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Korea Perspective
By Donald G. Southerton

Copyright 2015
By
Donald G. Southerton
All rights reserved.

10 9 8 7 6

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication


Data

Southerton, Donald G. 1953ISBN: 978-1505630732

Cover art and design by Anna Cash-Mitchell

Contents
Acknowledgements
Foreword
Chapter 1 Connected, Fluid and Conditional
Chapter 2 Process: Cut Twice, Measure Once?
Chapter 3 Place
Chapter 4 Filtering
Chapter 5 Revise and Amend
Chapter 6 Pieces to a Puzzle
Chapter 7 Miscellany
Epilogue
About the Author

Acknowledgements
In crafting this work, I have benefited enormously
from many, including Korean management teams
and executives who have openly provided their
insights. I also benefited from Westerners working
for Korean firms who shared their experiences. In
particular I owe a special thanks to those who
offered comments when I have posted sections of
the book in weekly Korea Perspective online
sneak peek updates.
Finally, this publication would not be possible
without the strong ongoing support of family,
friends, and colleagues. I would especially like to
express my appreciation toDiana Southerton
Rudloff for proof reading and editing and to Anna
Cash-Mitchell for cover design and eBook
formatting.

Foreword
This book builds on my two previous publications:
Korea Facing: Secrets for Success in Korean
Global Business and Hyundai Way: Hyundai
Speed. The intended audience and focus is the
ever-growing number of Westerners employed by
Korean-based companies outside South Korea.
This book will provide you with greater awareness
of the Korean workplace and mindset. It will also
share a strategy and the skills to succeed.
Likewise, if your firm provides services or products
to a South Korean overseas subsidiary or
operation, this book will be beneficial and offer
tactics to strengthen and maintain the relationship.
Finally, if your company has significant business in
Korea, but leadership and headquarters are
located in the West, we offer suggestions to key
management on how best to deal with pressing
issues and challenges that surface.
In addition to a lifetime of interacting with Koreans,
for more than a decade I have supported the
automotive, golf, land development, sustainability
and retail sectors, both in Korean market entry and
in overseas operations. Overseas teams, as well
Korean leadership and teams, have openly shared
their challenges and pressing concerns along with

the inner workings of their companies with hopes


for improving communication. In turn, I have
worked to provide a framework, strategy, and
solutions.
This book offers a roadmap to avoid pitfalls,
navigate around the roadblocks, and thrive.
.

Chapter 1
Connected, Fluid and Conditional
Perhaps the most enlightening experience over
my career as a business consultant has been
managing Korea-based projects. As a result of
years of study, research and coaching I cognitively
developed an understanding into the Korean
mindset. That said, nothing grounds one in reality
as does actually dealing with situations first hand.
What stands out from my Korea facing work
(cognitive and real life) 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
agentcan 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.1
I interpret innerconnectiveness to mean the
oneness of all things. A similar term,
interdependence also applies to Korean
workplace. Both terms refer to the idea that all
things are of a single underlying substance and
reality. More so, any separation is only at the
superficial level. Drilling deeper, the concept of
universal oneness is at the core.

1 Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and

Westerners Think Differently...and Why,,Free Press, 2003, pp.


50-51.

Overarching
I find the concept of this oneness as overarching
and the foundation for values often used to
describe the cross-cultural differences between
Western and Eastern nations. The most relevant
values to the Korean workplace are collectivism,
high power distance and low risk tolerance. As for
collectivism, in Korea the group is the primary unit
of reality and the ultimate standard of value.
In collectivistic societies, group goals take
precedent over an individuals objectives. This
view does not deny the reality of the individual,
but, ultimately, collectivism holds that one's identity
is determined by the group(s) with which one is
affiliated. Essentially, one's identity is molded by
relationships with others.
Collectivistic cultures also require that individuals
fit into the group. The goals and needs of the
group supersede the comfort and satisfaction of
the individual. Within the collectives, the group
shares responsibility and accountability while
fostering harmony, cooperation and
interdependence. Independence vs.
interdependence is, of course, not an either/or

matter. Every societyand every individualis a


blend of both. 2
Rooted
I also see innerconnectiveness as an outcome of
Korea and East Asias strong rooting in Taoist,
Confucian and Buddhism. Again citing Nisbett:
Confucianism blended smoothly with Taoism.
In particular, the deep appreciation of the
contradictions and changes in human life,
and the need to see things whole, that are
integral to the notion of a yin-yang universe
are also part of Confucian philosophy. 3
In addition philosopher Donald Munro pointed out
that East Asians understand themselves in "their
relation to the whole, such as the family, society,
Tao Principle, or Pure Consciousness. 4 I would
include the workplace in Munros paradigm.

