Facing the Enemy

The U.S.-North Korea standoff has similarities to corporate “war-gaming.”

The exchanges between the two powers, one super, the other threatening, become scarier as the weeks pass: “Fire and Fury.” “Locked and Loaded.” An attack threat on Guam. Yet the US-North Korea tensions offer a public display of a world not totally unfamiliar to corporate leaders fighting for market share with an unpredictable opponent.

Kate Kohler, a principal at Korn Ferry and a former captain in the US Army, likens the US-North Korea standoff to the “wargaming” that also goes on in the business world. “You don’t want your competitors to enter your marketplace. You want them to think there are too many barriers to entry,” says Kohler, who is also a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. “You want your friends to underestimate you and your enemies to overestimate you.”

This strategy takes more than posturing, with credibility of course playing a big role. If a company is about to launch an assault via a marketing campaign or a new product or service, it must project enough confidence to overwhelm the competition. “You have to do the war-gaming,” Kohler says. “You have to ask yourself: ‘Is this something we want to posture about? Can we afford the consequences of it if we get called?’ It’s like playing cards: If you’re called and you don’t have a winning hand, you’ve lost it.”

War-gaming requires a meticulous preparedness plan and the will to put it into action. Kohler, who commanded a company in South Korea, recalled the month-long military exercises the US conducts with South Korea. Each exercise is a show of force and for the service members crucial rehearsals. “The clearer you are on your objectives, the better you can engage in war-gaming around what you need to do or what you believe your enemy is going to do,” says Kohler, who co-leads Korn Ferry’s Impact Investing practice and also is a specialist in the Financial Services sector

Although often overlooked, a pitched competition in business or government is rarely only a two-sided affair. In the case of the US and North Korea, China is also involved as a potential influencer. Other nations in the region will be directly impacted if tensions escalate to the point of military engagement.

In business, a company may think its “enemy” is its largest competitor. But the marketplace, like the battlefield, is multidimensional—not bilateral. In addition to a long-time rival, there may be an emerging player or other competitive threats. “For business leaders,” says Kohler, “the opportunity to win comes from seeing things in many dimensions.”