The Workforce of the Future: Chief Sustainability Officer

Livingston James’ Sophie Randles looks at the impact of the increasing focus on sustainability in business on the workforce of the future.

In a recent blog, we discussed the relationship between talent attraction and sustainability, and how a focus on sustainability can have a positive impact on employee attraction and retention.

We now turn our attention to how an increased awareness of managing organisational impact on the environment is leading to a raft of new roles coming to market, including that of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO).  Here we look at the potential talent pool for the CSO role, the responsibilities of the role, and how reporting should be structured to achieve success.

CSO Talent Pool

LinkedIn analysis of current CSO roles suggests that most are coming from business strategy, corporate communications, business risk and innovation backgrounds. A study by Deloitte found that 80% of CSOs have been recruited internally from alternative roles. As these professions focus on messaging, branding, strategy, and creativity there may be a skills-gap upon transition, suggesting a need for formal training around how to develop the required abilities and environmental expertise to be a successful CSO.

Responsibility of CSOs

As a relatively new role, it can be challenging to outline the specific skillset and experience required to be a strong CSO; however, there are several key characteristics and skills which are emerging.

Collaboration and Communication

“Future outlook, present stability, and environmental impact” are said to be key considerations for developing sustainability strategies. Within product and service-based organisations, achieving this requires close collaboration and communication with all departments. This open communication flow between CSO and all employees will be crucial to achieving the common goal of net zero.

While all organisations are aware of the need to reduce their environmental impact, it can be a challenge to ensure it is treated as a priority, therefore CSOs will have to persevere in order to be listened to. A CSO may be perceived an ‘internal activist’ upsetting the status-quo, and driving change which inconveniences old ways of working. A strong communication strategy should be developed to ensure that the entire organisation understands the reasoning behind implementing such changes.

Compliance and Innovation

As regulations around climate and impact are tightened, compliance will be a key aspect of the CSO’s role, ensuring that organisations fulfil their legal and moral obligations. Employee resistance may hinder the speed at which organisational change can be implemented, making it more challenging for CSOs to ensure compliance with government and legal requirements.

Innovative approaches must be utilised to minimise environmental impact while maximising profits; often the challenges of the climate change crisis are forefront of discussion, however a good CSO should frame the discussion in a more positive light by identifying opportunities.

These responsibilities require an enterprising, motivational and passionate character in order to drive organisational and operational change. Reducing carbon footprint will require a team effort which can only be achieved by a leader who inspires collaboration.

Reporting and Business Structure

With the magnitude of responsibility and impact such a role is responsible for, it is essential to set realistic, achievable goals. While the CSO has primary responsibility, results are most substantial when executives give significant levels of support and enable the introduction of stronger guidelines for employees. This forms the argument that the CSO should report to the CEO in order to maximise their impact; which was the case in 32% of CSO roles. A CSO reporting to communications, marketing, strategy or HR leaders, who may not have the relevant authority to implement drastic operational and organisational change, is less likely to achieve success. Furthermore, support from board level executives and the CEO will give changes the respect and legitimacy which some CSOs have struggled to gain.

Utilisation of CSOs

Large organisations have been early adopters of the CSO role, with Coca-Cola, Mastercard, SSE, IKEA and Bupa all employing individuals dedicated to developing and implementing environmental initiatives. Most CSOs have a small team working under them, required due to the size of these organisations.

However, it is not only large organisations who should start to consider introducing this role. According to Deloitte, organisations should consider introducing a CSO or sustainability team when:

  • They are unable to implement change at the rate of external demand
  • External stakeholders have become dissatisfied with the organisation’s environmental impact or sustainability initiatives
  • The risk of not rapidly implementing sustainable actions is putting the company in a vulnerable position (socially and economically)

Future Outlook

With the climate crisis now gathering huge awareness and momentum, this role could become as common as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO); a role which similarly emerged as a result of rapid change.

Whether companies are employing a dedicated CSO or utilising current employees to take on environmental initiative responsibilities; the importance and urgency of the climate crisis is challenging the composition and operations of every organisation.

In smaller organisations, it may be possible for other executives or employees to share the responsibilities of CSO but according to Deloitte,  95% of firms believe it will be required as an individual role in the future.

While the CSO role is of crucial importance at this time as we try to reverse the effects of global warming, there are concerns about the longevity of the role. Once an organisation has achieved net zero one would assume the CSO’s role could become surplus to requirement. This could cause huge waves in the level of demand for such roles; with a lack of availability of CSOs currently but a surplus of the skillset in the future.

How organisations handle the changing ecological landscape will be imperative to growth, impressing the importance of the role. Failure from a CSO to effectively achieve goals could result in legal, financial and social exposure; whereas successful execution of the role will create competitive advantage and position organisations as market leaders of the future.

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