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Purpose and People

Do these 4 things to set yourself up for success in your first 90 days as CSO

When stepping into the role of chief sustainability officer, those first 3 months can be crucial and daunting. Here’s what to do to lay the groundwork for future success.

Employee standing at crossroads holding binoculars

Source: Shutterstock/Jozef Micic

With the number of chief sustainability officers appointed at publicly traded companies increasing from just 29 in 2011 to 183 in 2023, according to The Weinreb Group, a significant proportion are the first to step into CSO shoes. 

That can create immense pressure for a CSO to carve out the scope of the role, deliver tangible impact and convince the remaining C-suite that they’re an invaluable addition to senior leadership within a relatively short time frame. 

Here are four things to do to set yourself up for success in those all-important first 90 days. 

1. Quiet your bias 

Despite the temptation to rush in and make changes, take the time to fully understand what makes the organization tick, advised Nira Johri, CSO at KFC, while speaking at the Impact Leaders Lab event in March. "Quiet the bias," she said. “You will want to change and evolve and accelerate, but just breathe and honor what came before you, so you can see what good might exist that you can leverage.”

A listening tour — a few weeks dedicated to listening, learning and asking questions — can be a brilliant way to achieve this.  

It’s a practice already followed by many top business leaders. Tim Mohin, former sustainability lead at both Apple and Intel, has said the practice allowed him to quickly connect with the "extensive, multi-stakeholder network" at GRI when he started as CEO and to develop an understanding of the organizational changes required before diving in too quickly.

Johri also took the time to learn and listen when she joined the restaurant chain in 2023. "The listening tour is a priority for any new leader in any role, but particularly in sustainability," said Johri at the March event. "I think we all know when you work in the sustainability space how connected we are to almost every function, so it's really important for you to understand what matters to the business." 

For international organizations, that includes an understanding of its most business-critical markets in terms of sustainability and the different geographical and cultural contexts. 

2. Identify the ‘pirates’ 

Despite outward appearances, no organization is monolithic in its attitudes toward the ESG agenda. 

Think of it instead as a pirate ship. You’ve got your fellow captains in the C-suite, helping to steer the ship but each responsible for their own part of the business. The shipmates, who are the employees and colleagues that are supportive and engaged. There are the stowaways down below who are quietly agnostic or indifferent to your vision and more preoccupied with their own key performance indicators. And, most dangerous of all, the pirates. This group is resistant to change and includes those who may be actively fighting against you. 

In those early days, it’s critical that CSOs identify these different groups and create differentiated strategies to bring each on board with their plans. That may mean setting assumptions aside and deconstructing exactly what barriers lie in place for those pushing back against change in particular, be it time, cost or a lack of understanding. How can you alleviate these challenges or provide additional support? 

3. Be strategic about connections 

A CSO is brought in to disrupt an organization’s status quo. 

They may be tasked with driving through more ambitious plans on ESG or even developing the first strategy on sustainability from scratch. Either way, the nature of the role is to question existing processes and ask colleagues to make changes, often substantial ones. 

Doing that without trusting relationships in place can be an almost insurmountable challenge. 

So, take the time to start building those relationships as soon as you join, even if it feels like you’re prioritizing discussions above decisive action. "I remember in those early days feeling like I should be doing some work rather than having lots of meet and greets, but it really set me up for success to know people and to establish that connection," said Johri. Don’t be afraid to stray into conversations about life outside of work either, she recommended. "Learn about what matters to them behind the schemes, learn about their families and hobbies and find points of connection." 

Keep track of these conversations, too. For example, when I work with clients in my Ensure Success Onboarding Program, I share a tailor-made stakeholder profiling tool that I created to quickly prioritize the right person to speak to on which issue, at what level and on which team, and then to track their personal and professional information and pain points on paper. Build up this profile of your internal stakeholders as you learn more and more about them over multiple conversations.

4. Position ESG priorities through a commercial lens 

Too often CSOs meet resistance as their goals feel isolated from or at odds with the core functions of the organization. 

To avoid this, take the time to identify the intersection between sustainability and the wider commercial needs of the business when crafting your initial strategy for ESG. Take into account the wider context, including inflationary pressures, labor challenges or complexities within supply chains, and find the opportunity in overlapping priorities.

Anchor the plan for sustainability within the existing functionalities that people recognize, said Johri. “Sustainability can sometimes feel like it’s difficult to get involved with as it’s couched in new terminology or feels like a whole new area, so instead, say to someone, ‘Look, you already know how to buy commodities or source ingredients for the business, let’s talk about how we can evolve that,’" she said. "Or ‘we know how to operate a restaurant, right? Let’s talk about how we’re going to optimize that to minimize planetary impact.’ Anchor it within things that are familiar."

KFC even used this approach in its choice of language around sustainability. It adapted an existing acronym — RED (relevant, easy, distinctive) — used by restaurants to inform their strategic choices, and simply added another color cue to ensure sustainability was factored in. Now, restaurants are asked to consider changes through the lens of aiming to be both "RED and Green."

First impressions matter. How a CSO uses their first 90 days in position can be the difference between encountering major roadblocks further down the line and achieving organizational buy-in that helps them push full steam ahead. Prioritize these four steps, and you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

[Join sustainability professionals driving transformation across their organizations with Trellis Network.] 

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