Hey everyone. Welcome to State of Sustainability, where we deliver insights for sustainability professionals to help make them as effective as possible in their role in engineering sustainability for their business. Today we're gonna deep dive into the role of a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). We're gonna talk about:
- The responsibilities of this role: what you can what you need to think about for the first 90 days and beyond. And just how do you really create that work plan for yourself in this
- Securing buy-in across the organisation: What pitfalls do you avoid? How do you manage the CEO and board and management committee and so on.
- How do you unlock your full potential as a CSO? What are the superpowers or capabilities that you should think about and how can you expect your role to evolve over time?
Hopefully, this will give you a really good, well-rounded sense of the role. And if you're already in this role, this should be useful. But also, if you are an aspiring CSO and you're somewhere along the journey, this should still give you a really good sense of what to expect, but also what to architect for on your career
1. Responsibilities of a CSO
So let's start with understanding the responsibilities of the Chief Sustainability Officer. I think about this in three ways.
- One is around strategy.
- The second is around process management and coordination.
- And the third is around stakeholder management and engagement.
I'm gonna talk most particularly about the strategy part because we're gonna cover some elements of process management and stakeholder management a little later on in this session.
Strategy (top down)
For the strategy, I always think about this in two ways, and I think it's important to separate these two phases. The first is top-down and the second is bottom-up, and in the middle you have buy-in.
So I would start with, for example, defining this compelling North Star. What I mean by that is if you think of your organisation, what is the symbolic, definitive emblem of change for the organisation?What is the end of the journey? What does success look like? Is it net zero for instance? Is it full circularity? Is it a hundred per cent recycled content? Is there some other big North star that will really resonate and instantly be recognisable for everyone in the business? That they know what they're tracking towards.
This is the one thing that you would want everyone to be able to remember off the tip of their tongue, for instance. And this is the one thing that you'll really start to reshape the whole organisation around.
One good example, for instance, that I think about is a snack food company that's really focused on raising the minimum wage across the supply chain, for example. This is the kind of emotive issue that you could say, look, we want everyone across the supply chain to get a fair wage. That's our North Star. Very simple to remember, very catchy, very easy. Within this context, you also want to explain why. Why is this important? It could be a mission-driven logic, even better if it is some sort of customer-driven logic.
And the reason I say that is that most organisations, most performance-driven organisations are at their heart oriented towards their customers or consumers above most other stakeholders. And so if you can actually put your North Star in the language of that customer that's usually a really good way to tap into that built in psyche of the organisation.
Another aspect of this is to explain what it will feel like. Where is it gonna get uncomfortable? Where is it gonna fray around the edges? Where are you expecting difficulties? For example, is it that you want to increase your recycled content to a 100%. I know a bottled water company that is targeting this. And right now you’re at 5%, but actually by the time you hit 25%, you're expecting to really run out of recycled substrate or recycled content, and it's gonna be really difficult to start sourcing that because the supply chain can't cope.
So just explain what it's going to feel like and where it's going get uncomfortable, and then what are the most important milestones going be? I would avoid the temptation to make this numerical, talking about it as a 15% reduction, 25% reduction, et cetera. And I would focus more on narrative quality. What is a big event across the organisation?
One good example that comes to mind is a meal delivery company that we work with that has really focused on expanding consumer choice in the meal delivery kits that they provide. And in that example, they have a low-calorie kit. They have, I think, a vegan kit and they have a carbon carbon-cutting kit as well. The launch of that low carbon menu option, that carbon cutting kit, is a, a big event across the organisation. To get to that place, they need to have the right data. They need to have the right suppliers. They need to have the right product design. A lot of different pieces come together, but create that unified event that resonates across the organisation and across the customers.
That's the kind of milestone that you want to have. Identify the five big things that are going to need to happen to deliver this. Again, one of these might be operational. There might be something supply chain oriented. There might be a consumer choice aspect. There might be data that you need to gather. There might be some elements that you need to test.
