Everything Korea, November 16 Episode: Crafting a “Way”…

Stepping back to August 2005, I was conducting cross-cultural training and coaching sessions at a manufacturing facility. In the early months of the plant operations, tensions between the American and Korean teams were mounting.

Startup operations are always a daunting task. The additional cultural dimensions and language differences only compounded the odds of having a smooth launch.

Recognizing the challenges, senior Korean leadership asked if I could provide team- building workshops that would allow the respective managers to better address escalating concerns and issues.

Consensus was that the problem was “cultural”—Koreans not understanding Americans and visa-versa. I had been working across their organization for several years and I had dealt with what I thought were similar situations.

However, a few hours into the team-building workshops I uncovered the true cause of the strained relationship, but it was not what I had expected.

Most of the American teams were production veterans—hand picked because they had been top performers at Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes Benz, and GM North American plants. In contrast, the Korean teams were career employees—most having worked for a decade or more at a sister plant in South Korea.

What surfaced in discussions was that many of the new American managers had been searching in earnest for a Way—documented policies and procedures that would guide them in decision-making and day-to-day work. For example, former Toyota managers looked for a model similar to the Toyota Way, while others who had worked for Ford Motor Company sought standard operation procedure manuals (SOPS). Not finding a set Way resulted in some Americans feeling that there might be a communications and language issue. More concerning, a few hinted strongly at trust issues and that Koreans were deliberately withholding vital information.

Listening to the group, I had a realization. Over the years working with the company and other Korea-based businesses, I found sharing historic background and differences between Korean culture and other cultures as a proven, effective and commonly accepted cross-cultural learning model. Nevertheless, it became crystal clear to me that what was truly needed in this situation was to clarify and impart an intangible—the Way or vision.

A Shared Mindset

Jumping forward several years… on a number of occasions I have shared my quest to better understand the companies’ Way (and triggered by the work at the plant ) with veteran Korean staff and executives. Time and time again, I found those long employed by the Company reflecting for a moment and then stating frankly that the company’s approach was not easy to explain.

For example, one senior Korean pointed out that within company there are several management styles and approaches to tackling an issue depending on the person’s lineage.

Groomed by their seniors, junior members of teams adopt the mentor’s methodology and leadership style—some “hard” and demanding, others “soft” and preferring collaboration.

Another executive imparted that their Way was acquired over time. He added that,with the exception of some minor differences among the sister companies, the transferring of key people among divisions, creates a shared mindset.

At a minimum, Korean teams understand the thought process and methods of others across the organization regardless of the affiliations.

The Korean executives did agree that understanding the corporate mindset by both Koreans and non-Koreans working across the organization was vital to the continued success of the Company.

In Contrast

Recognizing lessons learned in incorporating a Way in the operations of other American plants, I’d like to share a success model. In 2009 Korea based Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia’s senior leadership took a bold approach Day One. The crafted their “Kia Way.” Key elements include:

  •  Continuous Improvement
  •  One System One Team
  •  Effective 2-Way Communication
  •  Cooperative Mindset
  •  Harmony Ÿ Teamwork Ÿ Trust

At the core, the “Kia Way” aligns teams—Korean and American. In particular, it provides continuity as new Korean expatriates are assigned to the plant, as well as Americans formerly employed within the manufacturing industry and who join the team in Georgia.

All said, I am strong advocate of crafting a “Way,” for Korean operations overseas—one that addresses and tailored to local needs while still aligning with the global organization Culture.

Would you like to schedule a time to discuss steps to implement a “Way” in your organization?

To facilitate and with my rather demanding workload and travel, Stacey, my personal assistant at stacey@koreabcw.com can schedule us for a time.


Everything Korea, November 9 Episode: Mentoring Korea Expatriates


It’s common for Korean overseas business to embed Korean expatriates in their local operations. Their functions and responsibilities vary with each company, but frequently an expat’s role is liaison between Korea and the local subsidiary.  

