Chief Sustainability Officers Expanding from Tactical Executors to Strategic Lynchpins

Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) have expanded their responsibilities from internal program managers to strategic lynchpins who guide corporate strategy, identify product innovation opportunities, and orchestrate sustainability initiatives both inside and outside the company, according to a new report by The Weinreb Group.

The report, CSO Back Story II: The Evolution of the Chief Sustainability Officer, identifies 36 executives working for U.S. headquartered publicly-traded companies that hold the official title of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). On average, these CSOs have been at their company for 10 years when they are tapped for the role and 86 percent are tapped internally as opposed to being hired from outside the company.

The report cites five key shifts emerging in the last three years:

1. Collective Benefit

The role of the CSO has transitioned from a focus on the tactical implementation of environmental and social initiatives toward an emphasis on delivering benefit and value for stakeholders and shareholders simultaneously.

2. Innovation

Thinking beyond incremental improvements, CSOs are spearheading innovation in order to meet the need for sustainably designed products and processes that meet radically different criteria.

3. Stakeholder Signaling

CSOs are actively engaged in signaling the company’s commitment to sustainability across multiple channels. Communication of the sustainability agenda to external stakeholders, such as customers and the media, as well as internal stakeholders, such as employees, is a critical responsibility of the CSO.

4. Access

Regardless of its hierarchical position, the CSO role touches the business at all levels and works across organizational pillars. The CSO moves seamlessly from collaborating with employees across the business to influencing the company’s core vision and strategy

5. A Team Sport

The success of the CSO hinges upon the careful orchestration and engagement of multiple teams throughout the organization. By embedding sustainability into all corners of the business, the CSO empowers business leaders to own the company’s sustainability achievements.

"Today, CSOs extend sustainability to all aspects of their businesses, especially where company-led innovation and feedback from external stakeholders leads to growth and value creation,” said Ellen Weinreb, President of the Weinreb Group. “Women also are leaping into the CSO ranks, making up 42 percent — up 52 percent in just three years.”

This 2014 report updates a 2011 research report titled CSO Back Story: How Chief Sustainability Officers Reached the C-Suite. Both reports were conducted by the Weinreb Group, an executive search and consulting firm that specializes in the sustainability and corporate responsibility marketplace.


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