Our recent event entitled ‘Who will put sustainability at the heart of corporate strategy?’, held in conjunction with our friends at GACSO, provoked lively debate among sustainability professionals from diverse industry sectors this month.
The pressing issue of who will be responsible for leading the charge on sustainability within corporate organisations is still far from clear cut. Katharine Earley summarises the key discussion points to emerge from the evening, and explores the many skills and qualities that may be required of the world’s Chief Sustainability Officers.
“The great sustainability challenge is this: how can nine billion people have a good quality of life on our planet by 2050?” said Gwyn Jones of the Global Association of Corporate Responsibility Officers (GACSO) to a packed room of sustainability professionals at Oxford’s Jam Factory.
With explosive population growth, rapid urbanisation and social mobility set to trigger heightened levels of consumption, business will be under pressure like never before to ensure these increasing demands on Earth’s resources are met responsibly.
As the most powerful force on the planet, companies must channel their energy into a fundamentally different way of thinking, Gwyn explained, decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation and moving beyond compliance to ‘do good’, not just ‘less bad’.
However, with only three of the FTSE 100 companies employing a Chief Sustainability Officer, the burning question of who will be responsible for bringing sustainability to the C-suite has yet to be answered.
GACSO wants to see sustainability embedded at the heart of corporate strategy, with at least 250 Chief Sustainability Officers on executive boards of the top 250 organisations by 2020. These respected and valuable individuals would deal with the mind-blowing agenda of poverty, consumption, carbon, well-being and economic reform.
Importantly, they would recognise the relevance of each of these elements to their organisation’s core business strategy. And of course stay abreast of the world’s ever-evolving environmental, socio-economic and political landscape.
The first 100 days
In their first 100 days in the job, a CSO, or head of sustainability, should forge a strategic plan, manage perceptions, inspire confidence and trust across the business, prompt behaviour change, and above all, achieve something, explained Anne Augustine, founder of the Convergency Partnership. All this while being resilient and adaptable, and staying true to their values.
Many people enter the field of sustainability because they are passionate about making a positive difference, Anne commented. This resolve can be severely tested when countered with the demands of business continuity and pressure from shareholders.
So, with all this in mind, what does it take to be a Chief Sustainability Officer?
The CSO career path
There’s currently no obvious or uniform path to becoming a board level sustainability professional. Those who are progressing through the corporate ranks to take up the mantle of sustainability come from a variety of backgrounds and have led highly diverse careers.
Gwyn Jones challenged our audience to identify the skills, competencies and qualities that would be required by tomorrow’s CSOs, and discuss where they would sit within a corporate organisation.
With a passion for their subject, the CSO would be a highly motivated and enthusiastic individual. He or she would be a brilliant negotiator, whose charisma, creativity and blue sky thinking would be tempered with a balanced and realistic approach to the issues at hand. Importantly, they would have the stamina, persistence and emotional intelligence required to communicate their vision effectively to the rest of the C-suite.
This assertiveness in the boardroom would be matched with an exceptional understanding of business, including finance, supply chain, sales and marketing. Indeed, commercial awareness would be critical to successfully embedding sustainability at any level.
Importantly, the CSO should be an absolutely sparkling communicator. He or she should clearly convey the importance of sustainability, its relevance and benefits throughout the business. The opportunities must be made crystal clear. An expert facilitator with an ability to translate pressing issues into compelling stories and articulate messages, the CSO would also have the organisational skills of a world-class project manager.
He or she would be able to plan for the short and long term, assembling a dedicated team to activate sustainable practices throughout the company. And finally, they would remain humble in the face of the great challenges ahead.
Maximising the CSO’s impact
It’s currently unclear as to where exactly the CSO fits into the corporate framework. Our audience voiced varying opinions as to where the CSO would have most impact. The overriding feeling was that he or she must be directly connected to business strategy in some shape or form, whether this meant being located within the finance, investor relations, strategy or operations functions of the business.
The message from the floor was clear: in order to make an impact, the CSO must be inextricably linked to business planning.
GACSO’s Defining the Corporate Sustainability Professional document, which deals directly with the issues discussed at our event, can be downloaded from www.gacso.org.
In the meantime, if you know anyone fitting the above description, please encourage them to push for the creation of a CSO role in their organisation.