2 Ibid p. 67.
3 Ibid p. 16.
4 Donald J. Munro, Individualism and Holism: Studies in Confucian

and Taoist Values, Center for Chinese Studies, University of


Michigan, 1985. P. 17.

As for the influence of Buddhism,


Prattyasamutpda is commonly translated as
dependent origination or dependent arising. The
term is used in Buddhist teachings and refers to
one of the central concepts in the Buddhist
traditionthat all things arise in dependence upon
multiple causes and conditions.
An Example
The Korean workplace is a complexity of
interrelations. Decisions must consider
relationships and the impact to the organization.
Let me share an example from a project in which I
was engaged. A meeting concluded following a
high level presentation to division heads with the
leadership pleased, but deferring decisions until
they internally discussed.
To the dismay of the 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 were poorly equipped to handle the
assignments. The lead team sought to maintain

harmony above alleven knowing their project


would suffer.
A Question
Pondering the concept of the oneness of things,
this raises a question. Is considering actions that
will impact a myriad of relationships more
important than process, procedures and planning
in the Korea workplace? Chapter 2 will look at the
contrasting approaches to planning and execution
between Korea and the West.

Chapter 2
Process: Cut Twice, Measure
Once?
During a recent workshop I polled participants on
the differences they experienced between the
Korean and western workplaces. One attendees
comment centered on how the Korean planning
and execution process differed from not only his
previous western background but also the
Japanese model.
When asked to elaborate, the participant shared
that Koreans tend to move fast and make
necessary adjustments as needed going forward.
This was in sharp the contrast to his experience
with the western and the Japanese process in
which time is taken initially to explore all the
potential pitfalls and plan accordingly before
implementing.
Others in the group added that the ability to report
that the project was underway seemed of utmost
importance to their Korean colleagues.
Additionally, in most cases timelines for projects
were considerably truncateda potentially yearlong project might be reduced to 3-4 months.

Reflecting on the group's comments, I recalled that


a colleague once noted the Korean model might
be described as cutting twice after measuring
oncea variation to the adage measure twice and
cut once.
From a cultural perspective, the Koreans
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, accepting 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 institute 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. This can apply
in U.S., global and Korea-based projects.
Id also like to share Dr. Jennie (Chunghea)
Olivers insights. Her current academic work is
focusing on globalization and international
business. As in the past Jennies input on my
writing on Korea business is very much
appreciated.
Jennie notes
Understanding the cultural background of a
host country is critical for international firms.

Culture, as a powerful force pervasively


embedded in human interactions and
behaviors, helps one get a glimpse of how
society is organized and how members of
society play their roles. The differences
between monochronic culture and
polychronic culture, which also show strong
connections to individualism and collectivism,
have been widely discussed. For example,
while a monochronic person takes a serious
commitment towards following plans, a
polychronic person is willing to change plans
as needed. Another example is that while a
monochronic person tends to tackle tasks
one at a time, a polychronic person tends to
multitask. Besides these two examples,
orientations toward relationships, time
commitments, privacy, punctuality, and
private belongings are also included in the
differences described by Edward Hall in his
book "Understanding cultural Differences:
Germans, French, and Americans."
Agriculture was a major element of the
Korean economy up until the early 1960s. In
an agricultural environment, farmers plan
their activities around meteorological factors
which are uncontrollable by man. In this kind
of environment, time is cyclical as things are
done around seasonal requirements. As

such, people tend to change their activities


and plans as they go depending on the
external elements, namely the weather and
the needs of others if cooperative farming is
practiced. While waiting for the right time for
seeding, planting, weeding, and harvesting,
farmers tackle various other tasks. Korean
meals eloquently describe this tendency.
Korean meals typically consist of a bowl of
cooked rice, stew (or soup), and 3 or more
side dishes all at once. The person who
prepares the meal basically multitasks in
order to complete the preparations in a timely
manner. While cooking rice, the soup and
side dishes are made simultaneously.
According to your comment about work
process style, "measuring twice, cutting
once" is standard in Western business
practice (and Japanese) while Korean
organizations seem to exhibit "measuring
once, cutting twice" as their model. These
two perspectives show a stark difference in
worldview. Without understanding each
other's work orientation and habits along with
cultural background as described above,
partnerships between Western companies
and Korean companies is likely to encounter
mistrust and dysfunction. In this regard,
there is a benefit of having outside consulting