For example, let's say you are trying to test the customer value proposition and you want to test whether the customer will pay for a more sustainable option. So what are those five big things that you're going to need to be able to demonstrate, deliver, and prove that are really core as part of this journey? If you think of this as the top-down strategy, which is the north star, the why, the milestones, the five big things.
Use this as the basis to create buy-in across the organisation. Use this as the basis to go round your, let's say, 10 most important stakeholders in the management team. Go to them each, you know, one-to-one, for instance, and start socialising and syndicating this level of plan before you go to them as a group.
One mistake that I find a lot of CSOs make is that they try to do all the work in the background and then show up at the board meeting and present and expect everyone to be bought in by the sheer force of the presentation which I think is putting too much on one engagement point. You actually want to create multiple engagement points across that community and then culminate in finally bringing them all together on a pre syndicated, top down plan to get the buy-in for you to move to the bottom up part of the plan.
Strategy (bottom up)
The bottom up part of the plan I see as detailing out those five big things that you need to do. And so here you're going to need to start to get actual business plans and project plans and budgets and costs and impact expectations and timelines together. And to detail out this plan, you're going to need to start going wider and engaging more and more people around the organisation to provide you with expertise and inputs.
There are going to be people involved. Let's say you're a manufacturing organisation. You're going to need to engage with engineering teams, for example, and you're going to need to suss out and push the limits on new technologies that they might not feel comfortable with. And you're going to need to ask them kind of what-if style hypothesis questions.
Like, what if we were to try this? It would, if it would break down, where would it break down if it would be too expensive? How much too expensive are we talking about? You want to really push the boundaries of that, and this is where it's important that you've secured that buy-in through your top-down plan because you're going to need to start now using a lot of that political capital by engaging more widely to build out a well costed, well-planned, well-timed trajectory for your, your roadmap as an organisation.
A lot of us are thinking about target setting, for example, SBTI or otherwise, and I would encourage you to think in kind of broad strokes at the level of the top-down strategy. And maybe that's enough for you to make, let's say a long-term commitment. But you are going to need to then follow that up with the bottom-up plan to be able to work out actual costs.
And so think about one of the distinctions being:
- At the top down level, you might use a, broad brush carbon price logic for the overall plan. And you might say, look, it's gonna cost us roughly $50 per ton across the fullest state of emissions in the organisation.
- And at the bottom up level, you're able to nuance that by breaking it up into categories and you're able to say, look. We actually can get 20% of our reductions at $15 per ton, and 80% of our reductions are gonna be above that. And out of what's above that, we're gonna have a chunk that's maybe at $150, but ballpark, it's consistent with what we've put forward there in the top, top down plan.
And so I would just think of kind of these two aspects of the strategy top down and bottom up.
Process management and coordination
If I then move on a little to process management and coordination, this flows really naturally from the strategic work that you've been putting together as a CSO. You need to be able to identify owners and responsibilities and continuously engage them to get the job done, because the fundamental thing that you're owning as the CSO is the problem.
You are owning the task of getting this problem solved. And making sure that if this problem is not solved, you are escalating, you are sounding the alarm, you are getting everyone galvanised and into action. As part of that, no one should expect you to own all the parts of the problem delivery yourself, but rather to devolve these two different parts of the organisation.
And in the best instance, these owners will not be in your direct line of control. And I say that because ideally they're part of the front line. Where the actual activity contributing, let's say the emissions are taking place and you're actually getting those people, often the ones who provided you with data, to begin with, to form your strategy.
You're getting those people bought into the implementation. Think of that engineer I mentioned with whom you're testing assumptions. You want that engineer to ultimately also be the owner of an intervention and be the ambassador and role model for getting that intervention going. And so, you know, if I think about assigning these sort of owners that's going to be one of the most important things you're going to do.
The next piece closely affiliated with that is identifying dependencies. Where is something likely to break down? Where is that engineer going to struggle because they're not getting the support they need from the rest of the organisation? Is it because actually that technology, that super experimental technology that the engineer was happy to put their hand up and recommend is actually going to require your procurement team to take a massive bet on a small startup. Betting on your company just on principle doesn't work with startups, so you're going to need someone in procurement to now sign off on that engineer's initiative.
