Suki Sandhu remembers where he was when he got the call from his husband telling him he’d been awarded the Order of the British of the Empire (OBE) in 2021. [Ducking out of Soho House New York City, as to not break their rigid phone-free policy.]
But even more vividly, he remembers actually walking through the gates of Buckingham Palace — his immigrant parents by his side — to receive the distinction, given to him by King Charles III.
“I never imagined something like this would happen to me,” says Sandhu. “It was the proudest moment and it validated that I’m on the right path, and I’m doing the right thing.”
Sandhu received the OBE for Services to Improve Diversity in Business. A leading diversity specialist and the founder of Audeliss, an executive search firm focused on diverse talent recruitment for C-suite and board positions, Sandhu is someone who has different overlapping identities brown, born to a working class family, Sikh, gay, British — he jokingly adds being a middle child and a Scorpio to the list — so he brings his own unique experience to his work.
“I’ve always been the only brown or the only gay person in the room throughout a lot of my career and in the circles that I’ve been in, so I know what it’s like to be different,” says Sandhu. “I want to make sure people can bring their whole selves to work, and I also want to see more people like me, and more women in positions of power and responsibility in business.”
Rising to the top – and helping others along the way
More than 20 years ago, Sandhu began his career on a graduate program with a large recruitment company. He quickly became one of the top recruiters, despite his humble beginnings growing up in Derby, a small town outside of London, and being markedly different from many of his peers.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else; I love recruiting,” Sandhu says. “I find it a real privilege to help clients and learn about their challenges and backgrounds and matching them with the right fit.”
As he started to do more senior hiring, he noticed he kept having the same type of client: older, white, (supposedly) straight, male.
“I wanted to know where the women and the Black, brown, and gay people were,” says Sandhu. “I realized we needed to create pathways for diverse communities to get access to these amazing opportunities; we needed change.”
So, he decided to stake his entire career and livelihood on the belief that diversity hiring was the way of the future, launching Audeliss in 2011. What started as a small operation of just himself and a single part-time employee, has grown in 12 years to 25 employees working with large companies such as LVHM, ABInBev, Morgan Stanley and more, with offices in the U.K. and New York City.
Sandhu says their efforts at Audeliss acknowledge the fact that not everyone has the same opportunities and that the world is not always meritocratic. However, Audeliss’ aren’t placing undeserving candidates in these weighty leadership roles, but are focusing on locating the talent that’s already out there
“CEOs want to hire the best person for the job, and we want them to hire the best person too,” says Sandhu. “There’s a misconception that when you’re doing diversity hiring, you’re compromising on quality. But diversity hiring is always about widening the gate, not lowering the bar.”
In 2013, Sandhu took his mission further, founding Outstanding, a membership organization that began by publishingan annual role model list in the Financial Times highlighting LGBTQ+ and ally executives and future leaders in business In 2017, he launched both Empower and Heroes – the same idea as Outstanding but focused on ethnically diverse talent and women, respectively.
Not only does Sandhu spend all his energy driving change and increasing representation across global C-Suites and boardrooms, he also helps companies do better within their organizations through INvolve. Evolving from Outstanding, INvolve is a global network and consultancy that champions and enables diversity and inclusion. They provide guidance and tools such as diagnostic programs that can measure an organization’s inclusivity through data as well as implement trainings, workshops and global talent development programs.
Creating a More Inclusive Culture
So from Sandhu’s vantage point, what should executives who want to create an inclusive and diverse culture in their organizations keep in mind?
It starts at the top
“CEOs need to lead by example; the tone always comes from the top,” Sandhu says. But for him, it doesn’t stop there, the entire leadership team needs to buy in when it comes to creating an inclusive company culture.
“It must be clear what you believe in when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” he says. “Then you need to examine how it’s communicated to everyone, and what the consequences are when someone does something that goes against your culture.”
For scenarios ranging from microaggressions to serious events, repercussions should be clear, but Sandhu also advises executives to lead with empathy.
“A flyaway comment, for example, might not be coming from a malicious place, but maybe from an uneducated one,” Sandhu says. “So, part of building a culture is creating one where people can learn along the way.”
Make room for data-driven decisions
“Whether you’re a small business or you’re a large corporation, the principles still apply: gather and use the data,” says Sandhu.
Sandhu suggests that any employee engagement survey include questions focused on diversity and inclusion when it’s safe to do so (acknowledging that in some regions not all employees will feel comfortable sharing their sexuality). Then, the sometimes tougher part, you have to react based on the data. This could mean a number of things, such as creating focus groups with diverse employee groups, as Sandhu has, where they can share their lived experience at your organization.
Remember it’s not one-size-fits-all
“The thing about diversity and inclusion, is that there is no one solution,” says Sandhu, explaining that depending on geography, industry, position, and demographic you are trying to solve for, there are different solutions to be found.
That’s what makes it not only a multi-billion dollar industry, says Sandhu, but what also makes it so complicated, because the progress isn’t always something you can clearly see.
“You can see it when you look at exercises that tick boxes based on representation with race and gender; an increase there is something you can quantify,” says Sandhu. “But inclusion is more of a feeling.”
What does it mean to have a 60% employee engagement score? How do people feel on a day-to-day basis working in your office? That’s harder to measure.
“That’s why people really struggle with it, because you can go down so many paths,” says Sandhu, who despite the challenges of his industry, finds his work rewarding at the end of the day.
“We’re changing the world one hire at a time. That’s how we see it, and we take that really seriously. When we help these candidates onto boards and leadership teams and then hear how they’re thriving and having such positive impacts on those businesses, I live for that,” he says. “With all the horrible things happening in the world, it gives you hope that there are so many good people in the world trying to make a difference. For me, that makes it all worthwhile.”