An Interview with Suki Sandhu OBE: Building an Inclusive Brand

Suki Sandhu’s dream of creating diverse and inclusive businesses came to fruition eleven years ago, when he founded Audeliss. Audeliss’ mission is to diversify global senior leadership teams and boardrooms and level the playing field for diverse candidates to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to win the opportunity.

In this interview, we talked to Suki about some of the insights he’s gained over the last decade and the importance of cultivating inclusive businesses.

Suki’s experiences of working in recruitment prior to Audeliss’ inception, showed him how deeply the recruitment sector lacked diversity, specifically in leadership teams and boardrooms. Recalling his early career experiences Suki says, “I remember the very start of my career and how I struggled with the graduate program I was on. The company was hyper-masculine, and I didn’t feel like I fitted in.”

It’s through these early, formative experiences within that sector that Suki’s passion for D&I strengthened, and Audeliss was created to transform the face of global senior leadership teams. Of course, this wasn’t straightforward, “Real and lasting change never comes easily”, Suki explains, “And as an openly gay, Indian, working class boy from Derby just getting into the room where I can talk to important CEOs and Chairmen about why they need to upturn their established approach has had its challenges and takes an unwavering determination.”

Eleven years on, Audeliss has completed its most successful year to date. A defining reason for Audeliss’ growth in these last few years is also due to organizations realizing that in order to succeed, they must be authentic and create an inclusive brand that reflects society at large; only through diverse representation can businesses begin to understand the needs of their consumers.

The need for authenticity in a company’s journey to become more diverse is what could make or break an organization, declares Suki, “Diversity and inclusion is not a branding exercise, nor can it be an add-on. It needs to be a business priority, and to engage meaningfully on D&I issues externally you must be credible internally.

“Brands that want to engage with diverse audiences around topics which are important to their consumers, such as LGBT+ rights, BLM, racism, to mention a few, can no longer do this while having an exclusively straight white male leadership.”

Not only this but, increasingly, companies that don’t invest in diversity will be finding themselves penalized. In the U.S., for example, a company newly listed on Nasdaq must abide by their new Board Diversity Rules; companies must report on the diversity of their boards and require that they have at least one female director and a member of an underrepresented minority.

So how can companies start being more authentic? As Suki stated, companies that want to be strong and active advocates need to do the hard work in implementing strategies and refining processes to attract and retain diverse talent. From implementing company-wide training programs and workshops to identifying and eradicating potential biases at play within the recruitment process, businesses must hold themselves accountable through tangible system change.

 “Top diverse talent are choosing where to work based on brand perception, and if your company is not doing enough to visibly champion and embed inclusion within the workplace and beyond, you will miss out on great candidates. Ultimately the lack of great talent will impact your business’ growth, innovation, employee engagement, and productivity”, says Suki.

We all struggle to be what we can’t see, and a diverse leadership team directly helps businesses to attract diverse talent because they can see themselves represented across senior teams and their career goals therefore feel and are visibly achievable.

An inclusive and diverse workforce is also one that ensures they are accountable for change and is underpinned by the need to create a workplace where everyone benefits from equality of opportunity.

Businesses are currently seeing the demand for more accountability and transparency in their actions. For example, if a clothing company is hiring a plus size model to promote their brand, they need to ensure that they are catering for plus sizes in their clothing, or if an organization’s target audience is the Black community, they need to show and commit to representation throughout their organization. Suki comments, “Customers and employees expect and demand more from their organizations. Not only do diverse employees put a high value on inclusivity and diversity when making career decisions, but those who feel that their company has an issue with inclusivity are more likely to leave.”

When asked about how companies can ensure a diverse culture, Suki explains, “You can start by looking at your leadership teams. Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2021 found that 54% of employees working for perceived diverse employers want to stay with a company for more than 5 years. And these numbers are more pronounced when the leadership team is diverse.”

The more diverse your workforce is, the better returns your company will get. Our article about how the face of leadership has changed in 11 years explores McKinsey’s 2013 research that highlighted the financial benefits that came from diversifying the workforce; companies in the top quartile for gender and racial/ethnic diversity were 15% and 35%, respectively, more likely to have financial gains.

While greater diversity in an organization’s leadership doesn’t automatically translate into more profit, McKinsey believed that the connection shows companies that were committed to diverse leadership were more poised to gain top talent, improve employee satisfaction, and customer orientation which then led into increased returns.

“Make sure that you are employing Chief Diversity Officers”, Suki adds, “This is an effective leadership role which embeds D&I into strategy, especially through internal communications reflecting the diversity within the business.”

The Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) role is heavily reliant on influence. Millennial and Gen-Z employees are now beginning to put pressure on their workplace leaders to deliver on inclusion, and a CDO provides the support, framework, and D&I expertise to shape the workforce and drive expectations for the future. The role of the CDO goes a lot further than assessing and reporting on the numbers, and a great CDO is one who plays a critical role in creating a culture that embraces diversity, inclusivity, and innovation to better meet the needs of the diverse employee population.

Most importantly, businesses need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. “Educate yourselves around key D&I topics and listen to the lived experiences of diverse voices inside and outside of your organizations”, Suki emphasizes, “Don’t rely on diverse employees to ‘solve’ your diversity issues; it should be the responsibility of everyone, especially straight white leaders.”

Our report with INvolve ‘Can I say that? How comfortable are we talking about race in the workplace?‘ explores exactly that. It delves into how companies and individuals conduct important conversations to help erase racism within their organizations.

We surveyed 1,000 non-HR Decision Makers across the UK and the U.S. to assess how comfortable they are using appropriate language about and towards racially diverse colleagues, and how they carry out race and racism-related conversations in the workplace.

The results of the report indicate that race is a topic that is being discussed and recognized amongst decision makers, however, the majority still feel afraid of using the wrong terms or causing offense when talking about issues of race.

It is imperative for businesses to become active in their advocacy for inclusion. Removing the fear of offending and creating strong discourse, training, and framework around the issue is a great start to encourage long-term change.

You can follow Suki on LinkedIn for more tips and insights on D&I in business.