Skip to main content

What to do in the first 90 days as a chief sustainability officer

The CSOs from Apollo Global Management, James Hardie building materials and Insulet medical devices provide advice and highlight pitfalls to avoid.

Businessman in the middle of the maze.

“I don’t want to fight about if sustainability is a trend or here to stay," says James Hardie's Jill Kolling, about challenges in a new CSO role. PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek via Shutterstock.

For those new to the role of chief sustainability officer, or for anyone — senior executive, middle manager or otherwise – looking to understand more about how to establish or redesign a sustainability strategy, those who have been chief sustainability officer — and in the field for a while — have developed go-to playbooks and lessons from their own trial and error.

Three CSOs, each of whom began their current job in the last two to three years, spoke on a panel titled "How We Built This" earlier this month at GreenBiz 24, the sustainability conference hosted by this site’s parent company. Lisa Brady, now at Insulet in Acton, Mass., which makes an automated insulin delivery system for people with diabetes; Jill Kolling, at James Hardie, producer of Hardie Board house siding, which has a U.S. headquarters in Chicago; and Dave Stangis, at Apollo Global Management, a New York private capital firm with $650 billion in assets under management, offered tactics for those architecting a new sustainability program. 

At each company, before the CSO started, the sustainability department was nascent, if that, and lacked a plan. Insulet was "really excited they put solar panels on the roof of the factory next to the headquarters," Brady said.  

Now, the panelists’ teams range in size from eight — for Brady at Insulet and Kolling at James Hardie (including two yet-to-be-hired implementation engineers) — up to 20 under Stangis at Apollo, which fields 650 investor requests a year for ESG and sustainability data. 

Here are steps they recommend to be effective in the first few months and beyond: 

Learn the existing processes and structures

As with any change agent job, the panelists talked to as many peers and colleagues as they could to learn as much as possible about their companies’ products, customer needs and cultures. It’s essential to know who’s who in the organization, how decisions are made and where sustainability risks and opportunities might lie. "This is a complex firm with a bunch of different business parts, credit and equity and everything in between,” recalls Stangis. “I literally spent a lot of time with other leaders of the firm just to understand their business.”

Explain what a sound sustainability program looks like

Executives and employees at all levels are often unfamiliar with how sustainability programs are set up and how they work in practice. Stangis described how a sustainability function at Apollo could be set up during the interview process, when he laid out a prospective first quarter plan, should he be hired. "I asked [the CEO and the two co-presidents] ‘What’s the definition of success?’ They don’t have an answer. So you have to help them."

Get leadership to agree on scope and ambitions  

As part of an exercise to gauge views about sustainability and how close or far apart company leaders were, Kolling split the executive team up into groups. Each one got a card that listed sustainability efforts the company could pursue, such as "set a greenhouse gas reduction goal," alongside three choices: "Definitely, we should go do this," "Maybe that would be good," and "No way." Kolling was surprised at how different the responses were. "One group, what they put in ‘No way’ for, the other group was like, ‘Yes, we have to go do this tomorrow!” Kolling recalls.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, we’re all over the place.’" Later she had the team vote on the strategy they honed in on to confirm that they would all work toward the same goals.

Go beyond the 'believers'

In prior roles, Kolling would collaborate with the senior leaders whom she knew were already willing to cooperate. "I don’t want to fight about if sustainability is a trend or here to stay or if climate change is real," she recalls. But that only works for so long. "Then you have to go to the others," she says. So when she joined James Hardie, she sought buy-in from all senior leadership. "I learned to educate the entire executive team, join hands and agree."

Do a baseline materiality assessment

Brady, who changed sectors when she joined Insulet, started by outlining a four-month roadmap to understand the key issues in the industry and for the business, and begin collecting baseline data for Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. That helped define how aspirational she could be and how to create a sound five-year plan, including incremental resource needs.

Find forcing functions

At James Hardie, Kolling has 2030 and 2035 goals, but also interim three-year targets that the company tracks internally as part of quarterly regional score cards sent to global leadership. The sustainability report at Insulet requires teams to keep up, because their data will be published. 

Give permission to work on ESG

Rather than compete with other departments, find ways to embed sustainability initiatives into business goals employees are already working toward day to day. That way "they’ll actually lean in and stretch to move your programs forward," Brady advises.

More on this topic

More by This Author