firms involved in partnership projects to help


both parties meet their respective needs and
expectations.
Working with others who do not share the
same culture, language, and habitual norm is
challenging for everyone and calls for a great
deal of energy, patience, and strategic
decision making. There is no perfect
business solution that works for all
organizations. Solutions that worked for
some organizations may not have the same
effect for others. This thought also applies to
work process style. Some projects need a
"measuring twice, cutting once" strategy
while others need a "measuring once, cutting
twice" strategy. The local business
environment contributes to this
phenomenon. Depending on how quickly the
market moves, companies have to adjust
their actions. Nevertheless, there are
business practices proven to be successful
over time. In this case, the best business
practices are often taken into consideration
for deciding on what kind of work process
style is appropriate for a specific project.

Jennie Oliver, EdD

The TF
Although the Korean model appears to move
quickly, potential projects are, in fact, reviewed
with a high level of scrutiny.
Prior to the approval of any major initiative a
behind the scenes dedicated task force (TF) is
formed. The TFs job is to research and
benchmark the best practices of similar projects
outside Korea. In many cases the team is crossfunctional, comprised of staff from across the
companyeach member representing a
department. Quite often the TF operates under a
code name and work is kept confidential and
private, even from most of their own organizations.
Over the course of several months the team will
compile a comprehensive report for leadership on
which management can base a decision. TF
reports can vary from a PowerPoint presentation
to thick binders.
The preparation work by the TF can provide
considerable data and establish timelines,
benchmarks and a roadmap for the project. For
the Korean market, with which Korean business is
most familiar, there is little gap between this inhouse planning and the start of implementation.

More significant gaps between planning and


implementation occur when Korean firms expand
globally and members of the TF are unfamiliar with
the nuances of the local market. Plans crafted in
Korea often have little relevance to the actual
execution of an overseas project the timelines,
cost estimates and roadmaps requiring constant
adjustment and revisions.
As a solution, I suggest TFs solicit local support
and industry expertiserealizing that in many
cases, especially in new global launches, there
are no overseas operations yet on which to draw.
This means the TF should not only benchmark
best practices globally but also seek out common
pitfalls, potential challenges and worst-case
situations.
In turn, local teams who will be responsible for
implementation need to realize and accept the
Plan as more of a roadmap versus a detailed
blueprint. Once leadership has approved the
project, the teams assigned to the project are
expected to make all efforts to achieve the
milestones.
And, a final thought to consider. Recently, I have
found that Korea companies expanding
internationally may spend considerable time
researching the new market but stop short of a

detailed action plan. Probing deeper into this


approach I find that they embrace Cut Twice,
seeing the new venture as a learn as you go
experience and are open to what works and what
does not. Lessons learned are then used as a
foundation for bolder market entry project efforts.

Chapter 3
Place
As noted in Chapter 1, innerconnectiveness or
oneness is foundational and overarching in the
Korean workplace. Norms and practices that may
appear as routine and day-to-day are rooted in the
concept. This chapter looks at Place within the
social matrix. Introduction meet and greets, the
sharing of business cards and a persons company
title are visible examples of Place in the
workplace.
Broadly speaking, within the Korea workplace and
society everyone occupies a positiona few
individuals at the top, some in the middle and
others in the bottom tier. No two individuals ever
share the same status within this social
stratification.
Within this paradigm and from a cross-cultural
perspective Korea is seen as a high Power
Distance society. This means there are substantial
gaps between those in middle and lower ranks
and those at the top. Still in contrast to the Wests
Us and Them, in Korea all are seen inclusive and
part of the same connected framework.

