I’d like to share a short preview of my next book on Korean global business.
Following in the footsteps of my other recent publications, it will continue to provide “knowledge of the tribe” and insights— all worthy of probably my most original title, which I will be disclosing closer to the release date along with cover art.
This said, I have always found books about Korean business and culture informative, but they can be locked in time. In other words they are relevant and accurate at their publication, but with Korea’s ever changing society and economy shifts in workplace norms, practices and attitudes the content requires constant revisions and updating. In particular, with regard to overseas Korean operations, change is even more dramatic.
Recognizing this challenge, I have taken an approach to my latest book sharing insights into Korea facing business by building upon a recent round of my articles, commentaries and case studies—then all updating and revising to stay as current as possible.
Noting this, I share my observations and remarks on Korean global business —many subjects revisited while new trends are explored and all deconstructed.
Look for publication updates as we get closer to a release date.
In the meantime, would you like to schedule a time to discuss your Korea facing business needs?
To facilitate and with my rather demanding workload and travel, Stacey, my personal assistant at firstname.lastname@example.org can schedule us for a time.
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.
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:
One System One Team
Effective 2-Way Communication
Harmony Teamwork 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 email@example.com can schedule us for a time.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org can schedule us for a time.
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.
On a recent client workshop and mentoring session in NYC I was introduced by the team leader to the group of participants noting my long history supported Hyundai, Kia Motors and others. Then pausing for a moment the team leader added I was known as the “Hyundai Whisperer.” I smiling and graciously acknowledged, but at the same time was quite puzzled….
What took me back in a very flattering way was how the phrase has journeyed.
As context, the phrase is derived from a “Horse Whisperer” – these are highly regarded experts working with horses who have developed a natural communication style through an understanding of ethnology coupled with a deep insights into behavior.
What is intriguing is how the term Hyundai Whisperer has gone ‘viral.’ For me, it first surfaced just a few months ago in a Starbucks’ meeting in California where a new acquaintance (a top creative long involved in the car business and with Hyundai) used it to describe what he had come to learn as my work and reputation in the industry.
Just days later, in a meeting with another car business client, they, too, used the term. Then a few days later at an industry event, another client used “Hyundai Whisperer” to introduce me to others in describing my consultancy. In all these instances, the clients worked within or with Hyundai or Kia but in different roles and firms.
How it journeyed from the West Coast to the East Coast and perhaps beyond….has been the pleasant surprise.
At one level it is an example of how one’s reputation matters…. on another level it shares that dedicating one’s work to a niche matters, too. Personally, I will continue to provide “knowledge of the tribe”, insights and client support worthy of the title—the Hyundai Whisperer.
It’s here, I will segue to a related topic—the book I wrote titled Hyundai Way: Hyundai Speed. Published a few years ago, my objective for Hyundai Way: Hyundai Speed was to share insights into the Hyundai Motor Group—a unique inside view of a unique corporate culture.
The book is offered on Amazon and with others in eBook versions. I also just had my publisher run a limited printing of the book in hard bound cover … the hard bound version is not available for purchase…. but for those interested in a copy, please let me know… and we’ll see how best to get you a complimentary signed copy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.