For westerners unfamiliar with the Korean model, an expat’s responsibilities usually translate into the Korean required to sign off on all departmental decisions—trivial to substantial. This can be a huge challenge when newly assigned expats have limited background in or knowledge of the host country’s operations and market.

They do however know the mother company procedures well. They have been successful at their past assignments. And, they often were assigned to the headquarters’ overseas support teams, have traveled extensively to subsidiaries, and were educated or experienced life outside Korea. However, like western teams, their experiences and skills can vary.

Once overseas, workload can strong impact an expats’ performance.  Cognitively, they recognize localization is needed but, especially if under pressure to perform and hit goals, may defer to their former Korean HQ procedures and cultural norms.

What I strongly suggest is American management mentor new expats.  Here are my suggestions.

  • Mentoring Koreans is building on the relationship.
  • Express genuine willingness to support. Tell them that you care.
  • Ask, and listen to whatever they want to talk about.  
  • Then respond anecdotally if possible.  In many cases, share what other successful expats have done well in the past.


In Korea most team members have a Mentor within their company, in fact that’s the role of a Senior.  Much of the mentoring happened when they go out to diner with alcohol drinks.  Knowing it may be difficult to share with the boss their challenges, Mentors use the effects of drinking to get their teams to open up and talk.  

Would you like to schedule a time to discuss mentoring?  

To facilitate and with my rather demanding workload, Stacey, my personal assistant at stacey@koreabcw.com can schedule us for a time.

Everything Korea, November 2 Episode: Deconstructing the Murky

Supporting clients and their challenges requires getting to the core issues. It’s distinguishing between what are the organizational and what are the cultural impasses then providing practical solutions and work through’s.

Much of my work is first listening carefully to clients and their challenges.  Equally valuable is walking around the corporate offices, observing and capturing multiple viewpoints.  Nothing beats being onsite. Nothing beats getting face to face.

Too often, I find challenges as murky, complex and layered with frustrations, so a deconstruction is needed. Not to mention there is a growing Korean business dimension to an overseas operations.  

In most cases I bring a fresh perspective—one rooted in years working with Korea-facing business.   I’d like to share that in addition to mentoring, I have recently began to work directly on specific and very select high profile projects with clients.  To often an initiative that can dramatic improve local operations fails to get the needed support or approval from Korean local leadership or from the mother organization in Korea. I work to ensure these proposals get taken seriously.

Don Southerton, CEO and president of Bridging Culture Worldwide, a global consulting firm that focuses on Korea business ventures, is one of 10 companies that rents and operates from Perc. Photo by Amy Woodward

Don Southerton, CEO and president of Bridging Culture Worldwide, a global consulting firm that focuses on Korea business ventures, is one of 10 companies that rents and operates from Perc. Photo by Amy Woodward

Make sense?  

Why not schedule a chat?   http://www.meetme.so/southerton

Everything Korea October 19 Episode: Stop Blaming Your Culture

Some quotes to start the Vodcast…


1.Working with and within a culture is sensible, practical and effective.

2. Within an overarching corporate culture, there are generally several subcultures each with the own unique elements.

3. Use the culture you already have.

….take pains to stay within the most essential tenets of existing culture.

4. [it’s] Critical to fully understand the culture, then be able to de-construct and simply aspects relevant to your situation.

These quotes are from a well crafted article titled, “Stop Blaming Your Culture”

A colleague recently shared the article recognizing the concept had value for his own company in working with and within their Culture.  In particular, I was asked then to assist with providing insights into the Korean side of  my client’s Culture.  Echoing the article “Culture matters!”

I strongly recommend you download the article and study.  I’d then be happy to share my thoughts on how to work within your specific Culture.

Culture article link


Just go to http://www.meetme.so/southerton

Questions, Comments, Thoughts?

Go to questions@koreabcw.com

Everything Korea, October 12 Episode, more Context vs. Data

One of my recent themes has been Context vs. Data.   