Introductions, business cards and company titles


serve as useful tools in better determining and fine
tuning place in the matrix for Koreans who share a
common culture and heritage. For example, when
two Koreans meet for the first time a polite
greeting is followed by the exchange of business
cards. The role of the business card is to provide
the persons title as well as company affiliation
again as with individuals, no two companies
ranked the same. That said, considerable
significance is given to Fortune 500 firms and/ or
global brands, such as Apple, Cisco, Samsung, or
Hyundai. For academics, public sector officials
and professionals the business card provides the
same function by highlighting if the person is a
Ph.D., Consular General, MD or graduate student.
Additionally, the business card provides
information about associations with a well-known
university, government agency or hospital.
Together the company or institutional affiliation
and title provide a means of positioning a person
within a workplace hierarchy.
Next both parties in an introduction commonly face
a litany of questions beginning with the middle and
high schools they attended, their college
education, marital status, number of children along
with other inquiries that a Westerner would
consider personal, such as church or religious
affiliations. If a third party is present for the

introductions, that person, too, might add to this


conversation, embellishing each persons life
accomplishments and status where ever possible.
Combined with non-verbal clues, such as age,
dress and appearance, ones employment, title
and education, all come into play in internalizing
the placement of that person within society
again, while still considering each individual as a
part of the greater whole. Once this place is
determined, the new acquaintances will then
follow norms for interacting and communicating in
business and day-to-day matters.
A Mismatch
Hierarchical status driven interactions,
communication norms, and the day to day
situations that surface can dramatically impact the
overseas workplace. On a number of occasions I
have been tasked to assist clients in overcoming
impasses. Most often I see a common thread
one rooted in a mismatch in status, title and
position.
For example, a major American brand was
negotiating with a large Korea retail group
interested in a licensing arrangement. Time had
passed with little progress to the dismay of the
American CFO/ COO who had felt initial talks with

the Korean companys CEO would lead to a solid


agreement. When I quizzed the American
executive on the negotiation channel for the
potential partnership, he indicated that all
communication was with a Ms. Shin. The US
executive quickly added he had never personally
met Ms. Shin and that all interactions were via
email. He also pointed out that she was very
professional and capable.
After some further questions, the CFO/ COO
mentioned he had Ms. Shins contact information.
Upon review, I determined the Korea team
members rank and positiondaeri or Assistant
Manager, much to the surprise of the American
executive. He had assumed he was dealing with a
more senior level manager. My follow up was that
we needed to ask Ms. Shin to kindly arrange a
meeting between the American CFO/ COO and
the Korean Groups CEO to rekindle the
negotiations and resolve issues that appear to
have stalled the talks.
Repositioning
In a second example an American company was
supplying product to a Korean manufacturer. The
American plant manager who oversaw a division
of the company was frustrated in dealing with
ongoing supply issues and follow-up. Although he

saw the Korean team overseeing day-to-day


operations as cordial, little was ever resolved.
Because of these unresolved issues the American
company was now considering dropping the
account, although it was a major revenue stream.
Again my approach was to determine the title and
position of the Korean teams directly involved.
They were in fact chajang (Deputy General
Managers)and from what I could determine
oversaw all the day-to-day operations at the
Korean manufacturing plant. Meeting with the
American executive, I noted the position title on
his business card was General Manager (GM).
Quizzing him on the title, he explained that within
his manufacturing sector a GM was commonly
responsible for overall plant leadership. That said,
in Korea a General Manager is seen as a highly
respected member of the team but a tier below
leadership positions. In turn a plant manager in
Korea would hold a Managing Director or Vice
President level ranking.
Probing deeper I asked if the American plant
manager had ever met his customers leadership.
He noted they had met briefly years earlier, but on
his 2-3 trips to the Korea each year the meetings
were with the chajang Deputy General Managers
and limited in scope to day-to-day operations.
What became clear was that issues were not

being resolved in part because they never moved


beyond the working team level. What should have
been reconciled between the leadership of the two
firms was never elevated within the Korea
company because the Korea team viewed the
American executive as their peer with senior
manager rank versus a Managing Director or Vice
President.
My coaching was to reposition the American plant
manager as leadership with a Vice President rank.
Meetings were then arranged with Korean senior
management to tackle the outstanding issues.
A better approach
In short, determine titles and positions early in the
relationship. Also, request an organizational chart
and provide one to the Korean team. In some
cases adjust American rank designations to better
align with the Korean organization.
Remember titles and position are based on time
and seniority with ones age matching the position.
Because age in most cases is aligned to rank in
the Korea workplace, norms dictate entry-level
staffing are in their early to mid 20s, middle
management are those in their 30s and leadership
individuals will be in their 40s and 50s.

