Everything Korea, September 28 Episode, a Simple Answer?



Over the years I have shared that overseas Korean operations go through times when the local organization experience less oversight by Korean teams.  More recently through direct feedback of western teams in America as well as my own observations some overseas subsidiaries are experiencing greater demands by Korean management.

In part this is now due to downturns in China, Russia, and other emerging markets—that Korean brands had high hopes. Under such global pressure ensuring key markets like the U.S. perform well can mean an increased concern, worry, and stress on the part of their Korean teams… in turn this results in increased governance, micro-management and scrutiny, in particular, by Finance.

So what’s the solution?

Frankly most of us recognize that support, especially mentoring for ALL newly hired and western management is needed.  This may sound as a simple answer to dealing with a complex issue.  I agree.  That said, in a time of heightened oversight, teams need even more coaching and mentoring. The alternative is high turnover of the best management and employees, with an increasing difficulty and cost in the replacement of team members, not to mention the ramifications in loss productivity and poor performance across the organization at a time of when many are counting on U. S. sales to buffer the global downturn.

Like the exposed section of an iceberg American teams working with Korean-facing business do recognize there are difference in management style, work habits, body language, food, hobbies, etc.

What is hidden and needs mentoring is to better understand the differences, along with attitudes or beliefs, social norms, cognitive process, popular trends, opinions, viewpoints, preferences, tastes, and specific knowledge of their company and its practices.  I provide this hidden side of the iceberg.   

I often refer to this understanding as providing as Context over Data—1) the Data as the obvious differences and 2) Context as nuances that require mentoring and drilling deeper—situational and at times broaching on the sensitive.   

I’d be happy to discuss how this Context over Data impacts your company and organization.  This link shares times we can best discuss.



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.

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 8, Differing Approaches


This week’s Vodcast is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my Korea Perspective book. It shares divergent approaches tackling projects.

This week’s Vodcast is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my Korea Perspective book. It shares divergent approaches tackling projects.

To begin,
From a cultural perspective, the Korean approach to managing projects differs from the West. To better explain dynamics in the Korean workplace, we need to draw on two cross-cultural terms.
The first is “mono-chronic” in which people proceed according to linear plans made well in advance of the project start and carry out tasks one at a time from start to finish. For many this is considered a very western approach.

The second term is “polychronic” in which numerous tasks are addressed but not necessarily in a sequential approach. Multiple issues can be dealt with simultaneously while other assignments can be put on hold or elevated in priority. This frequently describes the Korean workplace.

A polychronic work style can result in negotiations, planning, and project activities proceeding at major levels with conversations jumping back to previously discussed issues mixed with new issues.

On the positive side, Korean organizations are flexible and teams are accustomed to change. Frankly, however, this can conflict with a workplace culture of high risk-avoidance and limited risk taking.

Having said all this, I have some suggestions. First, in many cases accept this as the Korean model and adapting accordingly will save considerable frustration and stress. I have seen efforts by western firms working with their Korean partners to suggest a structured project management process to align teams. In some cases this means bringing in experts and outside consulting firms to put in place a western project control system.

Although the Korean teams are open to the training and cognitively agree to the value of the procedures, they
rely on their own time-proven systems and defer to their own methods, especially when under a deadline.

Questions, Comments? Want to chat?

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

Interested in a copy of Korea Perspective. Here’s the link for free PDF copy



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.


Everything Korea: August 10 Episode Workplaces: Korea and US (and UK)


Deconstructing key aspects of western workplace in contrast to norms in South Korea continues to draw my attention. This week I add U.K. workplace insights since it, too, has a strong entrepreneurial and creative class–taking risks and learning from mistakes as seen there as part of the process going hand and hand.

In some ways I am personally draw to the British and specifically a Wales’ spin on business. This was well captured in a David Hieatt, Co-founder of The Do Lectures & Hiut Denim, 2011 workshop titled “Love Luck and Ideas got a town making jeans again.” So take some time listen, it’s well worth the time. More so, for my Korean friends in Korea and those Koreans working in overseas operations the video shares values that are actually tied to business like Love, Luck and Sentiment.


BTW I love David’s quote that jeans are “the creative uniform for the creative man”. Captures something I was missing, but so true.


This said, we all recognizing there is a gap in norms, values, and attitudes between the West (and in this case Wales in the U.K.) and South Korea, so what are construction steps can be taken to bridge the gap and lead to solutions.

Frankly that where my expertise comes in. I provide a strategy, coaching, and training to overcome cultural impasses that if not addressed do lead to frustration, stalled momentum and high turnover of the best staff and leadership.

