultural norms and the prevailing corporate protocol. That of course takes time. Sometimes you also feel some frustration, because you can’t manage things as quickly as being on your home turf. But in the end, you get rewarded. With new perspectives, you learn to think in different facets and outside the box.

To what extent does this also help your work today?

In times of digitalization, which requires an incredible speed in thinking and rethinking, you could consider it an advantage. You approach things differently. If something new doesn’t scare you anymore, because you’ve always had to move outside your comfort zone, you’re no longer afraid of big change. I would even say that I enjoy change. It energizes  me to be involved in exciting new initiatives from the outset and to help shape them. With my curiosity I like trying things out, even if you’re not always successful.

If something new doesn’t scare you anymore, because you’ve always had to move outside your comfort zone, you’re no longer afraid of big change.

But you learn.

Exactly. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s really about lifelong learning. I’ve been working for 20 years and still learn something new every day. I would like to pass on as much as possible of what I have learned so far to my team. What could a project ideally look like? What are the best practices? I want to encourage people to embrace new challenges. You are missing out so much in your own comfort zone.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned when it comes to new work?

It’s about people. You need to build rapport with them, as your ultimate success depends on it. People make the difference. Despite digitalization, despite AI – or precisely because of it. I have learned to move in different cultures and to adjust to different kinds of people. The best compliment I received from a colleague was, “You have such a wonderful multicultural friendliness.”

What are the big issues you are currently dealing with?

I started my current job earlier this year. I’m responsible for a function that encompasses four areas in our global pharmaceuticals communications: strategy, executive, innovation, and digital communications. All subjects that deal with change – and that must go hand in hand with change of mind-set. You have to take people with you to really make a difference. And all that is possible when you look around and look for ways to play these topics innovatively!

You’ve been abroad for a long time. How do you experience Germany, has the country changed?

I was positively surprised by the development Berlin has undergone during the last 10-20 years since my time here at Sony. Of course I couldn’t compare Berlin with the megacities like Tokyo, London, or New York, but I think Berlin bears a huge potential. Berlin is not glossy, it is somewhat edgy. It’s the different attitude that has its charm.

My advice to younger people: Learn from the best.

Your tip to your younger self?

Two things: be open to new things, dare to take risks. You win an awful lot.

You’ve already redeemed that. And point two?

You can learn from great leaders you work with on the job. I have always been inspired by those visionary personalities. So, the advice would be: learn from the best.

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