Nope, I don’t think of Korean men
Whenever anyone implied that I was an inspiration or female role model in my younger years, it got me positively riled up. I detested the unnecessary focus on my gender or age, neither an escapable fact if you are in Commercial Vehicles (CV) in 2002 but one that brought with it zero benefits. My clarity on what kind of role exposure I should have at the start of my career was the only reason I was in CV, something I strongly advocate should never be left to someone else.
After our TAS induction, which comprised of 4 assignments in various Group companies, I insisted I should be given a sales role for final placement. Our large companies were mostly industrial then, a female TAS officer in sales was unorthodox so they carved a role. Unfortunately, in my first meeting I realized there was much amiss with my proposed new hierarchy, my intuition has saved me from many difficult situations through my life. I requested a shift; I was informed the request could not be accommodated. I sat in the Group HR office for days, refusing to budge till they found another sales assignment. It was a tough decision, with very little understanding of my motivation from anyone. It was months before my intuition was proved right but who knew that then.
At their wit’s end, Group HR whisked me off for a face-to-face with the top chap. For a person in their first job, it was more intimidating in perception than reality. Two senior gentlemen flanked me as I faced main man, who did his best to convince me on accepting the role. I stood my ground, Group is large enough, find me something else. In exasperation, he slammed the desk and said, “Admit Delna, you are not man enough for the role”. I stared back, “Happy to admit, I am a woman”. I will never forget his bemused expression; he honestly went on to become one of my bigger supporters and well-wishers in my career till date. It was a calculated risk, one of many, but I do believe that the locus of control on your career & life must be with you. We are all too prone to shift responsibility to God, family, peers, society, company management, and if all else fails, karma!
The only company willing to give me a sales role after placements were closed was Tata Motors CV. I remember Group HR looking a bit worried for me, will you manage, they have said the sky is the limit for you if you perform, else you will be thrown out. I shrugged, let’s see how it goes. My assignment took me to every part of India, with months spent in the field in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh initially and then nationally. It was brutal but for every awful person, I met 100 decent men who appreciated my brain and my suggestions, people soon forgot about the gender/age, we delivered stellar sales results beyond anyone’s expectations. TML kept its word, and I was offered the Area Manager position, based in UK.
Ironically, the belief was I would face lesser challenges in a ‘developed’ market but Europe was always seen as an assignment you earned after years in other international markets. Many of my domestic colleagues refused to support, actively blocking all work. Some of the foreigners branded me a glorified assistant and ‘pure baggage’ even before arrival. Tempting to give up, but my intuition didn’t flag anything other than conscious bias. In my earlier assignment, I had been advised well by main man Shyam Mani – listen from one ear and remove from the other or better still, get better at not even listening to such venom. I articulate it today as picking the signals in the noise and not getting affected by the noise, but it takes practice & do not belittle the pain when you are going through it. I have always been internally driven, but I also have always had a very tight inner circle that keeps me centered and accountable. Build that.
Being a female Area Manager in CV at that age attracted too much attention. During a strategy conference, my female colleague had warned me of unwanted comments from some overseas gentlemen. The top Korean chap thought it appropriate to ask me “Delna, what do you think of Korean men?” I looked up from my laptop with a blank stare “Mr. X, I don’t think of Korean men or any for that matter?” The latter part started its own set of silly rumours but that is for another day. He bitterly complained about my rudeness to anyone who would listen but years later he did go on to become an advocate for me as did most of my domestic & foreign colleagues. Sometimes the start is hard, don’t stay in a situation that doesn’t resonate with your value system but also don’t give up when persisting can bring rewards beyond belief.
Decades later, in 2021, my team insisted I watch some Korean soaps to understand the impact in India society. I had followed Hallyu through the years only from a business perspective, so when I finally did watch some, I laughed “Damn, my answer would have been different if one of these had asked the question then!”