Chapter 4
Filtering
Sharing their feedback from a request for
comments, a client noted:
Major projects have been frustrating at
times as HQs review process is much too
long, bureaucratic & short on feedback. We
have suggested that HQ be engaged much
earlier offering suggestions & being
supportive....
In my experience probably the most common
frustration in the overseas workplace is tied to
communications between the Korean HQ and
local operations. In the best cases, teams in local
offices feel somewhat disconnected; in the worst
cases they feel information is being deliberately
withheld.
What may be a surprise for overseas teams is that
even the Korean staff must make an effort to stay
informed. As one entry-level employee of a major
Korean group lamented, If I did not spend an hour

daily networking with fellow workers, I would be in


the dark on issues major and minor that could
have significant impact on projects. For my own
client work with Korea companies, nightly chats
via phone and frequent emails and texts are
required or I, too, would be ill informed and in the
dark.
Filtering
That said, for most Korea facing international
operations, the communication channel between
the Korean HQ and local subsidiary is through
expatriates (ju jae won) who are often referred to
as Coordinators. In the larger overseas
subsidiaries, these Korean expats are assigned to
the major departments.
In many, if not most, circumstances the expats are
not assigned managerial roles but instead operate
as a shadow management with considerable
oversight of local operations. Roles vary with each
company, but frequently a coordinators primary
role is to be a liaison between Korea and the local
subsidiary. Frankly, some expats are more open to
sharing information than others. Regardless, I feel
this is less a deliberate withholding of news than a
filteringthat is, a review of communications
from the mother company and then a doling out of
that which the coordinator considers appropriate.

Filtering becomes an issue when the expat


withholds information until the last moment to
avoid confrontation or to address a delicate
situation. Delaying communication often forces
local operations to drop everything and deal with
an issue that would have been less demanding
and disruptive for the teams if conveyed in a timely
manner.
In other situations, I have found expats filtering
information until they are 100% certain of an
outcome or upcoming event. Activities, events,
travel and schedules are continually changing. So
instead of constantly having to return to the local
team to shift plans, the expats stay quiet until the
last moment. What appears to be a holding back
on news is actually an attempt based on their
years of experience working with the mother
company to spare local teams of concerns that
could and probably would change over time.
Withholding
Amid growing tensions between a joint U.S and
Korean launch team in a US-based facility, the first
US venture for the Korean company, I was asked
to conduct a series of cross-cultural coaching
sessions. Polite consensus by the leadership was
that the problem was culturalKoreans not
understanding Americans and visa-versa.

Most of the American team were well seasoned


handpicked because they had been top
performers in their previous jobs. Likewise, the
Korean team members were highly experienced
but this was their first overseas assignment.
What surfaced during our discussions was that the
new American management had been searching
for documented policies and procedures to guide
them in decision-making and day-to-day work. For
example, those who had been former Toyota staff
looked for a model similar to the Toyota Way, while
others who had worked for Ford Motor Company
sought manuals of standard operation procedures
(SOPs). As a result of not finding guidelines, some
of the Westerners were concerned that the
Koreans were deliberately withholding vital
information as a form of control and power even
though the Korean and Americans were to be
considered equals in decision making and project
oversight.
Probing deeper, I found that the Korean
managers, although limited in their overseas
experience, were sincere in sharing responsibility
and relied heavily on the American staff. What also
surfaced was that there were, in fact, no
formalized procedures or processes. In part this
was rooted in the Korean mindset discussed in
Chapter 2; Korean projects remain flexible and

continually change. This, of course, was a stark


contrast to the American teams who were
groomed in a western production model.
What I also uncovered and shared with the
Western management was that the Korean
management actually respected the Western
production model. In fact, there was an
expectation that over time and based on knowhow the American teams would fine tune the
transplanted process and standardize procedure
for the US operation.
One way
Several years ago during a group workshop which
I hosted for Korean and Western senior managers,
the discussion quickly focused on one-way
communications. The local American teams voiced
puzzlement over receiving little or no feedback on
any reports or studies they provided to the
headquarters in Korea. For example, at the
direction of HQ the local team devoted
considerable effort to the benchmarking of
competitors and compliance testing but received
no feedback. This, of course, led to considerable
frustration, because in their previous employment
the Westerners had been actively involved in high
profile projects with considerable feedback and
follow-up.

