Samsung’s UK chief on the benefits of ‘horizontal’ career moves

James Kitto sees a strong business case for letting people develop their skills through secondments, not only to different departments but also to other countries

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James Kitto is Samsung’s UK vice-president and head of its mobile division

Samsung, the technology giant, has topped Forbes’ list of the world’s best employers for the past three years. It’s an impressive run, even more so given that the rankings are based on interviews with workers and how they rate their employer on everything from economic image and impact to talent development, gender equality and social responsibility.

James Kitto’s CV

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For James Kitto, Samsung’s vice-president for the UK and Ireland and head of its mobile division, much of this success is down to an innately global mindset. The firm, which is headquartered in its native South Korea, also has operations across the world, including in Japan, China, India, Germany, Israel, Canada and the US. 

And part of its talent development strategy, Kitto explains, is to allow staff to move between departments and countries, offering them the opportunity to learn new skills and experience different ways of working. “What you need in order to progress as a leader or a manager is experience, and to look at the same challenge or the same market from a different angle,” he says. 

“A lot of the time people leave organisations it’s because they want a new experience. It’s not always [a case of], ‘here’s a load more money’, or ‘here’s a big promotion’. Sometimes it’s: ‘I’ve seen enough of this. I want to go and look at it from a different place.’”

Learning from moving talent between markets

Indeed, multinational companies, Kitto suggests, should make the most out of being multinational. In the UK, Samsung is currently working on offering more programmes with its HQ and other European markets where it can swap talent. It is also, for the first time, offering an opportunity for staff to move from South Korea to the UK. The aim is not to end up, like some companies have, getting staff to move jobs every two years but it does see this as a way to open up new career pathways.

“If I can offer that new experience within this business, and Samsung has no shortage of different parts of its global organisation we can have access to… If we are better at joining them up and creating those opportunities and those pathways, then we can deliver on career progression. Looking for ways to move people sideways as well as upwards is something we’re absolutely focused on,” he says.

What you need in order to progress as a leader is experience, and to look at the same challenge or the same market from a different angle

Kitto, who previously led Nokia’s sales operations in western Europe from Paris, is an enthusiastic proponent of secondments. He believes that interdepartmental moves, domestically or internationally, can provide the perfect salve to a period of uncertainty. 

“Think about it outside a work context for a moment,” he says. “When we go on holiday, we rarely come back and say: ‘Oh, that was a waste of time. I wish I hadn’t gone.’ We usually go away excited to experience a new culture and come back feeling refreshed.”

The logic is that a significant, albeit temporary, change of workplace is likely to be similarly invigorating from a professional perspective. “It might be that someone who has gone out to join the Samsung sales team in Germany comes back having had a positive experience of a new country and gained a different understanding of the products in that market,” Kitto explains. “They can bring that new knowledge back with them.”

People are unlikely to forget being afforded such opportunities in a hurry, he argues. They will probably be more loyal to an employer that clearly takes their professional development seriously. Kitto is not suggesting that secondments are suitable substitutes for pay rises in the long term. But employers offering such “creative solutions” could earn themselves some temporary relief from the cost-of-doing-business crisis and its effects.

The role of Samsung in South Korea

Kitto himself visited South Korea soon after joining Samsung six years ago and he feels there are valuable lessons to be learnt from East Asian business culture. These include a commitment to continuous improvement and the belief that the best way out of a downturn is through investment. This approach shapes strategic decision-making at Samsung’s UK base in Surrey, he notes, as much as it does in the Suwon HQ.

What also shapes Samsung is its role in the development of South Korea. That nation was only founded in 1948 and was, at the time, relatively poor. However, it has grown rapidly since the 1960s into a developed and high-income country that has the 12th largest economy in the world. Electronics, and in particular Samsung, has been key to that. 

“Samsung has been an integral part of the success of the Korean nation,” Kitto says. “It’s far and away the largest of what they call the ‘Chaebols’, the family-owned conglomerates. And it’s evolved in almost every part of Korean society. You get this real sense of pride, the sense of ambition and the desire for growth. That translates itself here in the market where I work and I’m managing their direction, their desires, and their ambition with my local Western team and bridging those narratives.”

Key to doing that is having the right set-up. Kitto is a proponent of meritocratic organisations and, while he doesn’t dispute the importance of structure for a team, he says he doesn’t believe in hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake. Rather, if someone has an idea on how to fix a particular problem, or skills that are suited to doing so, they should be afforded an opportunity based on their aptitudes and abilities rather than on an arbitrary job title. 

That isn’t to say that job titles don’t matter, he clarifies. Kitto can understand the human urge to feel that certain milestones in their careers are “recognised”, but he doesn’t think they should be constrictive. “Companies have got to be looking at creating pathways that aren’t necessarily based purely on the previous experience you’ve had, but more so on what attitude you have, what underlying skills you’ve got. Gone are the days of just recruiting based on, ‘oh you’ve done it before, therefore you’ll be good at it in the future.’”

Why diversity pays dividends

That’s an attitude that plays into hiring at Samsung. The company aims to recruit from a diverse pool of talent. Aside from wanting to address “imbalances in society”, the business case for diversity and inclusivity in employment is clear, Kitto suggests. 

According to Kitto, recruiters that don’t spread their nets as widely as possible risk missing out on hugely talented people and the chance to benefit from “lots of different potential solutions” for the same problems. Attempts to achieve diversity, Kitto stresses, should not be divisive. 

Pressed on how Samsung might engage in positive action schemes without alienating the majority, he says that employees will generally get on board with anything that delivers strong results. “If you make a strong hire [from a minority group] and that person does a great job, which benefits the whole company, people are going to be OK with that,” he says.

For those already at Samung, the company has a number of employee resource groups that aim to amplify the voices of underrepresented workers in the tech sector, including women, Black people and disabled or neurodivergent individuals. The latter group is of personal significance to Kitto, whose daughter is a wheelchair user. “If I can bring some of my personal experience as a father to bear on the workplaces and just move the needle a little bit, then maybe we’ll have a better place tomorrow than we did yesterday,” he reflects. 

Acknowledging that diversity is often more easily achieved at lower levels of organisations, Kitto wants people from minority groups to have a direct line to senior managers to let them know what developments might improve their career prospects.

Yet, while it is refreshing to hear that Samsung is investing time and energy into diversity initiatives, it is clear there is still work to be done. According to figures on the company’s own website, as of 2021, just 6.5% of executive and 16.5% of management roles across its global workforce were occupied by women.

Still, Kitto is clear on his focus. “I want a workforce that represents the consumers that we serve,” he says.