Sunday, September 20, 2020

It's finally here. The 2nd Edition of Korea 2020:, COVID 19 and more


It's finally here. 

The 2nd Edition of Korea 2020: A workplace in transition

COVID-19 and other recent trends.



I've updated the book to include the very latest insights into Korea facing business.


Required reading for anyone who works for or with a Korean brand. 


Not to mention if you look to do business with a Korean global company.. 


Questions, comments, and inquiries always welcome.




Saturday, September 05, 2020

It Takes an Insider

 It takes an Insider

Don Southerton
Working from South Korea over the past two weeks, we saw not only tightened COVID 2.5 level restrictions to curtail the spike in virus cases, plus two typhoons. Still despite the rain, companies advised employees to limit contact with anyone outside work, and others were asked to work from home, projects moved forward. 


One take away from the trip was a conversation with a longtime colleague. They stressed a past hard lesson learned when they began operations in the US. It’s also key to any business entry whether in Korea or America—"it takes an insider.” 


For my Korean colleague, he noted that selecting a local representative was a huge challenge. In fact, his Korean firm saw little progress even after they picked a local partner—someone on paper who, when interviewed, was seemingly well connected—skilled, but not a true insider in that business sector. 


A few days later in a private lunch with the management of a company, the same conversation came up—the need to select an insider to oversee their US sales in the tech sector. 


In both cases, they referred to me as a trusted “insider”—someone well connected, current, and well versed in a number of business areas as well as Korea. To better define an insider, I was once reminded that staying current and relevant is critical. It also can mean that someone out of a sector for as little as 6 months may be seen as having lost touch. In fast paced sectors like Autonomous, Mobility, and AI, that timeline can be cut to as little as 3 months.


All said, I am very fortunate to be able to reach out as needed to those “in the know,” in Korea, America and globally. Firms rely on insiders for quick answers, especially when a request comes from the highest levels of their companies.


In the best cases, this allows the fast tracking of projects. And, I can also be drawn upon when helping to reboot stalled and troubled projects, too. 


Here as always. To my fellow Insiders, many thanks, too.


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Keeping A Korean Project on Track

Don Southerton
Don Southerton

Question?  Don, working with Korea, how can we ensure projects stay on track amid changes and forces from outside of our control.

Answer. Great question. I will answer in two parts, in this posting, Part 1.

First, the short answer is it’s critical to stay aware and sensitive to not only the scope of the project but the broader circumstances that could impact the work.  One needs a 360 vs. a very linear mindset. In many cases, my work is providing this insight—honed over decades—more art than science.

Next, have countermeasures as options already in place.

To elaborate on both points…
Pondering on the question, it made me reflect on within the Korean workplace that the most savvy, long term staff and executives are both highly intuitive, sensitive and vigilant to all that goes on around them. They read situations and adapt accordingly. Little gets by them. In particular, they even anticipate senior leadership’s next moves. More so, without such a skill set few ever get to an executive level.

As a best practice, they also plan accordingly with countermeasures in place for all projects. In Korean we call this  miri miri…(Pronounced me re me re). It can be translated as preparing ahead of time and in advance.  It is in contrast to doing things at the last minute and then having to go balli balli.

Bottom line, look beyond the surface to gain insights into what may impact projects, assume some road bumps head, develop countermeasures, and be ready to execute quickly.

In Part 2,  I will discuss how even the best-laid plans can get blindsided. As always, need support? Need context and a 360 viewpoint? I am open to new projects and engagements, too.

Call, text, or email and we can discuss.


Saturday, August 08, 2020

Global Experience and Korean Market Entry Strategies

 Global Experience? 

Songdo International Business District, Incheon South Korea

In my last post on issues that most hamper successful Korean market entry, partnership, JV or M&A we noted the common challenges western teams new to Korea endure. (Not to mention the mandatory 2-week quarantine for those traveling to Korea…)


I mentioned when issues surface laying on more western teams including lawyers and the “Big Four” to overcome an impasse rarely helps, incurs huge outlays, and at the very least is a costly time consuming, learning experience. 


This week, I’d add that the dynamics and experience of working for a Korean company here in the US, the EU, or globally is quite different from working in Korea. 


In fact, we see unique cultures develop in overseas offices that differ from the HQ. 


In particular, with all the workplace transitions underway in Korea, you can find many more progressive Korea business norms now common practice in Korea, but older norms continue to be found in the overseas subsidiaries’ offices.  


As someone who frequently works in Korea, and also in overseas operations the differences stand out. I’d add that observing and recording these differences has long been a topic of my research, writing, and coaching. 


Bottom line, for those having worked for a Korean company in an overseas operation or for that matter anyone working for a German, Japanese, or other international company, many do gain considerable cross-cultural insights. 


That said, although these insights are most helpful, valuable and not be discounted without ongoing mentoring and coaching even those aware there are differences will find it’s easy to miss the subtle when one is immersed in local Korean day to day work norms and practices. This includes language, high and low content communications, leadership styles, generational issues, and the nuances in how a particular company operates. More so, workplaces do differ from one industry sector, Korean company, division and affiliate to another. 

BTW  a huge part of the workforce is now between 26 and 35...

