A Shift to South Korea
Annyeong-haseyo from Seoul!
It’s been 37 years since I became a part of Mahindra. I started in the Costing Department of the Auto Division in Kandivli, Mumbai. This was followed by a 5-year stint as Head of Accounts in Nasik and then Vice President, Finance & Accounts—Auto Division. I got to be a part of IT projects like AS400 & SAP, BPR, new product development business cases and various HR initiatives for change management. Getting involved in the transformation of Mahindra and Mahindra gave me great learning and a tremendous sense of satisfaction. However, it didn’t necessarily prepare me for what was coming next – moving to South Korea and working with SsangYong in 2013.
Understanding South Korea
Before coming to Seoul, to prepare myself for the move, I read a great deal about the people and culture of the country. However, no amount of research could prepare you enough for the real thing! There was so much that I picked up just from my day to day experiences in Korea. Since I was in there for work, it was essential to understand the economy and the work culture of the country. I learnt that the economy grew at 10 per cent over three decades and is driven by exports of semi-conductors, electronics, automobiles, shipbuilding and now ‘K Culture’ tourism as well. This growth was primarily driven by the rise of the Chaebols or conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, which are now household names across the world.
In my opinion, a large measure of the country’s success is due to the strong work ethic and disciplined attitude of its people. Most people in this homogeneous country lead a similar way of life. Process-oriented and hardworking, they have a tremendous amount of national pride and their commitment to execution excellence is something I truly aspire towards.
In my first few months in Seoul, I realised that there was a stark difference in the work culture as compared to that of India. Koreans are generally friendly and helpful, but language is an issue as Korean is the primary language of business. Due to the language barrier, I hardly got any phone calls and very few emails! In the beginning, this felt a bit unusual as it was so different from what I was used to back home.
However, I later realised that it was mainly due to hierarchy and deadlines. Once Koreans decide on how and when a particular task is to be completed, they make sure it is done, eliminating the need for repeated follow-up. Moreover, they are concise and to the point when it comes to presentations. They have the ability to summarise content in a single slide. I learnt a lot from observing their punctuality in meetings. Not just that, each meeting is backed up by thorough preparation, allowing them to answer any query that may come up during the discussion. This facilitates faster decision making.
For instance, if a new product is to be launched, the target date for launch is usually set 3 to 4 years in advance, and this would invariably be met. In fact, the most popular phrase here is Pali, Pali which means ‘quick’, just like our jaldi, jaldi!
Learning from the Dynamism of K Culture
This way of working led to greater efficiency and I suddenly realised that I had a lot of time on hand to read, learn and strategise. My most significant learning was in Treasury, Forex Hedging and Investor Relations. It was interesting to meet global bankers, investors and economists. I witnessed the Board queries every quarter and participated in annual wage negotiations with the labour union. This helped me broaden my professional horizons.
Home Away From Home
Seoul is a city of skyscrapers that may appear as a concrete jungle at a single glance. However, the quality of life is excellent. It is clean and well planned with huge parks, walking tracks and public toilets. In fact, when you see lush green trees all over, you can say that Seoul is both concrete and a jungle!
For the ordinary citizen, life is often very easy. For instance, when I applied for a local driving license, I found the entire process very smooth as all formalities were completed within an hour, making me feel as if I were dealing with a customer-friendly private organisation.
My wife, Sudha and I have also travelled a lot during our time in Seoul, giving us a chance to get better acquainted with this beautiful country. We have been lucky enough to witness the Asian Games & Winter Olympics in Korea. There are nearly 10,000 Indians in South Korea with all seven Mahindra expats living nearby, we can meet regularly over the weekend, and this prevents homesickness. We celebrate most Indian festivals, including Holi, Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali and have also made friends from different cultures, broadening our perspectives.
My wife’s visa does not allow her to work but thanks to her proficiency in Korean, she has actively volunteered with the Korean Police and Gangnam tourism and teaches Maths] to children with learning disabilities. I am also privileged to serve on the Board, as Chairman of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea (ICCK) which allows me to interact with business leaders, the Indian Ambassador and Ministers & delegates from India.
My experience in South Korea over the past six years has been immensely fulfilling. It has taught me a lot, professionally as well as personally. I have learnt that when in a new country, if you are patient and make an effort to understand the culture and adapt to the local way of life (occasionally difficult if you are a vegetarian!) you can look forward to a very enriching experience even if you are a long, long way from home.