What Does a Chief Sustainability Officer Bring to the C-Suite?


Jeff Bartel

Chairman and Managing Director

Sustainability is no longer an issue that anyone can ignore. From investors to consumers, stakeholders at all levels increasingly demand a shift toward sustainable business models from investors to consumers. A Chief Sustainability Officer addition to your C-suite provides your organization with insights and strategies that accelerate sustainability practices. These, in turn, can boost profitability. Explore how a CSO officer can impact your organization to determine if you should add this C-suite executive position.

The Mandate of a Chief Sustainability Officer

The role of the Chief Sustainability Officer is diverse. For example, ESG risks vary by organization and industry. Additionally, priorities and corporate sustainability goals likely differ based on company culture and organizational leadership goals.

While the mandate of the CSO varies by organization, some key responsibilities typically fall within the scope of this role. Exploring these elements makes understanding how a CSO can support your organization.

Cheif Sustainability Officer Insights

Sustainability is a complex concept heavily influenced by the external environment, including expectations from stakeholders, ESG risks, and external changes such as updated regulatory mandates. A Chief Sustainability Officer gathers insights from the outside world relating to those influences. They identify environmental risks and collect data on how others respond to those factors to help them anticipate needed changes. Then, looking inward, the CSO can assess how well prepared the company is to navigate those coming changes.

The CSO brings all this environmental insight to the leadership team. They educate the C-suite executive team on the ESG risks that could affect the organization and the changes the company needs to make to keep up with outside factors. They provide thought leadership to help the executive team navigate these issues and synthesize all the information to make it worthwhile.

ESG Governance

Another critical role of a Chief Sustainability Officer is to implement a system of checks and balances in corporate decision-making. They develop and implement governance guidelines that ensure environmental risks are given adequate consideration when making decisions.

CSOs also participate in governance activities and groups to guide and develop the sustainability agenda. For example, they might lead various committees, including ESG risk or audit councils.

ESG Strategy

Your corporate sustainability strategy requires a balance of changing with the outside forces and maintaining profitability. CSOs help to develop and implement the strategy for your organization, often supporting the CEO in strategic development to minimize environmental risks. Prioritizing ESG concerns helps create a customized approach for your organization.

How a Chief Sustainability Officer Contributes to Corporate Governance

The Chief Sustainability Officer is a C-suite fixture with a core responsibility in corporate governance about sustainability. A CSO brings the following strengths to your organization’s corporate governance.

Agile Critical Thinking

A Chief Sustainability Officer implements agile critical thinking to help you adapt in quickly changing environments. Agile critical thinking requires logical reasoning to understand a problem or situation deeply. It uses a framework with specific steps to use critical thinking effectively.

To use agile critical thinking, the CSO needs a strong understanding of your business, including the culture, risks, stakeholders, and other essential details to better understand organization-specific ESG concerns. Then, they collect and analyze the evidence for taking appropriate reactions. Remaining agile throughout the process allows the CSO to interpret and apply changes and new data as it arises.

Exceptional Communication

Corporate sustainability initiatives might originate with your CSO, but the responsibility for implementing a corporate sustainability policy and reaching related goals filters out to the C-suite and beyond. An effective Corporate Sustainability Officer has excellent communication skills to educate the team on the key issues. They not only need to disperse insight and data in a way that people outside the sustainability bubble can understand, but they also need to exert their influence to get others on board with corporate sustainability goals.

Flexible Management Style

Successful Chief Sustainability Officers embrace and incorporate a variety of managerial styles to facilitate sustainability in corporations. These styles allow the CSO to become a catalyst for long-term, radical change. Key management styles for a sustainability director include:

  • Agitator: This type of leader aims to disrupt, pose questions, and challenge the status quo to create change. They bring up issues publicly to draw attention to the problem and rally people around making the desired change without presenting solutions.
  • Innovator: Innovators work to create solutions for the identified problems. While generating those pathways, they look for potential issues and other options to avoid roadblocks.
  • Orchestrator: This type of leader helps coordinate the different parts of the solution to make it happen.
  • Executor: When someone takes on the executor role, they put the solution into effect while instructing and managing the people making the changes happen.
  • Facilitator: Facilitators serve as mediators, invite input from others, and encourage others to promote collaboration.

An experienced CSO knows when each style is required based on the organization’s needs and specific situation. As a result, they often move between different leadership styles to get the desired results.