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How to be cross cultural savvy for 21st century leadership

We caught up with Gulnar Vaswani from Best Foot Forward International to discuss her passion for D&I and personal journey.


Hi Gulnar, thanks for your time. Can you tell us why are you passionate about diversity and inclusion?

I am passionate about D&I because so much of my work follows my personal life journey as a third culture child and as a woman who worked in a ‘mans’ industry (banking and finance) for the first 15 years of my career. I have also had the immense pleasure of living across many continents and getting to know people from a variety of cultures, which has only reinforced my belief that we have much more in common with one another than we have different, however many people choose to focus on the minor differences.

What experiences have led you to do the work you do today?

My global travels and diverse experiences have enabled me to help understand and bridge differences across people, cultures, and teams. I am most inspired by enabling awareness, which then leads to a choice to modify either our behaviors or mindset.

What is your experience in Asia?

I have worked in the Asia-Pac region for the past 10 years, with business leaders, regional and global teams to help align individual to organization cultures, resulting in an authentic and systemic cross cultural literacy and interaction which leads to heightened productivity and fulfillment for both the organization and individual.

What do you love most/particularly interesting about this work in Asia?

What I love most about working in Asia is to be part of creating a new breed of Asian leadership.

We are at an exciting time with the East-West integration and expansion efforts on the part of many MNC’s. In response to the increasing multiculturalism, a new breed of Asian leader is emerging; one that is no longer just mimicking the mannerisms the West values, but instead leading with a heightened sense of authenticity and value based awareness. At the same time we see the Western headquartered companies find themselves adopting an Asian lens toward talent development and even shifting the way in which they assess for potential and performance.

When it comes to promoting diversity and inclusion, what area of your work are you most proud?

Every workshop and keynote address I design and deliver is intended to promote addressing and leveraging our differences and embedding inclusion in the workplace culture. 

The specific areas I am most engaged in is my work within the cross cultural and gender arena. I am also seeing a larger emphasis on organizational culture re-alignment to reflect the dynamic

What’s your favorite holiday destination in Asia - and why?

My favorite holiday destination in Asia is Japan because as often as I visit, I feel there is a myriad of cultural experiences yet to be discovered. I have always been fascinated by the Japanese economy and people and especially love their impeccable attention to detail in everything from food to family order.

What is one of your favorite books/TED talks/research relating to D&I - and why?

My favorite Ted talk is by Sheena Ingra on how Culture affects behavioral expectations and even decision making. She explains how green tea in Japan is not served with sugar because the Japanese will not allow it to be served incorrectly, whereas in the US, it is commonly believed the customer is always right so therefore can request his/her tea or coffee in a variety of ways that may be ‘incorrect’ in the country of origin.

What do you think is the next big thing in the D&I space in Asia (or any specific country in Asia)?

I think this decade is about distinguishing Inclusion from Diversity because Diversity is a factual reality of our time and can be seen, but today we see much diversity for diversity sake, and this is not always effective towards leveraging benefits. Embedding inclusion into the corporate culture at an authentic level is where I see this space heading.

What is your single piece of advice for diversity and inclusion professionals working in Asia?  

There is no one size fits all approach to interacting with people in today’s multicultural workplace, and that being right may not be the same as being effective.

Are you/have you worked/working on anything that we can tell our members about?

Yes, in 2016 I will be co-lead for 2 officer-training workshops at Global Leadership Conferences held by YPO/WPO  - the attendees will be a combination of CEO’s, family business owners, and entrepreneurs. The topic of my workshop will cover communication protocols, conflict management, and effective leadership skills in order to leverage the diversity amongst their teams.

I am also working towards my doctorate thesis on cross-cultural leadership.

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