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3 truths and a myth about the CSO’s role in an era of ESG and economic turmoil

ESG is, and always has been, essential to business. And the job market reflects that.

People waiting for a job interview, sitting on chairs
Business people waiting for job interview. Image via Shutterstock/Tsyhun

For the past dozen years, Weinreb Group has been doing research on the chief sustainability officer, taking a deeper look every other year at the people in these roles and the CSO role itself inside big American companies.

While we’re not publishing a new report this year, I have reflected on what’s changed, and what has not, since we started collecting CSO data and published my first report in 2011.

Taking the long view, I wanted to identify the big, constant truths we can rely on when it comes to the CSO role. In light of recent headlines about an economic downturn, I also wanted to examine whether there’s any truth to the myth that sustainability jobs are at risk in a recession. (Spoiler alert: It’s complicated, but I conclude sustainability is more important than ever to business.)

First, the three truths:

Truth 1: Sustainability needs a leader. When I started in this field, there was an adage about sustainability leaders — akin to the cardiologist trying to get patients to quit smoking — that said: "I’ll know I’m successful when I have worked myself out of a job."

Putting aside the fact that social and environmental issues are not going away anytime soon, I’ve never subscribed to the belief that sustainability leaders should work themselves into obsolescence.

As Joel Makower wrote when we published our second set of CSO research in 2014: "When sustainability becomes ‘everyone’s job,’ it’s really no one’s job." Companies need a sustainability leader at the helm, especially as these issues become more relevant across business and different functions take on ESG-related responsibilities. A sustainability leader is needed to set the vision, establish strategy, ensure accountability, steer the ship, track progress, escalate risks and opportunities and, let’s face it, herd cats.

Truth 2: A CSO by any other name is still a sustainability leader. Following the launch of Weinreb Group’s first CSO report in 2011, Makower wrote that the responsibility of sustainability lives "anywhere and everywhere" inside the company. "Try asking a roomful of senior sustainability executives from mainstream companies their titles and to whom they report," he wrote. "You’ll find little consistency."

Not much has changed. While our latest CSO report found that the field has grown by more than 228 percent — from just 29 CSOs in 2011 to 95 in 2021 — two decades in sustainability recruiting has shown me that titles vary dramatically.

10 years ago, the CSO did not have board involvement in their job description. Now they do.

When we started this research 12 years ago, "chief" titles were trendy. Now someone may be colloquially called a "head" or "leader," while formal titles include Chief Impact Officer, Chief Risk Officer or Chief ESG Officer. Moreover, the leveling for the senior-most sustainability can range from director to VP to SVP to Chief. I have recruited for all of these roles, but regardless of what the company calls the position, per Truth 1, I always work with my clients to make sure that the job description gives this person authority to assume the leadership role.

Truth 3: Sustainability is critical to business leaders — including the board. In Weinreb Group’s latest report on CSOs, published in 2021, we wrote about the growing influence of CSOs within companies: Our research revealed that nearly 70 percent of CSOs meet with their CEO once a month or even once a week.

At the same time, we found that sustainability teams were expanding, with the average team size increasing from five in 2011 to 15 in 2021. We also found CSOs have more influence, particularly with business-critical departments such as finance, legal and investor relations.

What we failed to mention in that 2021 report — but which marks the evolution of the CSO — is that 10 years ago, the CSO did not have board involvement in their job description. Now they do. Many CSOs are managing and facilitating board-level ESG committees.

As I have written before, ESG issues matter to one of the most powerful business stakeholders: investors. A recent Harvard study drove this point home: "Large investors have expressed a strong belief that certain ESG factors can have a material impact on a company’s long-term financial health." With ESG regulations on the rise, the sustainability function has moved from the periphery to a central and powerful position within business.

And finally, a myth: The CSO is at risk in an economic downturn. While some sustainability positions have been cut during these recessionary times (anecdotally, I have seen this happening in industries such as retail and tech), on the whole, ESG jobs are on the rise.

That’s because ESG jobs that are tied to regulatory and compliance are gaining headcount. Even companies with hiring freezes are getting dispensation for these specialized roles. For those candidates, the labor market is tight, and many are still getting multiple offers. In essence, these roles are recession-proof.

My biggest takeaway from these three truths and a myth? ESG is — and always has been — essential to business. And the market reflects that.

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