More forthcoming on this topic, so stay tuned-- including the hiring of Korean Americans, local domestic Korean teams and other alternatives. 


Always open to chat. Stay safe and healthy.



Sunday, August 02, 2020

Weekend Read: Hammer Ready

As a trusted friend constantly reminds me, “Don, no one does what you do.”

I strive to ensure success and sustainability in dealing with Korea-facing business partnerships through well-communicated expectations and cross-cultural understanding.


It also requires a unique skill set—groomed over decades working with an ever-changing Korea. 


I like the story that shortly after an engineer retires, a machine at his former factory stops working. They try everything they can do to fix it, to no avail. Finally, the boss calls up the engineer and asks him to come in and fix it.


The engineer agrees to do so as a paid consultant. He comes in, walks around the machine, looks at a few things, takes out a hammer, and whacks the machine. It whirrs into life.


The engineer presents his former boss with a bill for $5,000. The boss says, "This is ridiculous! What did you even do? I need an itemized bill."


The engineer provides a new invoice that states:

·       Hitting machine with a hammer: $5.00

·       Knowing where to hit the machine: $4,995


My work is knowing when and where to use the 'hammer', catching issues early and then as needed providing work-throughs as projects can so easily get sidetracked. In fact, many assume when initial talks and progress seem smooth things will continue to move forward—which is rarely the case. 


It’s one thing, too, for those well experienced in global business who are now engaged in Korea projects to expect past experience in the West will be enough to work through what can be escalating challenges—but in fact what many will find out is that they are poorly suited to adapting and being flexible (a very Korea business approach and norm). At the very least, working through issues can become a very lengthy learning process. Both ways it time-consuming and costly.


My long-time approach when providing work throughs is to step back and look for underlying concerns and nuances that are easily missed. Then knowing the Korean processes and mindset work for a resolution. Again, this is more art than science.  


To summarize, impasses are common in all business—but what may work in the West to overcome issues will take a different approach in Korea. 


The best model is to constantly be aware and sensitive to what may be unfolding. Use less direct and non-confrontational ways to gain deeper insights into any challenges and be open to alternative approaches at work-throughs.  


As always, I look forward to discussing any challenges as well as any questions you may have.
I'll have my hammer ready, too. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Korean Business Protocols: Some helpful hints Seoul 2020

I'm just back from Seoul amid COVID.

In my most recent book  Korea 2020—A Workplace in Transition released earlier this year, I elaborate on a wide range of corporate workplace culture changes underway. These include flattening of workplace titles and hierarchical protocols as well as encouraging those junior to question the status quo.

Beyond my published writing and articles, this transition to a more open and global workplace is covered extensively in Korea media that follow changes at the top groups such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai Motor and SK Groups. 

All said, in my two 2020 trips to Seoul, I had an opportunity with “boots on the ground” to again observe the extent of the changing corporate landscape. First, witnessing at one of the leading tech/ICT companies located in the heart of Korea’s Silicon Valley, and the second visiting a long-established industrial manufacturing group.  

First and foremost, in my field research, I try not to be judgmental as each company follows their heritage and values—with no overarching right or wrong, but just different.

For the tech company, more flexible workplace hours and dress codes reflect my writings. In fact, it was refreshing to see widespread casual and rather cool trendy summer fashion worn by millennials—and both genders, too. The exception was middle age staff and leadership in more formal, but tie-less business attire. 

Embracing other changes both management and teams addressed individuals in informal conversation by their first names instead of calling team members by the titles as was once universal. 

Titles rather than names were used only when the team addressed the most senior leadership or with formal email correspondence. 

Office seating however was still based on title and rank reflecting this hierarchy. This is different from some tech companies where we are now seeing open seating.

In contrast, to the tech sector, I witnessed traditional norms in the industrial manufacturing sector visit. 

During introductions and exchange in business cards, we were asked to call them by either a Korean name or a western first name. Although, among the Korean team and leadership they addressed each other by hierarchical Korean title.

The use of rank and title were very hierarchical as well as seating in formal meetings. On the later the most senior leadership was positioned mid-table, flanked by their more senior staff in descending order, and with support staff positioned behind them. 

In such situations it is then important that the western team follow the same protocols. This allows the Korean team to better understand the hierarchy of your company. This includes staying consistent in seating order during every meeting, and dinner event as well as how teams are introduced—most senior first and then in order of seniority and rank. BTW, The same goes for virtual meetings, too. 

Again, in less formal team meetings we are finding these norms less important and more casual. I’d add in observing teams working in the office vs leadership, dress was more casual, too. 

On a final note, reflecting both my research, writing and recent visits, we find that corporate norms and expectations in Korea today do vary. Not to mention, like westerners, no two Koreans are alike. 

True cultural understanding and sensitivity require both recognizing the similarities and differences. More so, the key to any successful business relationship is adapting and respecting local and individual company norms. 

Following norms and expectations leads to clarity and better communications vs. impasses and costly misunderstandings. 

Frankly, a good model to follow is for us to be aware and adapt according to their norms vs. expecting them to change as it’s their country. Plus, change is underway in Korea amid a transition driven by globalization and millennials in the workplace. 

Questions and comments welcome. 

All kept private and confidential.