CSOs Must Lead Inside and Out

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Monday, July 11, 2022
By Gregory Unruh
Photo by iStock/SasinParaksa
As more companies add chief sustainability officers to their C-suites, our students must develop the collaborative skills that this critical role requires.
  • Most successful CSOs possess broad knowledge across many areas, but usually develop deep expertise in one.
  • To get their jobs done, CSOs must wield soft power throughout their companies, acting as diplomats who can speak to the different interests of the people they need to influence.
  • Because sustainability issues are multifaceted, CSOs must engage and collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders outside the walls of their companies.

As companies struggle to manage the social and environmental tumult of our times, more are turning to chief sustainability officers (CSO) to put C-suite eyes on these challenges. The first CSO at a publicly traded company was Linda Fisher—the former administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was hired in 2004 by the chemical company DuPont.

Although the CSO ranks have grown since then, the role is still uncommon. As of March 2021, there were just 95 CSOs at Fortune 500 companies.

Because the CSO role is still quite new at most companies, there is no established career path for those aspiring to the position. As business educators, we are in the position to clear the trail for the next generation of CSOs—starting with helping them understand what this increasingly relevant position entails.

For the past two decades, I have been asking what makes a successful CSO. In that time, I have interviewed hundreds of business sustainability professionals, and I have mentored dozens of MBA and EMBA students to help them develop professional profiles suited to the unique rigors of the job. While the work CSOs do varies dramatically by business, industry, and country, I have found that successful CSOs have four qualities in common:

1. They Are Jacks of All Trades

But they’re masters of at least one. In other words, to succeed, CSOs must cultivate general knowledge of many issues. But in my experience, this broad knowledge usually builds off deep expertise in one area.

This reality became clear when I was leading a sustainability professional seminar back in 2001 and I was asked what issues fall under the umbrella term “sustainability.” With the experts in the room, I turned the question back on them. The audience peppered me with issues—climate change, ocean plastics, boardroom diversity—I could barely write fast enough.

I stopped them at around 100 issues. What business professional could master such a vast list of social and environmental problems? The answer, of course, is no one. So, what’s a CSO to do?

Normally, CSOs choose a specialized topic that has to do with one of the letters in ESG: environment, social, or governance. Many identify their specializations during their college studies and/or pursuit of outside interests. Others develop expertise through years of service in specific business functions related to government affairs; law; community relations; or environment, health, and safety. Increasingly, some import expertise from careers in government or nonprofit leadership.

My students soon discover that while an MBA gives them a general manager’s big picture overview of a company, it does not help them build professional credibility as sustainability experts.

Once CSOs master a specialized topic, their metalevel understanding of the dynamics of the economic, scientific, social, and political forces driving solutions in one area is largely transferable to other issues.

As a young sustainability consultant in the 1980s, I found an advantage in my hard science and engineering degree, which gave me technical credibility on environmental sustainability issues. Unfortunately, many of my MBA students aspiring to corporate sustainability positions lack that scientific foundation—instead, many come from humanities backgrounds. They soon discover that while an MBA gives them a general manager’s big picture overview of a company, it does not help them build professional credibility as sustainability experts.

As a solution, I have encouraged them to choose sustainability issues they care about and immerse themselves in those issues to the point where they could start confidently blogging and speaking publicly about those topics. By doing so, they establish themselves as experts on important issues, independent of their job titles, roles, or formal educations.

As my past students began blogging and speaking on these issues, many found themselves integrated into networks of sustainability peers. These networks facilitated career development opportunities. Today, I often run into my students at sustainability conferences, where they are speaking on topics such as gender equity, transportation, environmental justice, and the circular economy.

Given the breadth of sustainability challenges facing companies, good CSO candidates are those who are naturally curious and who care about the issues. Driven by this intrinsic motivation, these candidates actually enjoy spending hours reading about sustainability issues and emerging solutions—which is their path to becoming experts in their fields.

2. They Lead From Within

CSOs usually do not have decision-making power over the parts of the business that need to change. This power lies in the hands of functional business executives, most of whom are C-suite peers such as the chief financial officer, chief operating officer, or chief marketing officer. Without decision rights, CSOs must wield soft power and influence to get things done through other people.

