Cross-cultural Understanding:
A Hidden Component and Driver of ESG and DEI - in conversation with Lisa Pollina

In today’s global age, corporate leaders require a new skill set: “multicultural intelligence.” It’s the ability to work effectively across different cultural traditions, multinational and diverse teams, and varied workplace standards for more effective communication and more inclusive collaboration.

We’re in conversation with Lisa Pollina, a global business leader with a seasoned cross-cultural understanding of the many nuances of conducting international business. She has leveraged her multicultural intelligence in negotiating over $50 billion in corporate development deals worldwide.

Lisa, why is cross-cultural understanding so critical to business success?

It’s integral to advancing two of the most important imperatives in today’s collective business consciousness: meeting goals for 1) diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and 2) environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. DEI ensures policies and programs are in place to promote the participation of different groups so that all can reach their full potential, while ESG sets standards for socially conscious investors to use in screening sound companies — ensuring investments are aligned with positive and sustainable change. In this climate, understanding historical biases, as well as current business frameworks, laws, and demographic approaches in each region and country, can develop and leverage multi-cultural intelligence to speed desired outcomes and spark global business growth.

How has your understanding of multicultural differences evolved over time — and led to better business?

In the early days of my career, becoming ‘global’ didn’t happen by turning on your computer. Doing business globally then, especially as an entrepreneur or in any type of entrepreneurial venture, required getting on a plane, traveling to different regions and jurisdictions, and meaningfully interacting with people from other cultures and societies.
The experience of launching my first entrepreneurial venture — bringing multiple companies based in the U.S. to Asia — illuminated the importance of multicultural intelligence. Asia included a variety of societies at different levels of growth: fully developed societies, such as Japan, Australia, and Singapore; emerging, such as China and South Korea; and frontier, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Kazakhstan. The Asian culture could not then, and cannot now, be painted with one broad brush; Each culture needs to be understood through the lens of its unique nuances. What was acceptable as a cultural norm in one country was not necessarily acceptable in another. Chinese culture varies by regions internally and comparing those cultural norms to those of Australia or to Cambodia yields myriad approaches to gender and diversity as well as what constitutes good governance, sustainability, and a respectful approach to the environment.

An almost quaint, if predictable, anecdote from those early years involved Japan, where I flew to negotiate a contract with Sony. As is the custom with the Japanese, they take people out in the evening for dinner. Since I was the only woman at this particular conference, the all-male team sent me out with the “tea ladies” — the women who push in the carts of tea and cookies at business meetings. At the time, they were the only women employed by the company. There I was, a western female who was navigating negotiations and making key decisions about a multi-year, multi-billion contract, yet I was sent out for dinner with the tea ladies. I want to believe this textbook example was culturally innocent and that my meeting companions did not mean it in a patronizing way. At the time, there were simply no women in corporate Japanese culture; my colleagues were doing what they thought would be most comfortable for me.

That early experience was vital as I grew into my role as a global CEO. Business growth hinges on truly understanding the cultural context of the people we’re communicating with, respecting their perspective, and understanding how our own culture manifests in our words and actions — and is perceived by our cross-cultural business partners and work teams. It’s led to a collaboration style that readily bridges gaps, accelerates new opportunities, and enhances DEI and ESG goals.

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Lisa Pollina is a business executive who has negotiated over $50 billion in corporate development deals throughout her career. She provides private equity investment advisory services for alternative asset manager Ares Management (NYSE: ARES) on both Growth and Special Opportunities portfolio investments globally. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Munich RE representing the Americas and the ESG water technology firm Energy Recovery. Named one of the Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance by American Banker magazine, she has been a seven-year appointee to the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States’ Working Group on Global Markets, providing perspectives on macro trends worldwide.

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Point of View

Point of View

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A point of view is the angle of considering things. It’s a platform for people with a vision and a story to tell.