Background matters. Decisions, strategies and tactics need to take into account circumstances—some reaching back decades. I like to think I provide Context.  In part, I have invested years of research, study and first hand experience looking at Korea facing business. My books and commentaries reflect this work.

This short book I authored several years ago, Hyundai and Kia Motors

The Early Years and Product Development focused on the Korean brands mid 1960s to 2000.

H K Early Years

At this time Korean automakers went through a dramatic transformation.  They went from essentially partnered for technology and design with Ford, Mazda, and Mitsubishi….. to developing their own integrated research, development, and manufacturing􏰃, not to mention the economies of scale needed for the Korean automakers to compete globally with industry heavyweights such as Toyota, Ford, GM, and VW.

In the book i look at Hyundai and Kia models from the past such as the Pony and Excel, Brisa and the Pride, 
and the Sephia, as well as some still very popular and successful such as the Sportage, Rio and Santa Fe.

To access a complimentary copy of Hyundai and Kia Motors: The Early Years and Product Development, go to:


Everything Korea, October 5 Episode, Connected and Conditional

In Korea Perspective, which I released at the beginning of the year, I discuss the complexity of the Korean workplace.

What stands out in Korea facing work is the innerconnectiveness of their workplace. Author Richard Nisbett describes the concept well in The Geography of Thought:

To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations.

This self— this bounded, impermeable free agent—can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration.

But for the Easterner (and for many other peoples to one degree or another), the person is connected, fluid, and conditional…

The person participates in a set of relationships that make it possible to act and purely independent behavior is usually not possible or really even desirable.

Since all action is in concert with others, or at the very least affects others, harmony in relationships becomes a chief goal of social life.

In addition philosopher Donald Munro pointed out that East Asians understand themselves in  “their relation to the whole, such as the family, society…” I would include the workplace in Munro’s paradigm.

An Example

The Korean workplace is a complexity of interrelations. Decisions must consider relationships and the impact to the organization. To share an example from a global project in which I was engaged, a meeting concluded following a high level presentation to division heads with the Korean leadership pleased, but deferring decisions until they “internally discussed.”

To the dismay of the Korean project leads in the days following the presentation assignments for portions of the project were distributed to a number of departments. In private the project’s lead team was not pleased but accepted the mandate. There was no recourse since the parceling came from leadership.  The team did not wish to create an issue despite knowing that the other teams with only domestic Korea experience were poorly equipped to handle the global assignment. Following the cultural norm, the lead team accepted the situation and sought to maintain harmony above all—even knowing their project would suffer.

Questions, Comments?

Just go to:

Connect with Don Southerton

Korea Perspective book link

Link To Korea Perspective

Everything Korea: September 21 Episode, Where to Begin

Where to begin?  What are the essentials to better understanding the Korean mindset with regard to Korean business? I fall back on to three fundamentals

Hierarchy—place and order

Hierarchy is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Korean culture and deeply embedded in the Korean workplace in Korea and overseas.

Reaching back to Korea’s Neo-Confucian past, social stratification is apparent in Korea’s top companies. More so, South Korea’s authoritarian military regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s reinforced the model.

For Koreans hierarchy brings place and order to society and the workplace. Unlike the West, within this hierarchy no two individuals have the same place within the social matrix–age, education, family, employment and title /position with a company or organization determining where one stands within this matrix. So deeply does it impact Korea that rankings from one’s class standings to consumer rating of the major Group global brands matter considerable.Sept_21 (1)

Status—Upmarket and Lux

Traditionally Korea was a status conscious society.  For the elites this manifested in a wide range of status markers from Celadon pottery, refined behavior, ritual robes, distinct cuisine, and table manners. Today a former rigid class structure no longer dominates—class distinction and status more determined by one’s education, employment, job position, and personal income. More so, we have seen considerable upward social mobility within Korea—a direct results of the nation’s economic successes.

Going hand and hand with the upward mobility has been the demand for luxury and premium goods and products.  In fact, these (most often Western) lux items have taken on the role of status markers.  This list can include designer eyeglasses, handbags, and watches, as well ties, scarfs, belts and name brand clothing.

