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Talent Show

A conversation with NRG’s first chief sustainability officer

Leah Seligmann speaks about her new title, her evolving role and what companies should look for when choosing a CSO.

In September, NRG appointed Leah Seligmann as its first chief sustainability officer. Leah’s promotion from director of sustainability highlights NRG’s commitment as a sustainability leader in the energy sector. Of note, NRG recently announced long-term sustainability goals, including ambitious plans to reduce CO2 emissions 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050. I had the opportunity to speak with Leah about her new title and evolving role at NRG.

Ellen Weinreb: How did the promotion from director to CSO come about?

Leah Seligmann: It was a logical step when we considered the kind of company we wanted NRG to become. Historically, the power industry’s mission has been to provide electricity safely, reliably and affordably. In recent years, we’ve added “sustainably” to that mix to align with CEO David Crane’s vision for the company. With the rising importance of sustainability to NRG’s business model, it became necessary to have sustainability become viewed as a companywide function with the appointment of a CSO.

Weinreb: Did this change who you report to or the number of direct reports you have?

Seligmann: When I first joined NRG as a director, I reported to the chief marketing officer but now I co-report to David’s chief of staff and our chief operating officer. This reflects the strategic importance of sustainability and our CEO’s desire to integrate sustainability across the business. Of course, with more work comes more staff — my direct reports grew from one to six, plus an assistant, during my NRG tenure to date.

Weinreb: In essence, you were the de facto CSO without the title before the change in title. What do you see is the difference between the CSO and the director role?

Seligmann: NRG has a culture where you don’t need a big title to accomplish your goals, so I think the biggest difference between the CSO and director titles is from an external perspective. The CSO title demonstrates NRG’s commitment to sustainability by having that position at the C-level. It also coincided with where we were in the development of the goals and strategy. That process helped our organization see that this is a strategic role that will have lasting implications on how we develop and grow our business.

Also, speaking engagements and interview requests have gone way up with the shift in title. For companies that are looking to have their CSO as an external spokesperson, the title matters.

Weinreb: How has the title made a difference internally?

Seligmann: Functionally, there hasn’t been much difference. But it has made a difference in terms of expressing the importance placed on sustainability within NRG. It signals to everyone that the CEO takes sustainability very seriously. Going from basic environmental compliance, to a single director, to a whole team under a CSO in less than two years shows how the company’s thinking has evolved around the value sustainability brings to our business.

Weinreb: This was exactly our finding in Weinreb Group’s CSO Back Story II 2014 report, that the CSO title does matter and that the title does increase access externally. What is your advice for CEOs looking to promote or hire a CSO?

Seligmann: First of all, do it for the right reason. Don’t just hire or promote someone to have that title within the organization. If you’re only doing it for external purposes, the world can pretty quickly decide this is just green-washing. If you think the de facto person in the role deserves a promotion, make sure you’re promoting someone who has done the work.

If you are looking at external candidates, internal respect is critical. To get traction on your vision, you need someone who’s ready and able to work across internal silos.

It’s crucial to pick a person who understands the business’s strategic priorities. It is very important to find someone who is willing to push the company into a leadership position, rather than just go after low-hanging fruit.

The right CSO plays a key role in helping the CEO define the legacy for the company. Other company leaders play critical roles too, but I think the CSO helps create that long-term vision and rally the troops toward that vision.

So when you’re selecting a CSO, you should choose someone you get along with, who is willing to push and be pushed and who can be a partner in helping decide the CEO’s legacy.

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