Why not schedule a chat? http://www.meetme.so/southerton
Or, Direct Questions to questions@koreabcw.com

Links of Interest
Case Study https://www.scribd.com/…/Creative-Workplace-Culture-U-S-and…

Hiut Denim http://hiutdenim.co.uk


Everything Korea August 3 Episode: K-lobalization, A New Concept?


In the recent case study, I mentioned K-lobalization. To many, this was a new concept. In reality K-lobalization was something I coined in 2008. I’d add to a video’s content, which I recorded in March 2008 on the topic (but still very relevant).

In particular we find Korean companies in 2015 are better defining their strategy globally. This means they are instituting a bolder standardized approach to marketing, branding and operations. In the past they have taken a more fragmented approach, with lots of variations from region to region.

Please take a few minutes and review the video from 2008…


Oh, one more thing. As an additional resource, here’s an excerpt from

Korea Facing, Secrets for Success in Korean Global Business

By Donald G. Southerton, 2013

Chapter 1 K-lobalization (Globalization with a K for Korea)

When I began supporting overseas non-Korean management teams for Korean companies, I often heard staff looking for a time when Koreans would fully embrace local western business norms, step aside in key decisions, and let the westerners “run things.” Why?

The overseas branches of Korean companies commonly have a CEO who is a Korean expat managing the company or region with local support. The CFO and technical support can be expats, too. Most often these Korean expats form the core for business operations in the host country. By the way, the expats below senior management are often called “coordinators” in the West. However, the Korean term is ju jae won.

In the larger overseas subsidiaries, Korean expats are assigned to the major departments, including sales, marketing, HR, and product development, along with engineering, and design divisions. In many, if not most, cases these expats are not assigned manager roles but operate as a “shadow management” with considerable oversight of local operations. For westerners unfamiliar with the Korean model, this “oversight” usually translates into the Korean expats requiring sign off on all decisions—trivial to substantial. This can be a huge challenge when newly assigned expats have little specific background in or knowledge of the host country’s operations and market. Cognitively, they recognize localization is needed but, especially if under pressure to perform, may defer to their Korean company procedures and cultural norms. In other cases, Korean firms have also initially resisted local management guidance and followed what they felt would be the best approach. Sadly, they performed poorly and eventually yielded to the local teams.

Times do change. Recently, and unlike a decade or so ago, many Korean teams and management have become increasingly global savvy. More significantly, following the global recession of 2009-10 when many international firms experienced setbacks, Samsung, Hyundai Motor Group and LG soared and as a result some Koreans see their model as superior to rival western brands.

I call this K-lobalization—when Korean firms boldly promote their own unique management style and corporate culture internationally and across many markets.

Book Available on Amazon at:


I look forward to your questions and comments



Everything Korea: Episode July 27 Insightful Feedback and Resources


I’ve just begun compiling feedback from the new case study. Contributions from readers, like you, show highly engagement in the study as well as many dealing with some common issues.
One that surfaced was although they have achieved much success Korean brands in their overseas operation need to adopt MORE to local norms including accepting failure and missteps. If not, and as a consequence growth will stall and be unsustainable–something of recent concern that we see occurring globally amid strong competition by rivals and changing markets.

To paraphrase one well thought out response that nailed it dead center with this profound statement. With regard to their local Korean business operations “[a] company needs to foster innovation rather than just be a fast follower.

Adding, “The challenge is with ‘Acceptance of mistakes’, which as you noted [ in the case study] is one of the foundations for American’s success. Culturally, failure [for Koreans] is not an option. Until they realize that it can serve as a foundation for success, they won’t be able to go much further.”

Again, in the next few episodes look for a more well thought out feedback, which I share on the case study.

Meanwhile, changing the topic slightly, but sharing as solutions…I’ve offered considerable content over the past several years in video format—first are a series of 5 concise videos, and second a more recent 2015 presentation—all captured in high resolution and quality audio. I strongly encourage you to view.

For the 1st five videos they run 2-3 minutes, and the last video about 26 minutes.

Opportunities and Challenges

Common Misconceptions

Lesson in Localization

Competitive Advantage

A Shift in Korean Management Styles

Korea Perspective

As always I’m happy to answer questions, please direct them to questions@koreabcw.com

Until next time…

‪#‎everythingkorea‬ ‪#‎localnorms‬ ‪#‎acceptingfailure‬ ‪#‎globalmarket‬ ‪#‎innovation‬‪#‎failureisafoundationforsuccess‬ ‪#‎lessonsinlocalization‬‪#‎competitiveadvantage‬


Everything Korea, July 20 Episode: a Case Study Sneak Peek This week we have something special, a preview of a new case study.


Over the past month I have been sharing the role of the creative class in the workplace–Korea and America. To clarify I looked at the “culture” needed to foster the Creative Mind in the workplace, and in particular recognize their values, norms, and attitudes. The new case study is the result of this study and research.

