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31st January 2012


How to become the next Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)

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Who would have thought that by 2011 we would have more than 15% of FTSE250 companies with a Chief Sustainability Officer role in the C-suite? And this is across sectors from pharmaceuticals to IT to retail to mining. Now we all have a role to aim for!

Who has a Chief Sustainability Officer?

More and more large and medium-sized companies have hired CSOs, including Alliance Boots, AT&T, Covanta Energy, DuPont, Google, SAP, Siemens, Sun Microsystems, Johnson & Johnson, IKEA, Vedanta Resources and Rio Tinto, just to name a few.

These companies understand that sustainability is a core strategic business function. Many more market leaders are creating competitive advantage by prioritising the new role of CSO to collaborate with the CFO and CEO to build a sustainable business for future generations. But what does it take become a future CSO?

The Chief Sustainability Officer Skill Set

Recently one of my clients was in an informational interview at a leading supermarket chain the UK. He mentioned wanting to be a Chief Sustainability Officer someday. And even though he had a few years of solid sustainability experience under his belt already, the Director of Sustainability encouraged him to get a job within the business (supply chain, product development, operations) first and then work his way back into sustainability. So this is encouraging for some of us wanting to break into sustainability, but how about those of us already working in this field? We need to make sure we are still developing skills that will be valued by the “top”.

The CSO has a rounded skill set. According to Acre Resource’s white paper, The Emergence of the Chief Sustainability Officer, the top five skills we all need to be honing to be CSO someday are:

Commercial understanding – You need to understand the business. Many companies are now hiring from within the business for sustainability roles because they want to know you can talk about the products, challenge the operations teams, and manage budgets. Commercial understanding is about having a vision, being able to also analyse at a detailed level and being able to develop relationships with the CFO, CEO and Board.

Strategic skills – You need to be constantly looking at the balance between operations and products. Measuring the risks and opportunities for each your products or services will be a focus of your day to day in the context of operational challenges. Can you do a robust SWOT analysis and benchmark the competitive advantages of your company against the sector?

Policy engagement – Being able to engage with policy makers and predict what will be the key regulatory drivers affecting your future business is crucial. Even though we have moved forward from focusing solely on response to regulation and compliance, policies still make up the most powerful framework all businesses work to.

People skills – You need to be a change agent, capable of inspiring others and transforming corporate culture from the inside out. Much of what a leading sustainability officer will do is link the priorities of external stakeholders to day-to-day embedded practices for internal stakeholders to embrace.

Communications skills – Managing the reputation of the business is crucial to the role of CSO. Communicating with external stakeholders and developing thought leadership to convince customers, investors and communities that your agenda matters.

If you possess any or some of these five skills then you could be on the track to the Executive Suite as CSO…or at least on her/his team!

About Shannon: Shannon Houde, MBA, has coached, hired and trained CR professionals for more than 10 years. She has worked with sustainability professionals at all levels – from recent graduates to senior management to help them drive their career forward. To find out more about her Career Coaching services, follow this link.

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