Job Profile: Evolution of the Chief Sustainability Officer

by Aman Singh Das | February 15, 2011

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What do companies look for in a Chief Sustainability Officer?

According to a new report, you must be visionary and a strategic thinker.

And, if you can "prioritize and plan, communicate and motivate, and delegate and direct," even better.

Conducted by Footprint Talent, an Atlanta-based corporate social responsibility recruitment firm, and WAP Sustainability, the survey titled "The State of The CSO: An Evolving Profile," polled 254 CEOs, HR chiefs, chief operating officers and CSOs to determine what exactly organizations want to see in a Chief Sustainability Officer.

Polled executives represent almost every industry including consulting, manufacturing, advertising, architecture, accounting and education, and companies and institutions like Accenture, ArcelorMittal, Mattel, Mars, Novo Nordisk, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Siemens, Sodexo, and the University of Denver.

Top Skills for a Chief Sustainability Officer

Most noteworthy are the requirements detailed as key competencies for a CSO. Top picks, for example, included:

    1) Evaluation skills such as LEAN and Six-Sigma are helpful to reach the next level of complexity.
    2) Business development experience and sales training is useful in sharing a sustainability vision across an organization.
    3) Accounting and number crunching skills come in handy while conducting assessments and monetizing risks.
    4) Environmental, health and safety experience are useful as a framework for understanding the core sustainability principles.

But that’s not all; the respondents also believe that skill sets in operations management, business development/sales, and science dominate top competences for a CSO.

Least preferred?

Experience related to research, academia, government and financial services.

Educational Requirements: MBA is Gold

No. 1: The MBA remains gold. Declaring that "the MBA is the gold standard for sustainability chiefs, with engineering, science and communications all coming in second," the report puts "formal educational backgrounds in public health, education and PhDs" as "largely irrelevant."

And contrary to popular sentiment, the surveyors predict that in five years, the MBA will "actually increase their importance with engineers dropping in desirability."

Sustainability-focused degree programs and management programs with a concentration on CSR also rated highly. Respondents believed that these programs, "best address the training needs for a CSO."

No. 2: Engineering degrees that focus on sustainable design, carbon management processes and lifecycle sciences.

Avoid: Degrees in sustainable communications.

The Evolution of Sustainability—and the CSO

The importance of sustainability as a strategic lever is growing, and quickly, according to the survey.

    •25% percent of respondents cited it as a "top 5 strategic priority."
    •An additional 65 percent ranked sustainability as a "top 10 strategic initiative."
    •Only 4 percent of respondents rated it as "not important."

Leadership Ranks: Where Does the CSO Sit?

While 64 percent of sustainability chiefs/managers report directly to the CEO or Board of Directors, the survey projects a 13 percent increase in the next five years. "In other words, sustainability goes, and will continue to go, straight to the top."

Return on Investing in Sustainability: What's the Motivation?

Motivations differed widely among industries—and companies, reports the survey. But the top picks, in no particular order, include:

      •Cost Savings

      •Competitive Advantage

      •Environmental Benefits

    •Customer Demand

Least important:

      •Government policy

      •Employee attraction and retention

    •Social and community benefits

Editor's Note: While some of these might sound counterintuitive to many who stay deeply embedded in the "need for sustainability/CSR" argument, they speak of a bottom line reality of business. If the consumer demands and competitive advantage follows, pursuing sustainability is a no-brainer. As a vocal proponent for the collaboration of HR and CSR, however, I was—as many will be—dismayed to see that "employee attraction and retention" remain low on the totem pole.

Without employee motivation and ambassadorship, companies don’t stand a chance in the long term game of survival. And this is quickly becoming a differentiator for jobseekers, who increasingly want to work for a company that aligns with their personal values, and ensures a holistic career path.

When will your management team make this connection? As soon as the ongoing wave of boomer retirements starts to hit your industry, demanding new hires—and mindsets that prefer business models that eschew short term profits for long term sustainability.

As the survey states, chief sustainability officers who "exhibit personal behaviors that reflect the message they are preaching were more likely to experience success, both in their careers and the programs they develop." Obvious for many, but important to note, because driving change starts with an individual: you. Or as contributor Bruno Slewinksi put it last week, "with some internal social responsibility."

And finally, says the report: "The importance of personal behaviors that reflect values of sustainability will no longer be very important: it will be a qualifying factor. [And] 2011 is swiftly becoming the year of the CSO."

Filed Under: CSR

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