You need to think through where these things going to break down so you can already manage stakeholder coordination to get this done, and we'll talk about that in a moment.
The next piece that I would think about within the process management and coordination is the core infrastructure that you're going to rely on.
So, you know, data is gonna be one, tracking, reporting, all these aspects, maybe even project management tooling. How do you bring all the people involved together so they have visibility and they can work together and collaborate, and they can also maybe compete with each other and they can source ideas and they can validate ideas and they can make progress happen.
That infrastructure thinking is going to be another place where you want to invest time upfront to make your life easier later on. So having talked a little bit about process management and coordination,
2. How to interface to get buy-in
Let's move on to stakeholder engagement and stakeholder management. I’m going to talk about this in a bit more detail in just a moment with respect to the board and CEO, but for now I kind of just want to maybe highlight a few of the big categories of stakeholders that you're going to come across.
One is going to be your internal management team and your board and your CEO. The next piece is gonna be around stakeholder management and engagement, and I think within this group, the most important category is really going to be your peers, your CEO, your board to begin with. And so I actually kind of want to dive deep into that in a section of its own of this session.
How should a CSO interface with a Board and CEO?
So let's talk a little bit about internal alignment and interfaces with other parts of the senior parts of the organisation. So how should a Chief Sustainability Officer interface with a board and CEO and what are some of the pitfalls that they should avoid?
Honesty and pragmatism:
I usually find that when interfacing with a board and CEO, the first thing that you wanna anchor on is honesty and pragmatism on what the constraints are.
What I mean by that is that your temptation is going to be to walk into the meeting and start sharing some of the data and start sharing some of the information. And I'm thinking really very much around your first update. For example, the first big update that you're gonna be sharing, let's say with the board or the management committee, your temptation is gonna be to immediately jump in to any of the wins, for example, or even any of the, the defeats, let's say.
Whereas I almost think that you should start with a disclaimer and you should say you are going to see a bunch of numbers. And actually, uh, those numbers may have moved around on the basis of technical changes in underlying assumptions, or it may be progress related, but we want you to almost. Just take a pinch of salt right now when looking at, at, at, at the data that we're going show you, because this is a journey that we're on and we're going to get better and iterate over time and we will let you know.
We'll take the responsibility as the sustainability team to let you know when there's something that you can go out and take externally, or there are numbers that we want you to retain versus stuff that we're just working through as part of our, let's say, data learning journey. So I would sort of start with that disclaimer first.
Create a learning journey:
Before jumping into some of the content, the next thing that I would think about, and this is again gonna be quite important for the first, let's say 60 or 90 days of your time in role, is how do you invest upfront in the education and learning of the management committee and the board and the CEO and your senior colleagues?
What I mean by that is that you want to already take some time upfront. To educate them on what's going to happen, what's coming next, understand their baseline so that you can inform yourself on how much level of detail to go into, how much context you need to provide in a given update.
And also just bring everyone up to speed at the same, same level. So I find, for example, investing in information sessions upfront to be super useful. I was, uh, working as an advisor to a, a bottle making company at one point on their sustainability strategy, and one of the first things that the chief sustainability officer did was to bring me into a session with the CEO to spend just an hour with the c o talking through all of the CEO's misconceptions.
And so the CEO had a lot of views around, let's say ocean plastic, circularity emissions, water intensity, some of which were correct and accurate, some of which were misplaced. The CEO saw some threats that were real and underplayed some threats that I thought were, were, were, were actually actually more important.
And that process of just airing all of these views, Is a super important one, and you have some leverage to do that early on, and you may not have that leverage to do, uh, that sort of information and education part of the journey once people are expecting you to already be halfway through implementation.
The next thing I would think about, again, when interfacing with the management committee board, CEO, et cetera, Is effective synthesis of current state progress and what's needed? I have seen far too many slides with 20 bullet points or more summarising all the little details of what you've done. Uh, you know, I've seen pages and pages off.