Although some Koreans have shown concern over the desire for pricey goods, in the eyes of many Korean customers, the more expensive and the rarer, the more desirable the brand. Consumers equate value with a high price tag.


All and all what we see unfolding is an ever growing demand for upmarket goods and product in Korea—this consciousness driving a repositioning of Korean brands globally, too, — Korean brands wishing to be seen as premium and among world’s leading consumer goods from cars to home appliances to electronics.  

Generations—shared experiences

South Korea’s dominant age groups have great impact on Korean business culture, so there is value in understanding the differences in Korean generations. In South Korea, a generational group is defined more by its shared experiences than by a specific number of years.

For instance, older Koreans (50:60ers) who lived through the Korean War and its aftermath are more conservative, strongly allied with the U.S., and uncompromising towards North Korea.

In contrast, a group called Generation 386 (a phrase coined more than a decade ago, and comparable in some aspects to American baby-boomers) grew up in a period of great student unrest and tend to be more socially conscious and liberal than their forbearers. 386, no longer literally accurate term, stands for Koreans in their 30s in the late 1990s, born in the 1960s, and educated in the 80s.  (Re-coined now as 486’s in some circles.)

A third generation of South Koreans, those in the age group of 26-35, is commonly referred to as the New Generation or Shinsedae. Many of this group have studied abroad, worked most of their careers on overseas support and projects, are fluent in English (and often another language or two), and have a global perspective.

This group grew up after the 1997 economic meltdown in Asia, which strongly impacted South Korean culture. This younger generation of Koreans is less concerned about ideology and more pragmatic. Their primary concern is finding a job. They are also a strong “gotta have it” consumer class and individualistic as a result of the impact of globalization, the Internet, television, and the high percentage of students who attended U.S. schools and universities.

All three noted, I see hierarchy, status and generations as a lens to better understand the Korean mindset, both within their society and in the workplace across their global organizations.  

For more insights, questions or comments, I am available to discuss.

Just go to http://www.meetme.so/southerton

Everything Korea, Episode September 14, Ten Insights

In this episode I’d like to share  “Ten Insights into Korean business.”  This is something I often incorporate into one on one coaching and mentoring sessions.  It was also developed in collaboration with a senior Korea manager specifically to explain to his team’s Westerners on the company—the Westerners lacking first hand knowledge in the mother company and seeing the Company only in their local operations. In particular, there was a gap between how things were executed in Korea and had evolved locally– to a model less efficient and with time-consuming procedures.

To begin,

Trust There is a very strong trust within teams and in the company. This is often because of a legacy in achieving many bold accomplishments—often seemingly impossible tasks.

Family Traditional family norms permeate the work culture (Elder brother as boss, senior managers, etc.) and the related concept that co-workers are seen as family.

Challenge A one-word summary of the Korean workplace would be Challenge–both in what it has overcome and in what it expects of its global employees.

Input Companies are very hierarchical, but actively demands input from all levels. In fact, top management make decisions based on the expectation that the lower levels have considered all possible outcomes and challenges.

Teamwork Once a decision is made all dissenting or differing opinions unite to embrace success.

Solution In Korea, employees do not bad mouth or put down their company. In fact, employees feel that such an attitude is “part of the problem” and not “part of the solution.” Even among friends, negative thoughts are not shared.

Relationships From higher ranks to the lower ranks, they are very hierarchical. But, here are also very protective organizations. On one level, norms dictate that Seniors are demanding of their Junior employees. One reason is to make sure Juniors learn the work expectations, practices, and culture.

On another level, workers must ensure that mistakes are not made that could reflect badly on their Seniors the department, or the company. Once a Junior works for a Senior that Jr. is part of a network of other employees under the umbrella or protection of the Senior.

Expectations There are very high expectations that must be met.  Doing a great job is what you are paid to do….

Collaboration The American workplace process is often to receive an assignment, clarify details, go off, work hard, and come back to the manager with the result.

