The Korea Herald


No two chaebol are alike, author says

By Korea Herald

Published : April 8, 2013 - 19:56

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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 overseas.

“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.
Don Southerton Don Southerton
Cover image of “Korea Facing: Secrets for Success in Korean Global Business” by Don Southerton Cover image of “Korea Facing: Secrets for Success in Korean Global Business” by Don Southerton

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 challenges.

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 added.

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 emphasizes.

“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 and management.”

“Korea Facing: Secrets for Success in Korean Global Business” is available through iBook, Kindle, Nook and Amazon.

By Elaine Ramirez (