We changed the feed for the livestock. We put a solar panel on a warehouse here. We reduced, uh, 20% of, of the packaging content in this specific SKU that we're we're operating with. All of this is minutia that loses people in the detail. What you instead want to do is go into these conversations really with, again, four or five points that you talk about.
One should be what is the current status? Almost like a rag status, red, amber, green. Where are we today? Are things going well? Are things going badly? Do I want you to be concerned? Yes or no? The second should be, you know, let's say, what's the high level thing on? What's changed? What's new? What's different to the last time we had this conversation?
Maybe the third is, you know, here's something where we're gonna need your help on. Here's something where we need intervention. Here's a cause for concern. And then maybe there's another piece around, here's what's coming next. And I would sort of just summarise that and go in with that. The benefit of that is that if you lose people's attention after the first few minutes, they've still retained the, the juice of the matter.
But also you're then able to go deep into the areas that people want you to go deep on. And, and, you know, maybe you do need to dive into some of the details and, and maybe don't. Um, the, the final piece that I would just think about , as, one of the, uh, things that's useful in how you engage with these senior stakeholders.
Narratives not numbers:
And I think this is often, again, underplayed is give the board and CEO something to talk about. And in my previous life we used to call this Feeding the Beast. You want to give them something that they can go and use when they're on stage, when they're talking to the the chair of the board when they're talking to investors.
And you will often not want that to be a number. It can sometimes land you in the soup. If your senior stakeholders fixate on one number, there's some examples out there of let's say, you know, well-known consumer goods companies that have put an emissions number on the packet and the emissions number has turned out to be 75% off the mark, for example, in that situation, the last thing you want the c e o to have been fixated on is what that number was because the chances are that they might remember that number long into the future, well after you yourself know, it's no longer relevant.
And so what's better is actually if you can give these individuals in your, in your leadership team a story to tell, because the next best thing after a factoid, uh, is going to be a narrative or a story. And so an anecdote around, we did this thing with a specific part of our company, for instance, we had almond trees that we were using, and these almond trees at the end of their lifespan were then converted into material to be used for some type of furniture. This is a true story, by the way, and that that new, that new revenue stream was built out of a waste product. And maybe this is small, maybe it's gonna get bigger, but just the power of that narrative where you say, look, we took a, a well-known waste material and we created something really interesting in terms of a new business opportunity out of this.
That can be actually just the kind of thing that your CEO or management team is able to use to answer the elevator question that they might get asked in an elevator, which is, uh, what's changed on the sustainability of your journey. So I would just think about again, how you feed the beast with those sorts of examples when interfacing with others in the organisation.
What are the pitfalls to avoid?
I think it's also important to just avoid a few pitfalls, and I notice three that keep cropping up. Particularly relevant for CSOs, actually, these are the three that I noticed CSOs often making.
- Mission over money. What I mean by this is, you know, we, we are most of us really mission oriented in terms of why we're in this space.Most chief sustainability officers are in this role because they're at some level ideologically driven and signed up for this and wanted to do this. And many of them have been in this role or in this track even since the days when it was a super thankless task. And so we tend to think Mission and many of our stakeholders think mission, whereas most of the organisation is oriented around financial motivations and financial KPIs. And that's not a bad thing. So we need to understand how to speak the language.I was having a conversation with the sustainability leader of a large British food business, for instance, and this is a B two B business, and in this case, this individual was previously a part of the commercial team. And what she was telling me was that when she speaks with her commercial team colleagues, one of the benefits she has is that she can speak their language, she can talk to them in language that they understand, and she knows that they're translating this into what can sustainability do for me in terms of new revenue? And she doesn't like it intuitively. But she accepts that that what, that's what floats their boat. That's what gets them over the line onto engaging with her, uh, on this topic and that that ends in the right place. And so I would encourage all CSOs to have that sort of pragmatism to balance the mission with the money aspect.
- Alignment over action. We often over index. On trying to get everyone to agree and everyone to land in the same place, and that means that we can spend months and months and months trying to organise workshops, syndication meetings, et cetera, et cetera, whether it's internally, but also often externally.Whereas I think what you need to be sure that you're managing for is having an undercurrent of action as well, even if it's smaller interventions and quick wins. Because you want to be able to provide the organisation with a steady stream of results as well and some sort of stuff moving while you're managing for that alignment.
