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3 competencies every CSO needs

Leading sustainability isn’t easy. Here are three skills needed for them to succeed.

Paper planes, one red in front of the others

Image via Shutterstock/Mr. Thanakorn Kotpootorn

Chief sustainability officers are uniquely capable of handling whatever is thrown their way — whether that’s the anti-ESG backlash emerging in today’s political landscape or the threat of global warming to our collective future.

That’s the conclusion I’ve arrived at after more than a decade of studying CSOs at publicly traded companies in the United States and engaging with senior sustainability leaders across the world. Every couple of years, Weinreb Group conducts an in-depth survey to understand who holds this role, what they do, what kind of influence they wield and what issues they’re prioritizing. We have also looked at their habitat — where and with whom they work, and how they draw upon their skills and instincts to change the corporate ecosystem to minimize the impacts of business while creating social and environmental value.

While CSOs face many challenges, I have confidence in their ability to handle them all. That’s because they have honed the right competencies to become agile, strategic and collaborative leaders.

So, what are the most important competencies CSOs need to succeed?

In our 2023 CSO report, we asked CSOs what competencies help them succeed in their jobs. I created a video compilation summarizing six I recently conducted with CSOs, several CSOs shared more about the importance of these three skills: 

1. Having strategy and vision 

Out of a list of 12 competencies, 86 percent of the CSOs we surveyed said "strategy and vision" is the CSO’s most important attribute. As sustainability strategy becomes a critical part of corporate strategy — driven by investor demands and rising ESG regulations — CSOs must be able to articulate how their ESG strategy supports business goals.

"It’s so important to figure out what matters most for the company and where the opportunity is," said Jill Kolling, CSO of James Hardie Building Products. To set a sustainability vision for her fellow executives, she likes to ask: "What could this do for the company? What could this do for the company’s brand? What could it do for the company commercially? What could it do as far as retaining and attracting talent?"

Nancy Mahon, CSO of Estée Lauder Companies, compared having a strategy for sustainability with having a North Star. "How do we get there, and what are the choices we can make across the year to get there?" she said. "Strategy is the way businesses make choices, and it’s critically important for CSOs to understand and have empathy for the underlying business and understand how sustainability shows up in their business to drive value."

While strategy and vision are important, Apollo Global Management CSO Dave Stangis said lack of this competency is one of the biggest gaps in new leaders entering the profession. "If we can’t communicate what we are trying to drive, the changes we’re trying to make — in business terms that everybody else in the C-suite can understand — we’re going to be less effective," he said. 

2. Influencing without authority

The ability to influence without authority was the second-most important competency identified by our CSO respondents (68 percent). This is critical because not every CSO is on their company’s leadership team, and while team sizes have grown since we started this survey in 2011, the average sustainability team still just has eight people. 

As Jamie Jones Ezefili, CSO of Northern Trust, put it: "I have a team right now of one, but the work that I do expands across the entire organization, so I have to be responsible for getting at least 35 additional teams across the organization on board." She makes the business case to her colleagues by emphasizing the upstream and downstream effects of sustainability issues, as well as new regulations and client and investor demands.

Mahon added that she influences her colleagues by tapping into "their underlying passion for a better, greener world." "For companies like ours — we have 42,000 employees — the big power we have, the big juice is our 42,000 employees," she said. 

3. Being a ‘corporate chameleon’

One of the best ways for CSOs to influence without authority is to hone their ability to translate sustainability issues into language that resonates with different people. In our survey, 67 percent of CSOs told us the ability to become a "corporate chameleon" is a critical skill.

"Whenever you drive an initiative or when you want to have success in something that you do, people have to buy in, people have to understand it, and people have to be able to incorporate that in the day-to-day things that they do," said Susan Uthayakumar, CSO at Prologis.  

International Paper CSO Sophie Beckham said this was particularly important when asking people to change the way they think or do their jobs. "There’s a whole culture shift that has to happen in order to get everybody on board so we’re all swimming in the same direction and all delivering on those sustainable outcomes," Beckham said.  

A new place for CSOs to connect and learn

If studying CSOs over the years has taught me anything, it’s the importance of connection. The more we share best practices and insights such as those from Kolling, Mahon, Stangis, Ezefili, Uthayakumar, Beckham and others, the better equipped CSOs will be to tackle the urgent sustainability issues of our time.

To help foster that connection and engagement across this field of leaders, Weinreb Group launched the CSO Hub, a new online destination that provides research, insights and data relevant for current and future CSOs. As the sustainability and ESG landscape rapidly changes, we’re dedicated to helping these leaders access the skills, knowledge and connections they need to fundamentally transform how companies operate.

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