What can impact job seekers learn from the evolution of the CSO?

by Shannon Houde

A new report released by the Weinreb Group last month explains how the CSO role has matured and grown in the past three years. CSOs have a lot to teach aspiring sustainability professionals about successful impact leadership.

“Telling our story is an important pillar of our sustainability strategy.”
–BEA PEREZ, Coca-Cola, CSO Backstory II

This October, Walk of Life’s recruiting partner, the Weinreb Group, released an updated version of their 2011 report analyzing the role of the corporate Chief Sustainability Office (CSO). highlights five main shifts “which showcase the ways in which the CSO role has matured, evolved, or shown renewed emphasis over the past three years.” Drawing on interview data from 36 CSOs, the report concludes that corporate sustainability is here to stay. Not only that, but the issue has expanded into the mainstream strategies of many of the largest companies in existence.


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What does this mean for impact job seekers and aspiring sustainability professionals?

As the report mentions, the majority of CSOs are promoted from within, after an average of 10 years with the company (but down from 16 years in the prior report). This is not surprising as there is an uptrend in sustainability positions across the board being filled internally. Companies want people in these roles to know the ins and outs of their offering, understand the competitive landscape, and have established relationships and networks within their stakeholders and across their sector.

So, if you aspire to a title of this ilk down the road, make sure to be smart and strategic about your long game. It’s great to be passionate about these issues, but you need to back up that ‘fire in your belly’ with a winning combination of hard and soft skills that demonstrate your ability to chart new territory in this undefined and evolving landscape. I mention this because when you unpack the key shifts mentioned in Weinreb’s report, each one tells us something about the skills, traits and values of great sustainability leaders. Take note.

  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 for stakeholders and shareholders simultaneously.”Translation: Sustainability professionals need to be able to make the business case for change and measure the value of it in financial terms.

    Skill: Measure and communicate value

  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.”Translation: Sustainability professionals need to be able to integrate CSR into other departments’ agendas.

    Skill: Persuasive bridge building cross-functionally

  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.”Translation: Sustainability professionals need to be able to communicate values, priorities and progress against targets.

    Skill: Storytelling

  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.”Translation: Sustainability professionals need to be able to see the whole picture.

    Skill: Peripheral vision

  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.”Translation: Sustainability professionals need to empower others.

    Skill: Empathy

If you are a CSO or an aspiring CSO let us help you up your game and drive change from within and across your organisation. With more than 10 years advising senior leaders on sustainability and talent, our Executive Coaching service supports practitioners to influence and persuade without authority or budget and to measure the value of sustainability for business. Contact us today to learn more above executive coaching. You can also visit our brand new coaching shop for more information.

Photo from CSO Backstory II


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