In this sense, CSOs are more like diplomats, in that they must speak to the needs and interests of the person they are trying to influence. Doing so requires speaking the other person’s language.

The CSO’s challenge is that most functional business leaders don’t speak the language of sustainability. It’s not in their professional vocabulary.

I have found that many successful CSOs become adept at translating sustainability concerns into something comprehensible and motivating for their peers. In effect, they must learn “finance-speak” or “HR jargon,” and then link each person’s language to the sustainability issues that need to be addressed. When CSOs can act as translators in this way, they create rapport, build their credibility, and show that they understand what the goals are of each function and how sustainability fits into overall corporate strategy.

In the words of one CSO, “You have to become a [legitimate] contributor to the business.” Her company, for example, viewed sales as the most important business function. So, she and her team began routinely calling on customers to understand how sustainability was impacting them.

“To succeed, we had to be as smart about our customers as the other business units in the company. If you make yourself indispensable, whether or not you’re advancing sustainability, they want you in the meetings.” Over time, her function was embraced by her C-suite colleagues: “We found that by helping lead the business charge, we’re now peers with these guys, rather than some ivory-tower sustainability department.”

3. They Lead From Outside

Understanding the business is only the start of a CSO’s diplomatic functions. CSOs must speak the language of not only their co-workers, but also many stakeholder groups impacted by their companies’ actions. Business is a significant player in addressing difficult sustainability problems such as climate change, the circular economy, environmental justice, and social inclusion—but it only holds one piece of a much larger solution puzzle.

Other pieces are held by governmental agencies, scientific experts, community groups, and nongovernmental organizations. For this reason, CSOs usually find that solving a company’s sustainability issues depends on engaging and collaborating with people outside the corporate walls. CSOs need to help their companies navigate this multistakeholder terrain.

CSOs are like diplomats who can speak and engage with people who have interests and goals that are different from—and sometimes in direct conflict with—those of the company.

To achieve this goal, CSOs must build wide networks of contacts. These contacts will be with stakeholders impacted by the company’s operations, such as community groups and environmental organizations. CSOs also will connect with those who can influence the success or failure of the company’s business goals, such as government officials and labor groups.

The “term of art” for this process is “stakeholder management.” But, again, it is really a diplomatic skill that enables CSOs to speak and engage with people who have interests and goals that are different from—and sometimes in direct conflict with—those of the company.

As one CSO explained, “Sometimes our business colleagues don’t know what’s feasible or important to other stakeholders, so we have to extend the scope of the people we talk to externally and then translate that back to our internal business peers.” This CSO systematically reaches out to “market shapers” like regulators, nonprofits, and financiers active in establishing sustainability standards in their industries.

“We have lunch with them regularly,” he explains, “and sometimes ask if we can shadow them for a day. They’re kind of our scouts in the sustainability world.”

4. They Get the Right Things Done

Knowledge, it is said, is power. As noted above, building expertise in one area will afford CSOs credibility as they reach out to different stakeholder groups inside and outside the company. But the true power and main purpose of a CSO comes from the ability to apply that knowledge to get the right things done. That is how CSOs earn their paychecks.

The need to address sustainability issues is a signal that a company is having a detrimental effect on society or the environment—that it is creating what economists call “externalities.” It is the CSO’s job to guide the organization to recognize the impacts it is creating and motivate managers to “internalize” the externalities.

The objective is to resolve the sustainability issues, preferably in ways that enhance the company’s reputation and business performance.

Training the CSOs of the Future

The world is facing a growing number of complex sustainability challenges that can’t be resolved without contributions from business. One way we are addressing this challenge at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, is by creating an executive education program to train CSOs with the knowledge and skills outlined above—skills they will need to inspire their companies to become good stewards of sustainability in this new world.

Gone are the days when companies could fulfill their social contracts by merely delivering products and services customers wanted, creating jobs, making a profit to satisfy stockholders, and following local laws. Today, as they fulfill their missions, companies must not only ensure that they do no harm, but that they contribute to solving society’s sustainability challenges.

For this, they need CSOs who can scan for emerging concerns, help their companies make sense of those concerns, and innovate much-needed solutions—before sustainability issues become full-blown crises for the company, and for the world. 

Gregory Unruh
Arison Professor of Leadership and Academic Director of the Chief Sustainability Officer Executive Education Program, George Mason University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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