This said, I have attached a link to this new Case Study. Please take a moment to download and read. I would appreciate any feedback and comments before we offer it to a wider Korea facing distribution.

And by the way…

If you and your company would like to discuss challenges, I would be happy to chat. I’ve found each company has its own dynamics and I approach this case-by-case crafting an approach tailored to the client.

So until next time…

Schedule a chat? http://www.meetme.so/southerton

or if you have a Direct Question? Go to questions@koreabcw.com

Download Link for the Case Study



Everything Korea, July 13 Episode: a Roadmap for Creative Class Korea and US


In the two previous posts we looked at the dynamics required to nurture a creative and innovative workplace. In particular, Korean work values, norms and attitude surfaced as polar opposites to the characteristics of the western creative class workplace. In turn some core change would be required if Korea aspired to develop a strong sustainable innovation-driven economy. In fact, the current South Korean president, Madame Park, Geun-hye recognized this and upon election boldly had proclaimed a “Creative Economy” as her platform for Korea’s economic growth over her 5 year term in office.

Frankly most in Korea’s private and public sector have found this high level government mandate hard to embrace—in part because the overall concept was difficult to grasp within their current society. And, as I have pointed out what drives a creative economy is creatives as well as the unique communities that align with values and sustain their lifestyles. For example over-hearing a tech startup chat in edgy Golden, Colorado coffee shop Pangaea, I quizzed the three young entrepreneurs on “why Golden?” They response was 1) lifestyle, and more specifically rock climbing 2) access to established startup and incubator hubs like Boulder and Denver, and 3) available local funding for startup, the community quite wealthy.

To give another snapshot, Biz Stone former Twitter co-founder shared in a recent weekly update on his current venture Super.me, his partner Ben Finkel’s view on their work culture

* The world is our oyster. We get to build awesome software, dream up future products, use the best technologies, and get well paid for doing it. There’s no handbook, but the challenge is part of the thrill.
* We have tons of flexibility in our work style, no micromanaging and minimal bureaucracy. Of course, we can still improve our work processes, but this is another problem we get to collaboratively improve together.

* Working with a small, creative group thinking up and building future products—that has always been my dream. Of course, the products won’t work as planned, we’ll have to adapt, redirect, and persist.

In a future Everything Korea episode, I’ll suggest some steps Korean companies need to take if they look to build a creative workforce in their domestic Korean divisions, but before I tackle that set of challenges, I would like to address the need for Korean overseas operations to be sensitive to the needs, values, and attitudes of the creatives with their local organizations. Studies show that up to 1/3 of the American workforce are now part of the creative class. The best companies recognize this trend. Sadly, firms that ignore this reality, suffer.

My big concern is that Korean companies with global operations may fail to recognize this reality, too. This reality was well captured by Authors Josh Hammond and James Morrison in their book The Stuff Americans Are Made Of.

The authors cite seven cultural forces that define Americans:
1 Insistence on choice
2 Pursuit of impossible dreams
3 Obsession with big and more
4 Impatience with time
5 Acceptance of mistakes
6 Urge to improve
7 Fixation with what’s new

I feel Korean companies need to recognize and adopt a creative culture in local markets to sustainable recruit and retain this talent — a difficult challenge even for many American companies strongly rooted in older workplace norms. Again quoting Richard Florida, “ Many companies are merely presenting a cheap, façade of the alternative [creative culture]—a Ping-Pong table, perhaps an espresso machine.”

So for starters, Korean companies that need to draw upon local creative class talent will find that locating in right community can be half the battle. This means a locale that embraces diversity and openness, with some edgy counter-culture thrown in. Interestingly, we know there is considerable synergy between the creative class workforce in these communities like San Francisco, Austin, TX and Boulder, Colorado—a huge side benefit to any firm looking to nurture their workforce.

Perhaps the greatest hurtle is ensuring that Korea workplace norms and company practices do not over-power and overtake local norms—resulting in a stifling of the very creativity the Korean company so desires… In the worst cases, top creatives will exit and those that stay make no attempt to tap their creativity.
Again this is not an easy task, and frankly one I spend considerable time as a consultant providing leadership and teams—Korean and Western– with strategy work arounds and solutions. And, I do have solutions.

More to come on this topic, in the meantime if you and your company would like to discuss, I would be happy to chat. I’ve found each company has it’s own dynamics and I approach case-by-case crafting an approach tailored to the client.

So until next time…

Oh, one more thing…. I am back in SoCal and OC two days this week. Some time still open

Schedule a chat? http://www.meetme.so/southerton
Direct Questions? Go to questions@koreabcw.com