A lot has changed since organisations like Nike and DuPont made their first sustainability appointments in 2004. As sustainability has emerged as a business goal over the past twenty years, these trailblazing Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) have been joined at the executive table by CSOs at leading organisations like Syngenta, HSBC, Wells Fargo, Mattel, Temasek, Philips, Neste and BP among others.

And while 2020 will of course be remembered for one thing in particular, it may well also stand as the tipping point for sustainability. 

Sustainability is no longer an also-ran, bundled in with corporate responsibility, risk or legal or paid lip-service in an act of greenwashing. Now it’s a business imperative, drawing attention from investors, shareholders and governments.

And it’s claiming its place in the c-suite. Organisations everywhere are looking to fill that spot, and in this article we’ll discuss exactly who you should be looking for to build a culture of sustainability at your organisation.

The rise and rise of sustainability

Sustainability is really entering a new phase. And the events of 2020 had no small part in kickstarting the increased recognition.

The pandemic has accelerated the momentum around transitioning to a more generative and inclusive economy. It has increased our concern about issues around sustainability. Perhaps most importantly, it has shown just how quickly organisations can respond to systemic risks.

It’s a culmination of sustainability’s steady march towards recognition within organisations. It’s become a recognised area of professional specialisation, gaining prominence and steadily increasing headcount. 

GreenBiz Group's sixth report on sustainability leadership in business charts the progress made in the past decade, including through the following statistics:

  • Corporate reporting on sustainability has increased more than fivefold in the past 10 years. In 2011, only around 20 percent of S&P 500 companies published a sustainability report. In 2018, 86 percent did.
  • 58 percent of large companies have increased their sustainability headcount in the past two years. Average team size has also grown.
  • The number of large companies with a sustainability role reporting directly into the CEO has increased from 19 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2020.

Sustainability is fundamental to future growth

These stats reflect the increasing demand from customers, employees, investors and stakeholders that organisations play a more active part in making positive change happen for the benefit of the environment and society.

Because of this, the historical tension between commercial interests and sustainability has been erased. Growth must now be good growth, linked to the organisation’s purpose and values. 

The tension between commercial interests and sustainability has been erased. Growth must be good growth, linked to the organisation’s purpose and values. Click To Tweet

Alexandra Brand, CSO at Syngenta explains this coalescence of business objectives simply: “I don’t make the distinction between the function and the business. Sustainability is part of our core purpose, and so our sustainability teams are the enablers and catalyst.” 

What makes a successful CSO?

The strategic importance of this role is now an accepted fact, but like any leadership role, it’s constantly evolving. Rather than listing a set of specific skills, we’ve developed a success profile that describes an enterprise leader over a functional specialist. 

The ideal CSO is an agile and adept builder of relationships, working nimbly and passionately across multiple business areas such as strategy, risk, finance, corporate affairs, R&D and commercial functions. Importantly, they’re equipped with the optimism and resilience necessary to play the long game on sustainability.

Getting the balance right in the push and pull of passion and resilience is critical to success and can be quickly derailed where CSOs exhibit the following tendencies:

Now is the time to re-imagine the role of CSO. We know change can happen, but it takes a particular leader to show us the way.

To learn more about the capabilities and attributes of the ideal CSO, download: The Rise of the Chief Sustainability Officer

Speak to our experts

About the contributor

Andrew is a Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry, and Sustainability & Corporate Affairs lead for EMEA. He partners with clients – Corporate, Financial Services, Investor, NGO – across the talent spectrum; strategic acquisition, leadership development, organisational strategy, culture transformation, and assessment/succession planning. Andrew has particular expertise in Sustainable Finance, ESG, Chief Sustainability Officers (CSO’s), and leadership in Corporate Affairs & Communications and Investor Relations. He has successfully worked with global, European and UK clients across all industry sectors, with recent experience in Energy, Healthcare, FMCG, Financial Services, Manufacturing and Technology.

Related Articles