I would use the 80/20 rule and I would just try and align on the big things and let the small stuff take care of itself. I have too many organisations in my network where the chief sustainability officer can spend, you know, literally like a year and a half thinking through what type of, let's say digital infrastructure do they want to set up?Because they have to manage across lots of different fiefdoms in the organisation. Frankly, just get moving with something and let this problem solve itself in the background.3. Results over relationships. This might seem counterintuitive because again, I've just been talking about getting action and getting results, but at the same time, the truth of the matter is that most organisations, and this is even more true in larger organisations, are effectively relationship driven when it comes to getting stuff over the line.That close relationship that you as a CSO might have built with the COO. Or with the Chief Procurement Officer may just be what gets a particular difficult initiative over the line, much more so than, for example, the demonstrable results that you might have achieved with a lot of smaller stuff. And so as a CSO, I would think about what are the two or three most important pivotal relationships that you need to build?Who are the people that you need to get on site? And so if you remember earlier in this, in this session, we talked about the 10 people in the management committee, for instance, that you might be introducing to the strategy and how a few of them might be supporters, a few might be detractors, and a few might be on the fence.You want to think out of that cast of characters. Who are going to be your sponsors and supporters in that group that you can really engage with and build deep relationships with and with those individuals, you wanna identify shared interests and mutual interests and mutual success and wins and, and double down on that.
And very often in the instances I would think of, again, there's a large food company in my network where the most important two people outside of the CSOs core group are going to be business unit leaders. They're leaders of two of the biggest business units and, uh, and they're people that if you get them on board, you can really have a much easier time moving change within those business units.
And those two business units contribute, let's say, maybe 40% of the revenue and 35% of the emissions of that organisation. And that's a big enough chunk for you to get four years into your journey with some, some pretty significant wins.
3. CSO Superpowers
Let's, let's talk a little about CSOs superpowers and what can really help a CSO to unlock their full potential. And then let's move on to what can you expect as A CSO or as someone on that career journey in the years to come? How does this role evolve? So in the first one, CSO superpowers and how to really unlock your full potential, I would look at a few aspects.
1. Ability to deal with tough challenges and people situations. This is hard to find. As CSOs we're often geared towards creating consensus and alignment and bringing people together, whereas what you also need to be able to manage is for different sorts of motivations. So how do you, for example, tap into the, the big picture thinking and the detail orientation of different people that you might be dealing with, but also when push comes to shove, How do you know where to escalate?For instance, there are a number of organisations that I work closely with where the CSO is trying to manage everything within their own parameter and trying to solve problems at their level because they're fundamentally conflict avoidant. Whereas what I know and what I try to convey, but which, you know, sometimes lands and sometimes unfortunately doesn't, is that at some points you need to go above the head of the person that's obstructing action.And you need to engage the CEO and you need to get the CEO on board at times. If you're not a CSO and you're not responding, you're not reporting directly into the CEO. Let's say maybe you're a head of sustainability reporting into A COO, you still need to have that channel where you can, when push comes to shove, escalate, and go to a level where you can unlock action.That's unfortunately sometimes needed in this space just as a last resort. And I feel that too many CSOs are. Reluctant to leverage that or reluctant to use that in a tactful way. And I think there are ways to get this done effectively that doesn't point fingers at individuals, but I think that, uh, being comfortable with these uncomfortable situations and pushing yourself beyond that zone is gonna be super important.
