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Tracking the CSO role: New findings show major promise for field of sustainability

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This month, I dusted off my researcher’s hat to issue a long overdue CSO Update: the list of chief sustainability officers working at companies publicly traded in the U.S, and noted some key findings.

Since 2011, we at Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting have explored the role of chief sustainability officers (CSOs): who they are; the scope of their role; and how the role has changed over the years. Disclaimer about the methodology here: by looking specifically at the title Chief Sustainability Officer, we are not including heads of sustainability with different titles; and by reviewing companies publicly traded in the U.S, we do not necessarily include the United States’ largest companies.

Looking specifically at the top role reveals broad trends in the field and helps paint a picture of how big companies approach sustainability — and what they’ll do in the future. Our seminal CSO Back Story report in 2011 identified 29 CSOs, profiling several individuals in depth including Kathrin Winkler (EMC), Linda Fisher (AT&T), and Fisher again (DuPont). We also provided some key findings and best practices for the role. Since that first report, we updated the list in 2013 (PDF) and 2014 (PDF), and we have updated it again for 2018.

The 2018 list

As in previous reports, we focused on companies that are based in the United States and publicly traded. It’s also important to note that this list marks a point in time and is not a static number. This year’s results reveal who held the position as of this month.

We welcome six new CSOs to the class of 2018: Gayle Schueller (3M); Amy Senter (Kellogg); Kristina Kloberdanz (Mastercard); Tim Ring (MetLife); Noel Kinder (Nike); and Erik Hansen (Wynn Resorts).

Since our first report in 2011, seven of the original 29 CSOs we identified still hold their positions: Charlene Lake (AT&T); James Gowen (Verizon); Bea Perez (Coca-Cola); Jerry Lynch (General Mills); Frank O'Brien-Bernini (Owens Corning); Mike Kelley (YRC Worldwide); and Paul Gilman (Covanta Energy).

Key findings: more women, longer tenures

So, what’s new about this list? Most notably, the 2018 list has grown since its inception by more than 65 percent — up to 44 CSOs from 29 CSOs in 2011. 

Moreover, the percentage of female CSOs has grown by 17 percentage points — up to 45 percent in 2018 from 28 percent in 2011. This suggests an encouraging trend for the future of women in corporate sustainability leadership. The percentage of women in the CSO role appears significantly higher than the number of women in other executive roles. According to 2018 Pew research, women occupy only 11.5 percent of executive positions such as COO and CFO of the Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 stock index.

This could suggest that women in sustainability positions have more opportunities for advancement than women in other roles. 

Looking at the role of the CSO more broadly, 10 companies are on at least their second CSO, an increase from just one company in 2011. Of these 10 companies, three are on their third CSO: APS; Kellogg; and UPS. Current CSOs have held their position for an average of 4.9 years — more than double the two-year-average tenure in 2011.

Implications for the CSO career path

After following this title for seven years, we have noticed a new trend: When a CSO leaves their CSO position, there is a 50 percent chance that the company will replace that CSO.  This begs more questions than answers — questions we intend to explore in 2019.

  • What are some best practices in CSO succession planning?
  • What is the career trajectory for a CSO, post-CSO?
  • Is the CSO role that the last position before retirement? 

Also in the New Year, we will hear from the CSOs themselves on their team, embedding sustainability and investor pressure. Stay tuned.

The CSO Update is available here on Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting's website.

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