The Rise of the CSO: From Creating Change to Sustaining Change

When I was younger and imagining where my career would take me, the role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) did not yet exist in business circles. There were many roles focused on environmental protection but these were largely externally focused on preservation of our resources like trees, minerals and animals. And they did not offer a seat at the board room table – in fact quite the opposite.

The first CSO was appointed to a publicly-traded U.S. company in 2004; since then, CSOs have increased in number and are now integral members of the C-suite. Today, according to the global sustainability practice at Boston Consulting Group, most Fortune 500 companies have hired Chief Sustainability Officers, usually at a C-suite level.

What does this role entail?

  1. First of all, the CSO must be a change agent to drive business processes toward a more sustainable future. There is a requirement to focus on internal efficiency – often driving cost savings or financial benefits for the company. At LoyaltyOne – a leader in the design and implementation of coalition loyalty programs, customer analytics and loyalty services for Fortune 1000 clients around the world – we implemented 800 solar panels with a government incentive that is driving a 100% return on the project investment. Sometimes intangible benefits occur as well — our programs drive employee engagement which is a key strategy for us in the war for talent.
  2. Sustainability must be embraced as a cultural change program to encourage all business stakeholders to align with these new values and the CSO must be seen as the leader of this program. Sustainability needs to be integrated into daily business decisions by the people making these decisions and an alignment to strategy is critical. Leading this change for an organization means that you need to be selling and influencing throughout the entire lifecycle of the business.
  3. Finally, to drive real success, the CSO must be focused on implementing the right cultural change to create a positive image for the brand. Consumers are increasingly voting with their dollars based on their perception of a particular brand’s promise. CSO’s must ensure that they are addressing the correct elements of change to support, protect and enhance the image of the brand.

What skill sets do you need for this job? I began my career in technology and developed project management and customer interaction skills. Later, I added a finance designation and learned about the levers in business for cost and profit. I moved to the consulting industry and learned influence skills and customer service. I didn’t realize at the time that I was developing such a deep basket of skills that would prepare me so well for this role leading change across a large organization. The CSO must be the consummate change agent. The skills that drove change through enterprise systems in recent decades are the same skills that can be utilized for success in this area.

How is this role evolving? Over 50% of the S&P Fortune 500 now formally report on their sustainability efforts and the CSO is the executive responsible for the production of this information often without the sophisticated tools utilized in other departments (like Finance). In most cases, the focus of the role has shifted from creating change - shepherding projects that drive quick wins to sustaining change - continuing to inspire teams to embrace sustainability while examining the increasingly harder task of justifying projects that will drive incremental benefit. These projects are harder to justify because the easy quick wins are done, which leaves projects with tougher business cases or bigger investments.

What is in store for CSO’s in the future? As extreme weather events have an increasing impact on the financials of big organizations (our Calgary office closed for a week earlier this year due to flooding) and as more corporations spread their success globally into regions where the North American infrastructure that supports sustainability (like recycling programs) are in their infancy, there will be a need for the CSO to make their voice heard to an even greater degree to protect the image of corporations and to implement the right mechanisms for even greater change.

As LoyaltyOne’s Chief Sustainability Officer & VP of Workplace Services, Debbie oversees all aspects of corporate responsibility and real estate. With her focus on both sustainable operations and fostering community engagement, LoyaltyOne has not only been recognized as a global leader in loyalty marketing, but also as a leader on corporate citizenship issues and sustainable real estate strategies.