One example I've seen, one example I've seen where where this has worked quite well is a food business. It's a prominent supplier into the European chocolate industry. And one of the things that I think that the head of sustainability did really well is that he actually brought the topic and created buy-in at the level, not just of his own management team. But of the owners of the business, this is a private equity owned business, and he actually not.Not only did he bring all the relevant stakeholders in the strategy, he even brought the advisors in to a meeting with the private equity owners. Bear in mind that this is someone who is a head of sustainability reporting into I, I think, a Chief Supply Chain Officer reporting into a CEO reporting into the board, reporting into the private equity owners.In this case, the individual managed to arrange the setup such that everyone along this chain was a winner. By showcasing their sustainability plan. Not the achievements, but the plan, the intention, the milestones, the direction. What this effectively did is this gives this head of sustainability, this whole column of support for any difficult situations that they're going to land themselves in on, because they have ultimate buy-in for the overall mission and plan.So that's one thing that I would think about in terms of how do you make yourself a little future proof. For some of the difficult conversations and situations, which is give yourself that support structure that you can really, when you need to escalate, if necessary, to unlock, uh, difficult challenges that you're facing.
2. The second piece that I would think about is applied evangelism. What I mean by that is many chief sustainability officers have a tendency to evangelise, and this, this can be a good thing. But it needs to be put into the context of the business. I see far too many members of our broader sustainability community who are, whose main evangelical tendency is around, you know, posting on LinkedIn about forest fires and heat waves and talking in, in high level abstract terms about the sustainability challenge globally.This may or may not be interesting personally, I, I already find it a bit, a bit, a bit repetitive, but it's not super useful for the business, and it suggests that you're more interested, again, in the sort of the big picture mission than actually driving change in your organisation. What I would think about instead is what are, what are the two or three issues that you want to own as a representative of your company?Let's say you're in the consumer packaged goods space. Maybe it's packaging waste, for instance. And packaging waste is that one issue that you really want to be known for, both externally and internally. That's the drum that you want to bang, and that I think can work really well for your organisation and for yourself.It can build a good personal brand, it can build a good depth of understanding as you go deeper into that topic. It, it reflects well on the company brand and it also resonates and reinforces the change that you're trying to achieve internally within the organisation. And there, there are a number of really good examples of this working super well.I know the CSO of a prominent fashion brand, for instance, and most of her, let's say, public activity when talking about sustainability, is oriented to stuff like recyclable recycled content used in perfume bottles. And stuff oriented to the supply chain of her specific company and how her specific company is really focusing on building, uh, sustainability awareness and knowledge across the full management team and across the middle management tier as well.This stuff, I think, is super useful applied evangelism, and so I would encourage all CSOs to really think about what that means in their context.
3. Operational or commercial experience. The next piece I would think about is how do you as a CSO, generate some operational or commercial experience that is useful in your work as a CSO, but is also just makes you a more value adding professional in your business context.
4. There are a few bits of personal advice that I've sort of seen again, work in in for different people in this sort of role.1. Own a budget. One of my favourite ways in which this happens is there is an apparel company that I know they're a, a well-known fashion brand. They manufacture their own, their own apparel, and then they sell it, sell it online.They have a really good presence in sustainability, and the chief sustainability officer also owns the R&D budget. And what's exciting about that is it gives her the opportunity, To start shaping the sustainability direction of the company. Using the budgetary capacity that she has, she can start to deploy it behind alternative materials, for example, pilots of new technologies and new approaches. And that already gives her also the sort of the professional chops of being able to manage, manage that budget, bid for a budget expansion where needed show success in deploying that budget show return on investment for that budget. All of which are just really good management skills for a CSO to sort of make sure that they double down on, and I think that's usually underplayed within the CSO space, the, not quite the flip side, but the next level and the harder level of that sort of space, I think is to generate revenue.
5. Generate revenue. The holy grail for most of us leading sustainability teams is how do you turn what is ostensibly a cost centre into a revenue centre? How do you actually start to generate positive income streams? I have been talking recently about how Amazon is clearly moving into this space where for anyone who's followed Amazon's commitments onto engaging their supply chains behind sharing sustainability data and targets, not quite the fine print, but even the, the big bold print says that Amazon is also gonna be looking at providing tools technology solutions into the supply chain to enable that change to happen.That is a very clear commitment from Amazon, not just towards sustainability transition. But also to generating revenue out of what would otherwise be a compliance challenge that they would have had to deal with anyway. As a CSO, one of the big opportunities for you is gonna be how do you think about turning that cost center into a revenue stream for your organisation?
