How to succeed a chief sustainability officer

Last week, Weinreb Group published its updated list of chief sustainability officers. While we identified eight new CSOs, we also identified two second CSOs: Ezra Garrett from PG&E and Shawn Heath from Duke Energy. Our 2011 report, "CSO Back Story," identified Diane Holdorf of Kellogg as the first-ever second CSO — the first CSO to succeed another in the same position. 

If much was expected of those in this challenging role the first time around, imagine the pressure on those who follow in the first CSO’s footsteps to be even more innovative and move the sustainability needle even further. I spoke to three second CSOs, who generously offer readers their insights.

Confessions of a replacement CSO

As a recruiter, I know that replacing a CSO is no easy task. The CSOs I chatted with gave us an insider’s perspective as to how they were selected for the role.

Holdorf succeeded Celeste Clark as CSO of Kellogg. Clark left a tremendous legacy when she retired after 34 years with the company. She had a broad spectrum of responsibility, including nutrition and health issues. Both Holdorf and Clark had been working together on sustainability so it only seemed natural that Holdorf would replace her. Once Holdorf had been identified, they worked side by side for six months on the transition.

Heath had a similar transition once he was named to succeed Roberta Bowman upon her retirement. The added layer for Heath was Duke Energy’s merger with Progress Energy. In this case, the CSO replacement was part of the merger integration process. Heath was one of several candidates to interview for the role. 

Since the merger closing was delayed by regulatory approvals, Heath had the advantage of working with Bowman as well as the entire sustainability department for several months prior to Bowman’s retirement. “I was not formally a member of the sustainability department during that time, but the opportunity to climb the learning curve during this period was tremendously valuable. Bowman was gracious enough to invite me into her staff meetings, and she even requested that I physically locate within the department as a means of getting to know the team better,” recalls Heath.

Garrett says that approaching Steve Kline’s retirement as CSO of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the company conducted an extensive benchmarking study looking at best practices to determine where within the enterprise the CSO role could provide the greatest impact. “Our primary goal was to implement a more expansive view of sustainability that includes environmental performance as well as economic vitality, and social responsibility,” says Garrett. “We also made it a priority to further integrate PG&E's corporate sustainability program into our core operations and enhance our stakeholder outreach and employee engagement.”

They ultimately concluded that the community relations function, which Garrett leads as vice president under corporate affairs, was the best place to position PG&E to most successfully achieve these goals from an organizational perspective.

Next page: An opportunity for change