Archive for Korean Business Culture

Korea Business Weekend Read 2

Korea business

With the new year and 2018, I’d like to share a few weekend Korea business reads. All Korea facing– lots for overseas operations in the Americas, Ireland, UK, ME, India, Europe, and AU; lots that share insights into Korea and the workplace. Much very relevant for firms doing business with Korea or global Korean companies, too.

Here’s a link for a Download.

One question we are getting with the new year is “Don, How Best Do We Work with You and Get the Team Support?” I happy to say many companies do recognize the benefits in offering our training, coaching, mentoring and strategy services…. and we take this role very seriously amid the uncertain changes soon to impact local operations .

Let’s chat.. or better yet text +1-310-866-3777 then and we can chat by phone.


A Korean Business “Working Within the Culture” FAQ

Korea business

Korean Business and Why do Americans/ westerners need Korean cultural training?

For westerners this may be the first time working with Korean business and a Korea team. This opportunity brings with it the need to better understand their new partner’s culture, workplace norms and expectations.

In most cases, the western team will be interacting with a Korean expatriate team. Some of the expatriates will hold a line managerial position with day-to-day responsibilities alongside western managers, while others will hold key management C-level positions, such as CEO, COO, or CFO. In many, if not most, cases these expats may operate as a “shadow management” with considerable oversight of local operations.

With the best of intentions, the expats will look to build strong collaboration and teamwork and advocate less a sense of us and them. However, they do bring with them Korean work norms that can conflict with western work-life balance and western ways of working.

More so, Korean teams may make seemingly one-sided decisions with the best interest of the company in mind but without consulting local teams causing mistrust.

A solid training program followed by on-going support can address differences, such as sharing work styles, hierarchy, and comfort levels, plus providing work-arounds.

 What are some typical issues that arise, especially without training?

As with all individuals, no two of us are alike –and the same goes for westerners and Koreans… Each has his or her unique strengths, skills, experiences and personalities.

That said, expecting local teams to simply “get it” without support and training seldom works. Even if a better understanding of the work culture eventually occurs over time, this “learn as you go” approach we see as costly, contributes to stress, poor productivity and even employee turnover.

 What have Koreans told you about Americans? Work habits, commitment, etc.

If you ask Korean expats how they perceive Americans and westerners in general, responses would be very positive and respectful, especially toward western work ethics and work habits. Koreans see great value in American and western teams providing them with new insights and perspectives, as well as best practice

What might be covered in such training?

I see the training as two fold — 1) providing teams with an understanding of the Korean partner’s history, heritage, trends and popular culture and 2) looking at the Korean workplace and its norms, practices, and expectations.

Above all I feel a best practice is to share similarities and shared values when possible, along with instilling an awareness of and respect for cultural differences.

Addressing the team’s questions and concerns is also vital with issues, such as work-life balance, safety and quality processes and procedures and the overall expectations of Korean partners.

 Anything else?

To conclude, the need for Korean business cross-cultural training programs for local employees and management is a high priority.

The assumption that local and expatriate teams can bridge cultural gaps through practical on–the–job experience might work with those few highly intuitive individuals with the exceptional ability to assimilate cultures.

What stands out in numerous studies, however, is the need for ongoing multicultural training, that can successfully impact people, especially those who need to quickly adapt to new or changing business culture and values, while fostering sensitivity and teamwork among all members of the company.

Finally, I would add that I have found a Korean business tiered service model – training, mentoring and on-going strategic support — to be the most effective approach for an organization.


Everything Korea, December 7 Episode: Top 4 Ills

Korean global business can come with some serious challenges, especially if dis-connects between teams are left unchecked. With mentoring, coaching and a strategy, it’s possible to reduce these ills, and greatly improve morale and operations. So what are some of the common issues? I have listed 4 that surface often, and frankly I deal with and provide solutions.

1. A common perception is that the allegiance of Korean expatriates assigned to a local subsidiary is to the Korean HQ over local matters. This in turn drives their actions to the detriment of the local operations.

2. Another overarching issue is Trust, especially with the sharing of information. Many feel it is one-way (Korea requesting data and reports) but little feedback from Korea. It can even be perceived that little or poor communication exists even between HQ departments, or with their sister affiliates and suppliers.

3. Koreans assigned to local operations need to be more receptive to change, and be more 50-50/ give and take in interactions.

4. Local teams were hired with expectations “to Do something– Build something Grand. “ Seeing little progress this can lead to poor morale at local operations and can result in the high turnover of employees. Some feel it also taints the ability of local operations to recruit new team members within their respective industry.

Again, these concerns can be addressed and mitigated. It’s what I do. Would you like to schedule a time to discuss your needs?

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

Everything Korea, November 30 Episode: The Economist looks at Korean corporate culture.

This week’s episode shares thoughts from an interview with The Korean corporate culture.  I have attached a link to a PDF version. Take a few minutes and read. BTW The article appears in this week’s Print Edition as well in the Digital version…. Circulation 4.5 Million paper/ 2.5 million Digital …

The Article paints the Korean workplace as softening…. And I agree this is true at Hyundai Capital as they cite… and I feel Capital is perhaps one, if not the leader in crafting less restrictive and innovative workplace in Korea…

This said, and not a surprise for my viewers and readers, is how the article– in probing deeper–how many Korean companies in contrast have gotten tougher on staff … in fact it’s my point of view that this is more dominate force today in the Korean workplace especially in overseas operations, than a softening ….

Don Southerton, who advises South Korean businesses on how to manage their foreign operations, says many have been “going back to basics” since the slowdown in China and other big emerging markets. Their Korean staff have reverted to working longer hours and straining to hit short-term targets, under pressure from the bosses back in Seoul.

The article adds some companies (code word for the major Groups) in Korea appear “to be tightening the screws,” “making them stick to a strict lunch hour,” or “asking them to arrive at the office an hour earlier.”

All in all, I feel The Economist article reflects an ever-changing Korean workplace, one I share in mentoring, coaching and crafting a strategy to overcome the challenges.

Access Link to the Article

In the meantime, would you like to schedule a time to discuss your Korea facing business questions?

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

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 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 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?

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

Questions, Comments, Thoughts?

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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?

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Connect with Don Southerton

Korea Perspective book link

Link To Korea Perspective