6. Generate press: The next thing I think about, again, in terms of just personal advice that I've seen work. And I'm a little reluctant or hesitant on this one because it feels a little, a little off sometimes, but generate press, I think that you can overplay this as well, and so I would take it with a pinch of salt, but it is usually a value adding activity for an organisation that a CSO should lead the charge on developing and generating positive, uh, brand and positive press for the organisation. There are obviously huge caveats around greenwashing. There are similarly caveats around green hushing. You need to find the right sweet spot between what are you going to be safe and comfortable talking about without compromising the organisation. And so where I would focus in terms of generating press, and this is consistent with what I've been saying in the rest of this session, is focus less on the hard emissions numbers, for instance. And focus more on the story or narrative of change and the examples of initiatives that you've led that make your business a more robust, better business. This should be, again, something operational in nature, a different process, a different way of generating or producing a product. Uh, that sort of thing can be super compelling.I've seen a lot of great examples of cross company collaboration on digital twinning, for example, where they talk about how they're able to redesign the full product. To generate a more sustainable future state for that product. And that can be, again, quite powerful from a, a press and PR perspective as well to think about.
7. Lead your industry. And the final thing I would just, just say in terms of advice and suggestions for, for as a CSO unlocking your full potential is think about how you can lead your industry, not just as an organisation, but also as an individual. There's a lot of room in this space for cross-sector collaboration, and I would, I would lean into that in terms of whether you're at the right events, but also whether you're convening groups of your stakeholders and using the convening power of your organisation to convene those other organisations that are in your ecosystem orbit to identify shared challenges and identify shared progress.One thing that I see a lot of our companies that we work with doing quite well these days. Is really setting up supplier conferences and using that supplier conference to again, galvanise your supply chain behind a shared mission. I also see some of our customers working with their customers on customer conferences and customer workshops to galvanise their customers in the case where the customers may still be a little further behind them.So I would think about how do you be a good industry citizen in addition to how do you be a good corporate citizen within your organisation? The next thing I would look at within the context of your career journey is how do you expect your role to evolve over time?
And I think this is gonna be relevant not just for CSOs, but again, anyone who's on that track or on that journey, whether you're a head of sustainability or a sustainability manager or at any level really of that trajectory.
How can I expect the role to evolve:
The first thing or the bit of context to bear in mind is that getting to a CSO role today is a lot easier than it used to be for the simple reason that there are more CSO roles out there.
10 years ago, I think the stat that I saw was around 5% of the Fortune 500 had a CSO or equivalent role at all in the organisation. I think that that's probably inverted now, and I would expect that 95% of Fortune 500 companies either have a CSO role or are marketing a CSO role or equivalent or are thinking about marketing a CSO role or equivalent.
And so there's, there's a lot more of those roles out there. So it, it's never been easier, really. And the other thing that I'm noticing is that a lot of individuals who have even a few years of reasonably good, robust, relevant experience can have the opportunity to leapfrog into that sort of CSO role.
What I would be careful and wary of when signing up to that opportunity is that there's a big risk that this role becomes a dead end. There are many organisations that have not really thought through where the CSO role goes next, and that's a problem. If you are a COO or a CFO today, or most other C-Suite roles, there is a a much better understood progression.
Which is you can move to a larger organisation, you can potentially move into a CEO role. You can take on more responsibility, you can move laterally within the organisation to other parts of the business. You can move, uh, to another sort of role in a bigger company. There are a lot of different pathways out there.
Whereas for a CSO there are actually far more limited options. And so what I would expect to see is that many CSOs. Take the only option that is available to them, which is they end up just moving to a larger company, and that's pretty much the only place that you can go as a C S O because it becomes very hard for most CSOs to navigate a lateral shift because of the nature of the role.
You don't have a lot of operational experience. You don't have financial experience. You in many cases, haven't managed a large budget. You haven't managed revenue streams or a p and l. And so your usefulness and utility can be a bit restricted. And so what I would think about is how do you, let's say, before moving into this role or, or even after you've moved into this role, how do you start to engage, let's say whoever it is that you're reporting into or you know, the, the, the board or others in the organisation, how do you engage them with understanding what the next stage is in the mandate of this, this role?
