What does it take to be a Chief Sustainability Officer?

What does it take to be a Chief Sustainability Officer?

“The great sustainability challenge is this: how can 9bn people have a good quality of life on our planet by 2050?” commented Gwyn Jones of the Global Association of Corporate Responsibility Officers (GACSO) to a packed room of sustainability professionals at Oxford’s Jam Factory. With rapid urbanisation and social mobility set to trigger ever-increasing levels of consumption, business will be under pressure like never before to ensure these increasing demands on Earth’s resources are met responsibly.

As the most powerful force on the planet, companies must channel their energy into a fundamentally different way of thinking, Gwyn explained, decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation and moving beyond compliance to ‘do good’, not just ‘less bad’. However, with only three of the FTSE 100 companies employing a Chief Sustainability Officer, the burning question of who will be responsible for bringing sustainability to the C-suite has yet to be answered.

GACSO’s vision is for sustainability to be embedded at the heart of corporate strategy, with at least 250 Chief Sustainability Officers on executive boards of the top 250 organisations by 2020. These respected and valuable individuals would deal with the mind-blowing agenda of poverty, consumption, carbon, well-being and economic reform. Importantly, they would recognise the relevance of each of these elements to their organisation’s core business strategy. And of course stay abreast of the world’s ever-evolving environmental, socio-economic and political challenges.

The first 100 days

In their first 100 days in the job, a Chief Sustainability Officer or ‘Head of Sustainability’ should forge a strategic plan, manage perceptions, inspire the confidence and trust of all sectors of the business, prompt behaviour change, and above all, achieve something, explained Anne Augustine, founder of the Convergency Partnership. All this while being resilient and adaptable, and staying true to their values. Many people enter the field of sustainability because they are passionate about making a positive difference, Anne commented. This resolve can be severely tested when countered with the demands of business continuity and pressure from shareholders.

So, with all this in mind, what does it take to be a Chief Sustainability Officer?

The CSO career path

There’s currently no obvious or uniform path to becoming a board level sustainability professional. Those who are progressing through the corporate ranks to take up the mantle of sustainability come from a variety of backgrounds and have led highly diverse careers. Gwyn Jones challenged our audience to identify the skills, competencies and qualities that would be required by tomorrow’s CSOs, and discuss where they would fit into a corporate organisation.

Core competencies

With a passion for their subject, the CSO would be a highly motivated and enthusiastic individual. He or she would be a brilliant negotiator, whose charisma, creativity and blue sky thinking would be tempered with a balanced and realistic approach to the issues at hand. Importantly, they would have the stamina, persistence and emotional intelligence required to communicate their vision effectively to the rest of the C-suite. This assertiveness in the boardroom would be matched with an exceptional understanding of critical business functions, including finance, supply chain, sales and marketing. Indeed, commercial awareness would be critical to successfully embedding sustainability at any level.

Importantly, the CSO should be an absolutely sparkling communicator. He or she should clearly convey the importance of sustainability, its relevance and benefits throughout the business. The opportunities must be made crystal clear. An expert facilitator with an ability to translate pressing issues into compelling stories and articulate messages, the CSO would also have the organisational skills of a world-class project manager. He or she would be able to plan for the short and long term, assembling a dedicated team to activate sustainable practices throughout the company. And finally, they would remain humble in the face of the great challenges ahead.

Maximising the CSO’s impact

It’s currently unclear as to where exactly the CSO should sit in the business. Sustainability professionals voiced varying opinions as to where the CSO would have most impact. The overriding feeling was that he or should must be directly connected to business strategy in some shape or form, whether this meant being located within the finance, investor relations, strategy or operations functions of the business. The message from the floor was clear: in order to make an impact, he or she must be inextricably linked to business planning.

GACSO’s ‘Defining the Corporate Sustainability Professional’ report, which deals directly with the issues discussed at our event, can be downloaded from www.gacso.org. In the meantime, if you know anyone fitting the above description, please encourage them to push for the creation of a Chief Sustainability Officer in their organisation!

This article was published on the 2degrees network website.