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Lessons from the C-suite: Sandi Wassmer, ENEI

Sandi Wassmer, CEO at the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI) shares lessons she's learned on her way to the top.

I started out… as an accountant. My career has had many twists and turns since then. The bulk of it has been spent in film, TV and marketing. After losing my sight, I wanted work to have more meaning, so moved into the charity sector.

I chose a new career path because… although finance gave me an incredible foundation, and helped me transform ENEI when it nearly went under, I am naturally a creative person and I needed far more stretch than finance could offer. I gravitate towards things I can fix, change or grow.

Read more: Why HR must learn to be sure-footed on the change curve (part one)

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is… to be a kind, openhearted, compassionate and empathetic leader. This has enabled me to hold people. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make tough business decisions when I have to; it just means that I do so while understanding that the decisions I make affect people, and the people who rely on them.

My proudest achievement… is the work I’ve done to transform ENEI. When I joined, in the middle of a pandemic, the organisation was on its knees. I now lead a fit-for-purpose organisation with awesome services and a fabulous, talented team.

My biggest mistake… In my earlier career, I didn’t look after my mental health. I put my work before my wellbeing. I coped, but those around me didn’t fare so well. The truth is if you don’t take care of your mental health, you’re incapable of leading, managing or taking care of anyone else.

My biggest inspiration… is Alan Newell. After registering as blind, in an effort to maintain what I thought was my independence I carried on doing things beyond my ability.

What Alan told me has kept me in good stead ever since: independence is not about doing everything yourself; it’s about being in control of your dependencies, and asking for help without shame or embarrassment when you need it.

Keeping me awake at night right now… is the perfect storm of our current economic, social and political landscape. I worry about diversity, equality, equity, inclusion, and human rights going backwards.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years… is that they are still failing to understand that reaching out to the widest and most diverse talent pool will not only solve their problems but will also be better for business. They are looking for talent in the wrong places.

I need my HR director to be… modern, flexible, agile, knowledgeable, business savvy, compassionate, empathetic, open and dynamic.

I need them to have a firm foundation in HR and equality legislation, along with the internal policies, processes and procedures to ensure best practice, but equally to be human and to put people at the centre. I’ve seen too many HR directors protect the organisation without taking care of the people within it.

More HR directors would become CEO if… they were the type of director described above. Alongside this, they need to understand the whole business, the different functions within it and how it all hangs together.

Getting to grips with the nuances, interdependencies and interoperability of an organisation and being able to take a holistic view is essential.

What I’m reading right now… Sun House by David James Duncan. It is an incredibly moving look at our modern lives and relationships through a deeply spiritual lens.

My top leadership tip… Create a psychologically safe environment for everyone to thrive, fostering an inclusive culture where everyone can contribute to the big decisions.

This requires authenticity, compassion, confidence, resilience and the courage to be vulnerable in the face of adversity, engendering the trust needed to navigate uncertainty.


This article was first published in our January/February 2024 print edition. Subscribe today to have all of our latest articles delivered right to your desk.