Summing up their frustration, they felt that


information flowed only one way. Korea would
request, and their job was to simply fulfill.
Collecting his thoughts, a senior Korean
participant pointed out that local input was
respected, but he, too, rarely received direct
feedback for the work performed in the local office.
In fact, what comments he did receive centered on
achieving deadlines or were questions and
requests.
Continuing, the Korean manager explained that
despite what might seem to be an endless flow of
reporting back to the HQ, he personally felt that
senior management reviewed those options and
took them into consideration. In fact, Korean
leadership placed high levels of trust in the local
teams and their judgment.
Listening attentively, I added that in Korea the
formal communication channel was usually top
down. The role of staff in the ranks was to
execute, not question, and then report their
findings to leadership. Seeking to change that
model would be a challenge. Instead I suggested
another optionboth teams meet weekly for a
joint lunch meeting. The local Korean team could
share news as it surfaced and add their
perspective. In turn, the American team could use

the opportunity to present new ideas and


approaches to ongoing projects. Over time they
would at least improve inter-team
communications, leading to better understanding.

Chapter 5
Revise and Amend
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 ongoing changes to reflect business conditions. In
contrast a legal agreement in the West is
immutable.
Challenges
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
change after change and alterations to a Western
companys 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 revisited 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!
As the Ink dries
Perhaps of more concern is that terms mutually
agreed upon within the binding agreement can be
subject to re-interpretation. Over time, as Korean
team members are reassigned to the project, the
new staff will be unfamiliar with previous
compromises and understandings. This new staff,
often in response to changing business conditions,
will have different expectations and want to
implement fundamental changes that alter the
agreement. This will require amending the original
agreement with all the associated time and costs.
In the worst cases, Western companies will not be
open to altering what they feel is fair and binding,
resulting in seriously jeopardizing the relationship
and creating potential legal action.

Impasses, Bottlenecks and Deadlocks


In his classic When Cultures Collide: Leading
Across Cultures British linguist Richard D. Lewis
illustrated well how different cultures
communicate.5 Lewis work included crafting
diagrams looking at a number of countries. Below
are the German, American, and Korean
perspectives. No one perspective is right or wrong
just different. In the diagrams below, you can
see how groups may hit an impasse. Frankly, my
role over the years has been to recognize when
one side hits a bottleneck or deadlock and then to
move the talks past that point.

5 When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures, Richard D.

Lewis Paperback, Third Edition Published September 29th 2005 by


Nicholas Brealey Publishing (first published 1996).

An example comes to mind


Over time negotiations in what had been a very
promising partnership lapsed from an agreement
to be executed by year end to a rather long
dragged out ordeal. Specifically, a bottleneck
developed each time revisions in content were
proposed by the Korean team. These changes
needed to reviewed and okayed by the American
working level team before the Korean team would
submit to their leadership. Once the Korean
leadership approved, the proposed changes then
had to be reviewed by the American teams legal
counsel. As one can imagine, if the American
counsel had edits, the entire process would
restart.
I analyzed the situation that had been occurring for
months and as Step One suggested bringing all
those involved together in weekly conference calls
to address the major concerns. A second call was
also scheduled as needed for the legal counsels.

As a Step two, I pressed both sides to recognize


that the relationship was very positive and sound
despite obvious frustration and doubts that an
agreement would ever be signed. To ease the
bottleneck I stressed the need to compromise and
to minimize future revisions in order to achieve a
signed agreement. With all parties collaborating,
the project progressed to a signing in a timely
manner.

Chapter 6
Pieces to a puzzle
A Western client recently explained that a huge
challenge within their company was engaging the
Koreans teams in the U.S. in discussions about
complex situations and long-term planning.
Specifically, there was little joint discourse related
to potential trade-offs and risks in projects
assigned to the local subsidiary. The Western
team was consulted only to validate pre-conceived
ideas or to implement directives from Korea. In
most Korean companies leadership determines
direction and the paths to resolving major issues.
In turn, the working team's role is to focus on
producing immediate results.
Contemplating this challenge, particularly within a
narrow and myopic workplace approach, one can
draw an analogy to jigsaw puzzle building. The
pieces to a puzzle have many unique sides. There
may be different ways to place them into the
puzzle. What is required is to look diligently at all
possible options. Like all challenges, one needs to
explore the different possibilities to find the right
solution and how the piece fits into the overall
puzzle.

