Could you cut it as a Chief Sustainability Officer?

08 Oct 2019

Could you cut it as a Chief Sustainability Officer?

What does it take to succeed as a Chief Sustainability Officer and what’s the future for this ever more important senior role?

According to research by George Serafeim, Harvard Business School Professor, a CSO’s authority and responsibilities vary across organisations that are in different stages of sustainability commitment. They have increasing organisational authority as companies enhance their commitment to sustainability, from compliance to efficiency to the innovation stage.

Annemarie Meisling, Head of Sustainability at Danish bioscience corporation Chr. Hansen. confirms this shift. The role has progressed from simply “being housed within CSR,” to satisfy a regulatory or reputational requirement, and is now contributing to product innovation.

“Before we used to work closely with the production and sourcing side, but not so closely with core business units or even with key customer groups.”

In the past few years, Meisling explains that Chr. Hansen assigns its innovation pipeline against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and ensures the sustainability department works closely with R&D.

“In the past, a sustainability head was essentially placed to fulfil an external requirement, whether it was regulatory – say in the case of India which mandated CSR naturally necessitating the creation of sustainability roles – or a reactionary need, in order to liaise with external stakeholders such as environmental activists and consumer groups,” explains Jason Jay, a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan.

According to Jay, as investors increasingly show a propensity for ESG investing, “a Chief of Sustainability is not simply a figurative or reactive leader, but one who can proactively and holistically deal with the company’s internal and external stakeholders.”

What makes a Chief Sustainability Officer a success?

“A successful CSO has to be a visionary thinker, a creative problem-solver, an operational implementer and collaborative leader,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer at global luxury giant Kering.

Daveu leads Kering’s 2025 sustainability strategy, judged the most ambitious and expansive plan of its kind ever created by the fashion and luxury sector.

Given how intersectional and cross-functional the CSO’s role is, his or her ability to succeed on the rapidly-evolving sustainability front hinges on several individual and internal factors.

First, on an individual level, Meisling believes an ideal CSO needs to have the ability to quickly and clearly perceive global megatrends and the organisation’s position in light of this megatrend.

“Will your company be positively relevant to the world in the next five years, 10 years and beyond? That’s a question a CSO must constantly ask,” she explains.

Daveu places a lot of weight on operations and execution without which “you can’t change the paradigm”, she says. Meisling concurs that “solid business acumen – both strategic and operational” – are a must-have together with “the ability to work across functions and business units in a cohesive, collaborative and inspiring fashion, to ignite a desire to achieve change.”

In terms of qualifications and skillset, both Meisling and Daveu note that as the function becomes increasingly professionalised, so too have the backgrounds of sustainability heads today. Daveu herself was an environmental adviser to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and one of the key architects behind France’s two major environmental laws, known as the Grenelle laws.

Microsoft’s sustainability leader

Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft, believes that his “science background, versus a more corporate background” contributed immensely.

“I started off studying wildlife ecology and spent two years in the Peace Corps on the African continent, which really opened my eyes to environmental conservation in practice, not just in theory,” remembers Joppa. The ability to analyse data and patterns is also essential says Joppa: “We cannot assess the state of the world and analyse that data without large-scale computing.”

Second, at an internal or intra-company level, both buy-in and attention from top management, the CEO and Board, is vital. “The corporate sustainability function must maintain KPIs that are measurable and demonstrable and these results must be made visible to the Executive Committee, Board and C-suite,” adds Daveu.

The future of the Chief Sustainability Officer

The potential for CSOs depends on how corporate sustainability evolves. Joppa believes that “the only way to tackle the very real and urgent issues our planet is facing is that instead of consolidating power or influence within the office of a specific individual, companies strive toward empowering every employee in every role in every organisation to lead with sustainability practices.”

However, the company-wide dissemination and assimilation of a sustainability ethos suggested by Joppa may eventually impact the future of the CSO.

“Currently we are entering a major transitional chapter. As sustainability ideals become more integrated into mainstream business functions, such as in the biotech industry, it will make the need for a dedicated CSO obsolete.”

This echoes Serafeim’s earlier research that as the sustainability ethos permeates business functions at companies in the “innovation stage” of the sustainability spectrum, the next 10 to 15 years will see this role become obsolete.

Chr. Hansen’s Meisling has a different take. “We are just beginning to see companies stepping up on the journey, so I do not believe it will become obsolete, but more integrated across the entire organisation, with a small strategic function managing progress.”

Read the first part of this Insight about the rise of the Chief Sustainability Officer, and how it’s becoming the most critical role in the C-suite, guiding the important transition toward a new economic reality.

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