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More Women, More Retirements Signal a New Generation of Chief Sustainability Officers

New report documents a major shift in the CSOs.

Submitted by: Lynnette Mcintire

Posted: Oct 21, 2014 – 11:53 AM EST

Tags: chief sustainability officer, cso, strategy


A new report from the Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting has documented some major shifts in the ranks of America's Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs). Since the last report was published in 2011, fifteen companies added CSO positions to their C-Suite. Women now make up 42% of CSOs, a 53% share leap in three years. And new roles are leading to requirements for more diverse skills too.

The first CSO was appointed in 2008. Since then, the U.S. ranks have grown to a total of 36 today, with more than 40% moving on to retirement or other posts between 2011 and 2014.  

For this first generation, most CSOs experienced the post as the apex of their careers. The job tapped into life-long lessons about how to build the business case to justify sustainability programs, recruit resources to support the new efforts, leverage relationships to help launch new initiatives, foster collaboration across departments and generate momentum.

But sustainability, as a business imperative, is much more widely accepted now, and the role of the CSO is maturing. According to The Weinreb Group, the CSO's responsibilities have shifted from internal program management to strategy development and marketplace outreach. 

The transition requires CSOs to have strong credentials, not only for use inside the company, but also for credible representation externally. This may be a challenge for some CSOs since 86% are from inside the company and on average, that CSO has been at the corporation for 10 years (which is down from 16 years in the last study).   

Today, CSOs who once focused on internal operational improvements are being pulled into product development, customer calls, stakeholder engagement and the boardroom much more often. Key drivers for sustainability today are product innovation, value creation and competitive advantage. As an example, Hannah Jones at Nike, added CSO to her title of VP, Innovation Accelerator.

The remaining 14% of current CSOs that came in as new hires are perhaps the most interesting group to watch. The Carlyle Group's Jackie Roberts came from an NGO organization Environmental Defense Fund; LNRG Energy's Leah Seligmann came from a consulting and NGO background; Blackstone's Don Anderson was Vice President of Global Strategy and Business Development at ICF International, where he sold and managed energy efficiency and sustainability projects in the BRIC countries and Europe. Paul Gilman of Covanta was director of the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies, a consortium of research universities, government, industry and non-governmental organizations focused on technology and science.

Will the changing demographics and career paths change the impact that CSOs can have both inside and outside their companies? Probably. It will be interesting to see how the role of CSOs evolves over the next three years. 

Lynnette McIntire is CEO, Silver Birch Communications               

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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