As a Korean colleague once pointed out, their


society beginning with grade school does not
promote reflective thinking. Reflective thinking
does not produce immediate effects. More so, in
contrast with the Korean workplaces collective
thought process, reflective thinking stems from an
individuals core consciousness.
Reflective thinking requires not only acquiring
knowledge but also calling upon one's own
experience, utilizing evaluative skills and admitting
personal bias. The result is a broader perspective
and a better view of the bigger picture
Often as a consequence of this myopic analysis,
more problems may occur. Without working
through a robust analysis of a problem from
multiple angles and considering potential
repercussions a solid evaluation can never arise.
All this said, by allowing one to think outside the
box through a reflective and conscious lens, the
time invested in analysis will lead to effective
solutions.
Divergent
Recognizing the two divergent mindsetsKorean
and Western, I feel Western teams can work
towards implementing a strategy that fosters

ongoing joint discourse. In some ways, the


approach is similar to overcoming challenges with
Korean working teams to make a decision, a topic
discussed at length in my book Korea Facing. With
regard to tempering Korean teams pressing for
immediate results, I have some suggestions.
Foremost, to soften the Koreans inclination to
jump into implementing and producing immediate
results, look to minimize the anxiety for both the
local Korean team and the headquarters team.
Acknowledge your engagement and insure the
teams that action will be promptly taken.
A next step upon receiving a directive is to have
an informal discussion with local Korean teams to
brief them on action steps that enable the team to
work through what needs to be explored more
deeply. Follow up with email correspondence
confirming what was discussed verbally. Allow a
day or two for the Korean team to review. In many
cases the Korean teams are not familiar with local
practices and the vocabulary used to describe
Western technical nuances. The local teams may
also want to report back to Korea on progress. HQ
leadership are ultimately responsible, so the better
informed they are, the more trust they will have in
local teamsKorean and Westernthat the
project will progress. Remember you may not
receive any immediate feedback.

Conducting weekly updates to the Korea teams


and sharing the steps undertaken with the local
Koreans can also be helpful. Even better is
reporting accomplishments in your review process.
It is particularly important to address the potential
trade-offs and risks as action steps leading to
solutions and assuring the team that this step will
not impede the project and may, in fact, avoid
costly setbacks.
Having said all this, establishing trust through
strong relationships between the Korean and
Western local organizations is essential. By trust I
mean the local Korean teams will gain confidence
in the Western teams ability to move projects
forward. In addition, as the Korean expatriates
gain more experience in their overseas
assignment, they will become more open to
looking deeper, as they see the approach leading
to success.

Chapter 7
Miscellany
The final chapter of Korea Perspective addresses
reader comments that surfaced as I shared the
manuscript in draft form Prompted by topics
discussed in earlier chapters I feel the following
questions deserve some further explanation.
1. I do understand that if I live in Korea, I do
have to adapt to the culture there. Why is it
so difficult for Koreans (and maybe not only
for them, but for any culture) to adapt to the
culture they live in when abroad?
Short answer, it truly depends on the individual. I
have known many Korean expatriates who see
themselves as very international and adapt well to
overseas assignments. In fact there is a trend for
Korean expatriates working abroad to have little
desire to return to their home county once their
assignment ends.
I have seen three scenarios with Korean
expatriates who are less flexible. The first occurs
when the expatriate experiences considerable
workplace and personal pressure. In this instance,
the stresses can trigger them to revert to what

worked in Koreaeven if they have made strides


to adapt to local norms.
A second case is within teams of more
independent and siloed departments, for example
Finance. Here the teams follow rigid and deeply
ingrained procedures that are often mandated by
their leadership and do not and should not vary
within the company whether in Korea or globally.
The third situation is Korean expatriates who view
the assignment as a short stint with little need to
adapt. They may take the course of least effort
since their career path is based in Korea and not
overseas.
In all fairness, I also know American expatriates
representing their U.S. firms in Korea who have
done a poor job of adapting, expecting everyone
and other companies to follow their companys
U.S. norms and corporate culture.
All said, the great majority of expatriates recognize
the companys (and Koreas) future is global and
their careers are tied to adapting to local overseas
norms.

