Outlook for the Chief Sustainability Officer Role

What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a Chief Sustainability Officer

SustainabilityThe Chief Sustainability Officer role emerged, as writer Gael O’Brien notes, in the last 20 years “as it became clear that companies were expected to address their impact and share responsibility in solving some of the world’s biggest problems.” In The Atlantic, Christine Bader asserts that the country’s first Chief Sustainability Officer was appointed in 2004, at DuPont.

Chief Sustainability Officers (this article uses the CSO acronym, even though it also applies to other C-Suite roles, such as Chief Security Officer) address such areas as energy-use reduction, resource conservation, recycling, pollution prevention, waste elimination, transportation efficiency, building design, human rights, and community development. In some companies, the sustainability element of the role is joined by safety, environment, corporate responsibility, or global corporate citizenship.

Sustainability recruiter Ellen Weinreb sees the CSO as not just the top corporate-social-responsibility professional for a company, but one of the top leaders of the company making key strategic decisions. Weinreb suggests that listing the CSO on the company’s 10-K, the SEC filing that identifies the corporation’s accountability to shareholders shows that “sustainability is owned at the top and integral to strategic decision-making.”

The number of C-Suite officers holding this CSO role is still relatively small. In her company’s 2018 GreenBiz State of the Profession, Weinreb reported only 44 CSOs at publicly traded companies as of the end of 2018, up from 29 in 2011. Gender parity is not far off, with the CSO population consisting of 55 percent men and 45 percent women.

Key Competencies for the Chief Sustainability Officer Role

The minimum educational requirement for a Chief Sustainability officer is a bachelor’s or master’s degree in business or an environmental science field, such as biology. Professional certification is available through several organizations, including the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP-Certified Sustainability Associate or Professional) and the Center for Sustainability and Excellence (Certified Sustainability Practitioner).

In your career-marketing communications, showcase the Chief Sustainability Officer competencies and characteristics on this list you possess:

  • Effective, succinct, and persuasive communicate skills. Tim Mohin, CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, writes: “The ability to condense complicated topics into a relevant and cogent set of messages and present them skillfully can be the differentiator for your success.” More than one expert takes this skill a step further, suggesting that Chief Sustainability Officers also function as Chief Storytelling Officers.
  • Both business acumen and a passion for a sustainable environment, along with current expertise in sustainable business practices, energy production, consumption, and environmental impact.
  • Strategic ability to promote sustainable initiatives inside and outside the organization.
  • Creativity and problem-solving skills.
  • Systems thinking.
  • Collaborative skills.

Level-Up Tips

Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the Chief Sustainability Officer role, expand their horizons in an existing Chief Sustainability Officer role, or even rise beyond the Chief Sustainability Officer role:

  • Broaden your experience. “The issues under the sustainability umbrella keep growing,” notes Weinreb. In fact, as Tim Mohin cautions, “The breadth of this role can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The terrifying part is being asked to represent areas you know very little about. The exhilarating aspect is learning about all of these areas.” Simon Propper, CEO of Context, which helps companies with sustainability strategy, refers to this breadth of expertise as “multi-specialization.”
  • Take advantage of outsider status. While at least half of sustainability hires once were internal, Weinreb reports that “companies are looking outside their business for talent.” Today the percentage of outside hires is close to two-thirds. The reasons tie in with the need for broad knowledge and experience. You have the opportunity to sell your next employer on your wide-ranging, external perspective.
  • Gauge the top-down commitment to sustainability of your employer or prospective employer. Propper advises studying the company and the CEO. If you see “only token executive support” for sustainability, you will likely find it frustrating to spark transformation.
  • Show how sustainability adds value. You can make great inroads in this role if you can persuade others that sustainability drives value. Innovation and growth can be seen as the enemies of sustainability. You will stand out if you can help people understand how to integrate growth and sustainability (and how, in fact, sustainability can spark innovation, as seen in the Trends that follow).

Chief Sustainability Officer Trends to Watch

  • Strategy plays an increasing role in sustainability. Important and fundamental changes are occurring in the sustainability role, Coro Strandberg notes. Writing in a briefing paper, Next-Generation Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Jobs, Strandberg predicts, “the role shifts, job descriptions evolve, and skills change as organizations transition from an operational to a strategic sustainability focus.” One way to build strategic capacity in yourself is to develop expertise in scenario planning, advises Gilbert “Gib” Hedstrom, president of consulting firm Hedstrom Associates.
  • Simultaneously, sustainability plays an increasing role in business strategy. In his book, Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto, Adam Werbach asserts, “any strategy without sustainability at its core is just plain irresponsible ­– bad for business, bad for shareholders, bad for the environment.” To build that sustainable core, Propper observes, “the trend is to embed sustainability expertise in core functions such as sourcing, manufacturing, facilities, R&D, communications and marketing,” even suggesting that sustainability will be so integrated into business strategy that the CSO role will no longer be necessary.
  • The CSO title is frequently used to send a message. Strandberg points to greater use of the title Chief Sustainability Officer “to signal intent and commitment and facilitate strategic conversations.”
  • Environmental challenges fuel innovation and creativity. In fact, a study by Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, and M.R. Rangaswami in Harvard Business Review labels sustainability the key driver of innovation. “Our research shows that sustainability is a mother lode of organizational and technological innovations that yield both bottom-line and top-line returns,” the authors reveal.
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