The Korean staff will take a different approach. They will receive an assignment, work and discuss it collectively with others, and go back to the manager on multiple occasions informally to make sure they are following the path the manager wants. This method takes times, but Korean workers know when the manager sees the result, it will be what the senior requested.

Adaptability Flexibility and acceptance of change. Projects are subject to lots of change—some speed up, while others stall.

Questions, Comments?  Want to chat?

Just go to http://www.meetme.so/southerton

Oh one more thing,

I was very pleased that my favorite Korean food brand Mad for Garlic is expanding into the Middle East.  Here are some links sharing more.  The brand would do well in the US.




Plus one more link on US opportunity here,


Everything Korea, Episode August 31 Agreements and Expectations

As a trusted friend constantly reminds me, “Don, no one does what you do.”

Share and inform. aspects of Korea facing business.


This noted…Contracts, legal agreements and negotiations go hand in hand with business. I was once told that in Korea the purpose of signing a contract or agreement was essentially to formalize the partnership. Over time terms would be subject to change and re-negotiation.


My Korea facing experience has been that the contract fundamentally solidifies the working relationship. However, to maintain the partnership contractual obligations the contract will require on-going changes to reflect business conditions. In contrast terms in legal agreement in the West are seen as immutable.



Major differences in how Korean and Westerners perceive legal agreements can surface during the negotiation stage and even after the contract is in place. In particular, requests by Korean teams for changes to a Western company’s standard agreements and contracts can cause considerable frustration, especially for their legal counsel. In the West some “red lining” of a document may take place but legal teams may see unprecedented levels of questioning the most basic contractual language. Great patience may be required to walk Korean teams through the Western legal terminology and clarifications of what cannot be changed within the document to maintain compliance with international laws.


Finally, it is not uncommon for terms to be re-visited and questioned by other departments—often with limited or no international legal or business experience— despite months of work between the Western and Korean lead teams!


Oh, one more thing

Ensuring success and sustainability in dealing with Korea-facing business partnerships will require well-communicated expectations and cross-cultural understanding. In particular any business plan and strategy needs to take into account differences in the cultural realities between the West and Korea.  It’s here I can help., and echoing my opening statement. “Don, no one does what you do.”



Questions? Comments? Want to chat?

Just go to http://www.meetme.so/southerton


Everything Korea: Episode August 24—A Longer Answer

In a June Vodcast I shared a “short answer” describing my work consulting for CEO and C-level management as well as the teams.

My short answer has been what client and long friend, a CMO for a major company best described my practice to others as Everything Korea… I also like having been introduced as “ a high power consultant” or Don is “the guru, the guy CEOs want to have their voice heard with…

In particular, I provide counsel and solutions based on my years working with Korean business—a good part in the international expansion into new markets and the challenges that surface.

I also shared why I post weekly Vodcasts, frequent media commentaries, case studies as well as books on Korea facing topics.   They all serve as channels to educate and inform.

This said, in my consultancy each engagement needs to be approached on a case-by-case basis—no two situations identical.

If you feel you might benefit from my Korean business insights, I’ve blocked out my availability to chat and discuss…. Just go to http://www.meetme.so/southerton

In closing, I’ve included a “Long Answer” List of varied media resources and interviews that share and highlight the scope of my work as well as advise for Korea facing companies.


Wall Street Journal Korea Real Time

“Southerton Advises Non-Koreans in Overseas Korean Offices”


Busan Hap

“Korea Facing: Interview with Korea Global Consultant Don Southerton”


Korea Herald

“The Tall Man’ and the globalization of Hyundai Construction”


Wall Street Journal Korea Real Time

“Hyundai Motor: Cruising or Skidding?”


The Korean Car Blog (a selection of articles authored by Don Southerton)



“New Urbanism”


Korea Magazine

Cover Story: “Songdo”



“How Korean car makers beat out the Japanese”


Leaf Chronicle

“Growth Summit Focuses on Global Jobs”


Oh, one more thing, even more links to resources are available upon request.

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