Many thanks to Korea Herald and reporter Elaine Ramirez, the
article shares my views on Korea facing global business.
No Two Chaebol Are Alike, Author says
By Elaine Ramirez
While Koreans’ rising presence on the global stage is hard to
ignore, how to do business with them as a non-Korean is an
increasingly tricky area little covered in English-language
literature. Don Southerton explores the niche with his recently
published book “Korea Facing: Secrets for Success in Korean Global
Business,” which picks apart how to work with a Korean conglomerate
from the ground up, for non-Koreans working in Korean branches
“Over the years I witnessed firsthand cross-cultural issues that
surfaced as Korean companies expanded globally. My role has been to
address these issues such as poor trust among the Korean and
Western teams, lack of communication, local employee turnover and
managing expectations,” Southerton said in an email interview with
The Korea Herald.
Although he has long been aware and exposed to the cultural
differences in Western and Korean business settings, he said, it
was when he began working at a Korean subsidiary in the U.S. in the
early 2000s that he witnessed the differences between how U.S. and
Korean teams managed the company.
He noted that the differences in decision-making processes, for
example, had been a particular source of friction between Korean
and Western teams: Key decisions were always deferred to the parent
headquarters in Korea, and Koreans in the overseas branches needed
to scrutinize and approve even the most mundane matters, regardless
of the Western team’s experience in the field.
He discovered, as he writes in “Korea Facing,” that all too many
frustrations were rooted in not knowing how to do things “Korean
style” ― or, for the Korean side, not knowing any other way.
In “Korea Facing” he shares his personal experiences from working
particularly for Hyundai-Kia overseas branches as a coach,
consultant and trainer with those Korean and Western teams, and
offers experience-based advice for overcoming those workplace
His chapters explore basic business culture lessons, from the
levels of the Korean managerial hierarchy, to nuances on the right
timing for getting approvals, meeting protocol ― upon meeting
foreign teams, Koreans line up their business cards on the table to
match their seating order, and he advises doing the same ―
identifying and resolving conflicting expectations and ambitions of
Korean and Western teams, and insight on just how much the Korean
chairman’s wife might influence the direction of the company.
But Korean companies are gradually loosening their neckties and
adapting to Western business practices, he notes.
“I feel the Korean groups have seen the need to be flexible and
adapt quickly to changes in global economic fluctuations,” he said.
“For example, in the recent global recession they saw an
opportunity to expand when others pulled back in production, R&D
and marketing. They capitalized on this opportunity to leapfrog
ahead of the competition.”
Additionally, young Korean employees sent overseas have often
attended school or lived abroad, and increasingly more Korean
executives have worked overseas as expats. And as the overseas
businesses are increasingly using English to communicate, so, too,
do they adapt more casual Western business norms and practices, he
Beyond all the differences between Korean and non-Korean working
cultures, Southerton noted, Korean companies deal with many of the
same challenges: How quickly projects can be approved and executed
depends on the individual company; Korean and Western companies
both struggle with generational gaps when trying to create harmony
and cohesiveness within their ranks; and no two Koreans or Korean
companies are alike, nor should they be approached as such.
The last is a theme he drives throughout his book ― affiliates
under the same chaebol and even sub-divisions of affiliates have
entirely different business cultures, and it is important not to
work on assumptions based on experiences with other companies, he
“One common mistake by Western teams outside Korea is assuming that
because they might have worked for other global companies such as a
Japanese firm that they will have few challenges adapting to a
Korean company,” he said. “Norms, expectations and mindset differ,
even with Korean groups.
“Many Western overseas teams have stereotyped Koreans, often based
on their interactions with the early expats dispatched to the local
operation. Like Westerners, experience, training and skills vary ―
some Korean expats do well while others struggle,” he added. “In
global business we need be mindful of others, and recognize that
Korean teams and leadership vary in their approaches to challenges
“Korea Facing: Secrets for Success in Korean Global Business” is
available through iBook, Kindle, Nook, and Google Book.