2.On the Korean side, seems that the whole


truth is not always presented up the hierarchy
or to the opposing side. Theres a strong fear
of presenting negative news upward which
could be career damaging in the view of the
messenger. From the American side, often
seems like the Korean team doesnt share all
information & secretive or evasive at times.
For the first part of this question, Yes, as explained
in Chapter 2, filtering may occur. In some cases
the local Korean team, commonly those in middle
management positions, are concerned that
negative news can tag them and damage their
career. More frequently the behavior is related to
risk avoidancewithholding information that might
be deemed counter to expectationsuntil the pain
of not dealing with the issue is greater than
silence. More so, there is a hope that things will
work themselves out over time.
In response to Korean teams holding back
information, this, of course, occurs to some extent
in any workplace with both Korean and
Westerners wanting to control the flow of
information. This is not always for self-serving
reasons. Frankly, a more common situation is that
Korean local teams, knowing how plans can
change daily, will wait until all is confirmed and
better clarified before sharing. I see this as an

effort to minimize the disruption of the overseas


organization staff and management only to have
plans set only have them canceled and
rescheduled multiple times.
3.Many projects with the desire of a quick
completion date are often dragged on due to
opposing views, particularly from Finance.
Sometimes projects stumble out of the gate
as the objective(s) & strategy are not
congruent with key stakeholders.
Obstacles are often marginalized believing
resolution should be quick, but often
disappointed that resolution is not moving
toward a desired end expeditiously.
Great question. I often feel that a Korean team will
press forward on a project without internally
consulting all those who potentially can be, and
probably will be, involved. Finance and Strategic
Planning are typical examples. In my experience
the lead team moves fast once they have their
own leaderships approval. As the project unfolds,
others in the company become aware and require
background, slowing the process considerably.
With regard to marginalizing obstacles, this can be
attributed in part to Chapter 6s discussion on a
solution-focused mindset and not addressing

potential setbacks early in the process. That said, I


feel that more often the Korean workplace in
general is hopeful, forward-leaning and recognizes
there are challenges, both known and unknown.
Adding a cultural dimension, for more than 50
years as a people, a nation, and an economy, they
have overcome whatever obstacles lie in their
path.
4.We know that Westerner working for
Korean companies often have access to
training program and content to help them
better understand the Korean workplace. Do
the Korean expatriates receive training on
Western business practices prior to being
assigned overseas?
In most cases, Koreans who are given first-time
international assignments have had prior work
supporting the companys overseas division. Many
have received their education abroad and have
traveled extensively. Sadly, while the majority of
Korean groups do invest in their Western global
teams to better understand the company and its
culture, these same companies offer very few
programs to prepare their Korean teams for staff
assignments outside Korea.

Epilogue
As shared in Chapter 1 there is an
innerconnectiveness in the Korea workplace.
Complex relationships exist. This is true whether
operations are in South Korea, Germany, Brazil,
India or America. Directives and requests
originating in Korea headquarters radiate to global
operations. In turn, inputs from local working
teams make their way back to Korea impacting
decisions by leadership. What may appear one
sided and perhaps top down may actually be the
result of months of study, benchmarking and
research. For reasons unclear to local overseas
teams, projects can stall, while others re-boot.
All in all despite some areas that can obviously be
improved, Korean global businesses continues to
make huge strives in an ever increasing and
competitive world market. How overseas teams,
Korean and Western, work together matters.
Recognizing the divergent cultures and mindsets
requires both sides to bend, compromise and
adapt, but in actuality all are parts of a greater
whole.

About the Author


Don Southerton has held a life-long interest in
Korea and the rich culture of the country. He has
authored numerous publications with topics
centering on culture, new urbanism,
entrepreneurialism, and early U.S.-Korean
business ventures. Southerton also extensively
lectures, writes and comments on modern Korean
business culture and its impact on global
organizations. He is a frequent contributor to the
media (WSJ, Forbes, CNN Fortune, Bloomberg,
Automotive News, Korea Times, Korea Herald,
Yonhap, Korea Magazine, and FSR) on Korea
facing business and culture. He heads Bridging
Culture Worldwide, which provides strategy,
consulting and training to Korea-based global
business. An avid martial artist, Southerton has
pursued the study of Korean traditional arts for
more than forty years.