CSO to CEO – the Route to a More Successful, Purpose-Led Business

Livingston James’ Sophie Randles looks at the potential for CSOs to take on the role of CEO to impact both eco issues and the bottom line.

Sustainability has become an integral part of businesses strategies and operations, with the emergence of a new senior leadership position in some organisations, the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) becoming key to decision making.

The role of CSO has been evolving since it first emerged in 2004 when Linda Fisher took on the role for DuPont. What began as a role evaluating and developing strategies to improve environmental impact has developed to include all manner of ecological and social issues including working conditions and safety procedures.

In an article in Global Reporting Initiative, Dr Simon Lord — an independent sustainability advisor, scientist and former CSO of Sime Darby Plantation, stated that “purpose and performance” are equally important to CSOs, suggesting that although their responsibility is to improve sustainability, they are equally concerned with improving overall business outputs.

Sustainability as the Key to Future Success

While organisations have voiced concerns over the financial impact integrating sustainable business operations could have, a report by global business consultancy EY states that businesses may face higher risks (financial and social) by not implementing these initiatives. Investing in environmental schemes now is a method of protecting the organisation; not investing will cause disruption and backlash, likely to be more costly in the future. This is not to say that implementing sustainable initiatives will be without sacrifice, companies may need to make some costly investments in technology and change initially, however this trade off between instant profit and long-term investment should be well compensated for in the future.

A traditional CEO monitors profits and operational metrics to determine success, whereas rebuild of organisations and growth can only be a success if sustainability metrics are front of mind too. Evidence has suggested that being a purpose-led organisation which looks beyond profit will be key for organisational success; attracting and retaining the best workforce, building consumers’ trust and developing a competitive advantage. With CSOs focused on this agenda, they could make very strong, well-rounded CEOs in the future.

CSO – Future Roles and Progression

With the CSOs ability to improve an organisation’s CSR, financial position and environmental impact, the influence they can have can be one of the most significant to an organisation. Furthermore, through having a great deal of exposure and communication to all levels of a business and operations, the CSO can become one of the most informed and understanding employees. CSOs may be one of the most adaptable and proactive members of an organisation when it comes to change, as their role requires constant review of pending external and internal transformation, ensuring they stay informed about any changing environmental legislation or new technology which could benefit organisational performance. In a post Covid-19 climate, being receptive to change has proven to be essential for business survival.

However, a CSO’s job may become obsolete if they are successful and meet the goals identified for an organisation and as sustainability issues become a priority for other C-suite roles. Ironically, being good at their job could put them out of a job. Therefore, there must be clear progression routes to motivate and inspire a CSO to succeed.

Better understanding and respect of the complexity, responsibility and expertise required to be a successful CSO is required to reduce the opportunity gap and enable them to fulfil their ambitions. Creating a potential career path for CSOs to CEO would ensure that sustainability remained a priority for businesses and that environmental targets could be met, if not exceeded.

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