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What does a CSO actually do?

So you've entered a career in sustainability with the end goal to be a chief sustainability officer. But what does a typical day look like for CSO?

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So you want to be a CSO? Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz

In recent years, sustainability has become a buzzword that has transcended niche circles and infiltrated mainstream conversations. As a result, the role of the chief sustainability officer (CSO) has emerged as a highly sought-after position for those passionate about driving positive change.

In a PwC study that analyzed 1,640 companies, only 20 percent did not have a CSO or similar figure. Moreover, more than 80 percent of CSOs reported directly to the CEO or the executive board.

Many aspire to take up this position, envisioning it as the ultimate destination on their career path. However, amidst the excitement and ambition, it's crucial to ask: Do you know what you're actually signing up for in that role?

A CSO is a senior executive responsible for developing and implementing a company's sustainability strategy. A CSO's primary goal is to make the company more sustainable, and to ensure that it is operating in an environmentally responsible way. But:

What exactly does a CSO do?

The truth is that no two CSOs are alike. The position of a CSO is often tailored to the person's abilities and considering the company's structure.

For example, a CSO with a communication background working for a company whose business model is based on recycling and circular economy will have a very prominent position in areas such as corporate affairs, marketing and sales. On the other hand, a CSO of a financial sector company with technical knowledge of the industry will have some responsibilities unique to this sector, such as supervising the inclusion of ESG criteria in the design of financial services or credit risk analysis processes.

Having said that, there are a series of common responsibilities for all CSOs. Let's take a look at the most important ones.

Public relations

The CSO is the public image of all actions and positions related to the company's sustainability. Therefore, they often act as an ambassador for the company to different stakeholders through professional events, customer acquisition processes (whenever sustainability is a relevant factor in the process) and investor meetings, among others. CSOs attends these meetings to share their vision about what the company is and will be in the coming years.

Strategic thinking

The CSO is the watchman of everything that happens where sustainability and business intersect. Part of their mind is always looking to the future. What are the trends? What will be important next year? How do we prepare? And when do we start? The CSO should attend seminars, trainings and events to be constantly updated. Afterward, they need to digest all that information and understand what it means for the company today and its plans for the future. The CSO must then disseminate this knowledge internally so that the company's management is prepared and can formulate an appropriate strategy.

The CSO must be one of the most connected people in the company.
Budget management

Budgeting is a common task for most C-suite members. And while optimistically, most companies claim to be increasing their spending on sustainability next year, the budget can be wasted if not used properly. Often, the CSO fights fiercely to make the company see the need to provide the department with the appropriate resources. Then they must decide how to use the resources most efficiently. Sizing the team, selecting suppliers (projects, tools, advice and a long et cetera), implementing new projects and initiatives. No matter what the challenge, a competent CSO must know how to choose the best way to spend the budget to generate the maximum possible value.

Connecting and leading

Developing a corporate sustainability culture means changing the vision and the way of doing things in all areas of the company. That is why the CSO must be one of the most connected people in the company. They have to meet and exchange information with the CFO, CCO, compliance director, supply chain manager, consumption manager and a long list of other C-suite members and their subordinates. A good CSO understands their difficulties, speaks their language and reaches agreements with them to set goals and responsibilities, integrating the company's sustainability approach in different areas and providing them with the necessary knowledge.

Managing a team

According to different studies, sustainability teams tend to be small, often consisting of less than five employees. The best teams are those that integrate very different skills and expertise, so that together they have what it takes to manage corporate sustainability as a whole. CSOs are responsible for leading the team and getting the team to work in a coordinated way, bringing out the best in them and keeping them motivated and focused. So far, the task does not seem very different from that of other team leaders, does it? However, in addition to the usual leadership challenges, the position of CSO entails the added difficulty of managing professionals with a very disparate background (as mentioned above), as well as an environment of high uncertainty and rapid transformation of legislation, frameworks, methodologies and more.

Reporting

Finally, a big part of a CSO's job will be reporting. It requires a global vision of the company's sustainability as well as technical expertise. The CSO structures the information that will be relevant to the company and the way and frequency in which it will be collected. The CSO is also responsible for orchestrating the drafting of the Sustainability Report (in the European Union, usually the Non-Financial Report Statement), where the work of the whole year is consolidated. To do this, they are in charge of selecting and supervising everyone involved including collecting the data and writing and designing the report.

Becoming a CSO requires a combination of education, experience and skills. CSOs must have strong leadership skills, as well as excellent communication and analytical skills. As we transition to a green economy the hope is that the CSO will become an even more important and instrumental role in any business.

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