And how do you maybe use this role to build transformation expertise? What I mean by that is how do you actually use this role to demonstrate how you can over a defined period of time, let's call it three or four years, pivot a large organisation from from one place to an entire, the other place, managing that transformation on time and at cost.
That can be actually a really interesting way to build a much more well-rounded set of expertise that is going to be more useful also in lateral shifts or in shifts to larger organisations. I think that mindset is gonna be true whether you're a CSO or a head of sustainability, by the way.
Again, I think that one of the best ways to get this sort of exposure is through operational experience. That said, having, you know, had a lot of these caveats, there are some really exciting opportunities that are around, are out there in this space. One of them is to build large, iconic multi-stakeholder programs. What I mean by that is think of let's say a material input to your organisation. Let's say it's, you know, cocoa or cotton or dairy or, or steel or aluminum or whatever it might be, and think about how you can potentially galvanise multiple other actors in the ecosystem around driving change.
A lot of momentum right now is going behind, for instance, hydrogen and green, hydrogen and alternative fuels, but also alternative materials and inputs that need to be taken. From the early r and d prototype stage to the mature developed stage, and will only manage that transition through the heft of large off-take agreements with organisations that may look just like yours and your peers.
So I would just lean into that opportunity potentially and think about how you build these large, iconic, multi-stakeholder programs that can be super fulfilling and rewarding and impactful, and also build very relevant expertise for you. I would also then look at another tier of opportunity, which is how do you create the deep lasting operational change within your own business?
That comes from, again, moving functions from one place to another. And then the third type of opportunity space that I would think about is how do you develop new sustainable products and new sustainable services as new business lines. Personally, I find this maybe one of the most interesting parts of this space.
Which is how do you just come up with something entirely new as a service proposition? There's a company that I know reasonably, for instance, which is in the steam business. They sell everything to do with steam. They sell steam production equipment. They sell related services and so on. In that type of business, there's a big opportunity for you to generate new business models, maybe service oriented business models, subscription oriented business models, profit share or cost reduction share, oriented business models that can actually be really rewarding for your business, but also actually give you the experience and expertise of, again, generating a new part of the company with its own revenue and its own budget.
So, I would just think about how do you make this role? More than the narrow constraints that might have been intended when it was created, which would likely just, you know, in two out of three cases. The intention in creation of that role is gonna be around reporting and compliance and process management.
How do you take that and use it as the foundation stone for building something much more ambitious, not just for your organisation, but also for yourself.
So just maybe to summarise and talk through a few of the points that we've highlighted, we've, we've started with what are the responsibilities that come with the role of being a chief sustainability officer.
How do you think about top-down strategy? How do you think about bottom up and detailing out that strategy? How do you think about engaging stakeholders and creating buy-in and getting other people aligned? How do you manage engagement with, let's say, your peers in senior roles, but also your management committee, the board and the CEO.
How do you feed the beast? By giving them a narrative and stories and anecdotes that they can go out and, and that will resonate with their community and their stakeholders. How do you take all of this sort of the, the foundation stones of what you've laid in terms of strategy and process and infrastructure and stakeholder alignment, and how do you use this to really move your organisation forward in terms of transformation as an individual?
How do you make sure that you're really investing in your own capabilities? How do you avoid the natural pitfalls that come with this role organisationally and strategically? How do you really unlock your full potential by investing in your learning journey and the opportunities you're creating for yourself?
And then, you know, finally, as a CSO, how do you think about how your role is going to evolve and could evolve? And how do you make sure that you're navigating along the right path to build what should be an impactful, successful, and rewarding career for yourself? So hopefully this has been useful for you.
If you have any thoughts or feedback or comments, please share it with me. Very happy to factor it in to our next episode. I also run Ask Me Anything, sessions on LinkedIn. Feel free to join one of those. We have them every couple of weeks. Happy to take any questions there as well. Thank you so much.
Hope you enjoyed this episode and found it useful.