Senior Client Partner, Corporate Affairs, ESG & Sustainability, EMEA
Exploring the role of the CSO
There is a great definition for the perfect Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO).
An activist, but one you’d feel comfortable about inviting to the end of year party.
It’s strange, of course, to imagine a C-suite executive ruining a work social event. But, this image does raise some interesting questions. How much of an activist should a CSO be? And, in broader terms, what distinguishes successful CSOs from those who fail to deliver on the ESG and Sustainability agenda?
Until recently, these questions have been difficult to answer. The role of CSO simply hadn’t been around long enough to assess it credibly. In 2021, however, Korn Ferry conducted a new research study into the Chief Sustainability Officer.
We talked to successful CSOs and their CEOS to get a holistic perspective of the role. In all, more than 50 leaders contributed to our research and subsequent The Rise of the Chief Sustainability Officer paper.
In this article, we share some of the key opinions and experiences these executives shared with us, together with our analysis of the blueprint for a higher-performing CSO.
Whether you’re looking to hire a CSO, you aspire to be one, or you are already a CSO, read on for more insights and advice becoming successful in this role.
The rise of the Chief Sustainability Officer
“There is no longer a tension between sustainability and profit – the only tension is one of timeframe.” CSO, Korn Ferry Survey 2021
The role of sustainability leadership is at a turning point. Customers, investors and employees all want companies to prove they look beyond profit within their business. As Steve Howard, Temasek's Chief Sustainability Officer, explains, “…for the first time in history, the sustainability agenda has become a material determinant of success, and perhaps even survival, for companies.”
The CSO role has never been more important in influencing operations, strategy, culture and leadership. It is imperative for businesses to find high-performing sustainability leaders. For current and aspiring CSOs, the future is full of potential opportunities.
What counts as success for a Chief Sustainability Officer?
“Others delivering on my agenda!” CSO, Korn Ferry Survey 2021
Before considering what makes a CSO successful, it is important to establish what success looks like. One universal theme stood out: buy-in that leads to company-wide action. Eric Soubeiran, Vice-President Nature and Cycles (CSO) at Danone, put it in these terms, “Success is when you have made sustainability everyone’s job. It should sit at the highest corporate level and be integrated in executive leadership.”
Once a business buys in from top to bottom, sustainability can be embedded into every aspect of strategy and operations. From there, increasingly ambitious targets can be set. Reaching targets means they can now be linked tangibly to growth, brand transformation, top line revenue, share price and other financial measures.
The 4 ways high-achieving Chief Sustainability Officers get results
Our research identified four key signs of success that distinguish the top Chief Sustainability Officers from their less high performing peers. A CSO who combines all four of these capabilities will be primed for success.
1. They break down business silos
“Be a tempered radical, with a healthy disregard for rules and the status quo.” CSO, Korn Ferry Survey 2021
Sustainability leaders have seen a rapid increase in demands and pressures on their role. This creates differing priorities and expectations across an organization – leading to inefficiencies, duplication, or even chaos. As one leader described this issue, “The word sustainability is much misunderstood, and there is a prevailing sense of ‘where exactly do I fit?’”
The CSO, therefore, must be a silo-buster. Their success is highly dependent on building relationships across multiple business areas such as strategy, risk, finance, corporate affairs, R&D and commercial functions. It takes a mix of credibility, conviction and courage to break down longstanding structures. The CSOs who get results are unafraid to shake things up and bend a few rules along the way.
2. They change the mindsets of managers
“Sustainability has to be part of the value proposition – demonstrating at least one of growth, building trust, reducing risk or lowering cost. In this way, you show the direct link to the business case.” Rebecca Marmot – Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever
CSOs need to influence at scale to change mindsets across an entire organization. There is often resistance to change, especially at the middle-management level where sustainability can be viewed as a threat to business performance. Motivation alone will fail to build the case for change.
The key is to meet employees where they are, particularly middle managers. Collaborate together on a vision to expand their market and deliver new value. Change perceptions so sustainability becomes an enabler or even creator of business, rather than a cost or reporting function.
3. They set ambitious goals and are comfortable with vulnerability
“Avoid paralysis by analysis. Set challenging targets, and do not be nervous over being held to account for failure. Embrace the mistakes, be courageous and confident in an authentic purpose.” Dorothee D’Herde – Head of Sustainable Business, Vodafone Group
One CSO we spoke to used a wonderful turn of phrase, “The best goals are the ones we have no clue how to get to.” Another had this piece of advice, “'Be bold and learn by doing’ was the best lesson learned on the journey.” The strategy must be clear and ‘all in’, or it is immediately undermined. At the same time, progress is more important than perfection.
To be successful, a CSO has to think big. But as Vodafone’s Dorothee D’Herde describes, you also have to embrace failure and “demonstrate collective vulnerability.” Listening to all stakeholders with an open mind is essential because, “you can’t have all the answers – and empathy can build bridges.” What all high-achieving CSOs show is resilience in the face of resistance, setbacks, and uncontrollable external forces.
4. They get the job done through others
“Be the spider in the web – know how to get traction at the highest levels. Shape, but don’t deliver.” CSO, Korn Ferry Survey 2021
High-performing CSOs make an impact through others. That starts with understanding all points of view, then using that understanding to inspire a movement and develop the momentum for change. The key is to identify opportunities, then enable. Lead through consensus – and learn to let go.
The blueprint for a successful Chief Sustainability Officer
Using our CSO research we developed a talent and leadership blueprint for the role – a success profile with a future-focused view on high-performance.
For a quick snapshot, the Success Profile highlights four features of successful leaders: competencies, experience, traits and drivers.
There may be momentum today, but the CSO needs grit and persistence to capitalize on this and drive meaningful change.
Possessing a strong degree of business acumen, CSOs are future-focused thought leaders with the ability to communicate with impact.
With a strong sense of agency, successful CSOs believe in their ability to drive change and secure a more sustainable future.
CSOs are almost universally driven by their mission and will increasingly act as the ‘purveyor of purpose’.
The striking thing to note is the CSO profile emphasizes Enterprise Leadership qualities, rather than functional expertise or narrow sustainability experience.
Lookout for these warning signs within the CSO role
Our research highlighted the drivers for CSO success. We also identified the balance of traits associated with failure in the role.
- Altruism over business acumen
- Ego or over-confidence while exploring possibilities
- Rigidity over tolerance for ambiguity
- Thinking too small over a world view of the business in society
- Inauthenticity over ability to influence at every level
Getting Chief Sustainability Officer accountabilities right
We’ve focused on the traits and actions of successful CSOs in this article. But there is another important issue to consider: talented CSOs will still fail if given the wrong accountabilities. In defining the Success Profile for the role, we identified three key functional accountabilities. If you are creating a CSO role or negotiating the detail of a role these should be the expectations.
1. Executive committee membership
Typically, the CSO reports directly to the CEO, following the mandate and perception that comes along with that. Alternative homes include Strategy or Corporate Affairs, with a small, lean central team within a ‘hub and spoke model’.
2. Address material sustainability impacts
The CSO must understand deeply the material impact of sustainability risks to create positive impact and unlock value. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide additional reference points to measure business impact, but materiality should guide focus.
3. Partnership approach
The business delivers – the CSO is the guide. The capabilities to achieve SDGs must come from across the organization. To make the business case, CSOs need to anticipate business trends and understand how sustainability relates back to the business with shared accountability.
Want to learn more?
We have a selection of ESG-related resources you are welcome to access on our website. For a fuller discussion of the Chief Sustainability Officer role and Success Profile, please download our The Rise of the Chief Sustainability Officer paper.