Pay, purpose and prospects: what are the rewards on offer for a Chief Sustainability Officer?

chief sustainability officer leadership Jul 17, 2023

Though it’s fast become one of most coveted roles in sustainability, what precisely are the benefits a chief sustainability officer can expect to enjoy? Here we break down pay, purpose and future prospects.

Everyone is talking about the role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) right now.

From being practically non-existent a decade ago (it wasn’t until 2004 that Linda Fisher was appointed as the first CSO by US chemical company DuPont) the role is now one of the most in-demand across the private sector.

In 2021 alone, the number of CSOs tripled, according to a study by PwC. In fact, those holding an executive level position, alongside board members such as the chief executive or chief financial officer, hit 28% that year, up from just nine percent in 2016, with the US and Europe leading the way.

For the organisations that are looking to recruit CSOs, the benefits are obvious.

The same study found that nearly all (98%) of companies with a top sustainability rating by third-party assessment, had an executive tasked with leading on sustainability. In most cases, a CSO.

In other words, in an era where the private sector is facing growing reputational and regulatory pressure to demonstrate clear progress on ESG, recruiting a CSO is regarded as a way to refine strategies, identify opportunities and make faster headway.

But what exactly is in it for the CSOs themselves?

It’s a tough job, after all.

Core responsibilities include ensuring regulatory compliance, ESG monitoring and reporting, project management, managing stakeholder relationships, fostering cultural change, building up organisational capabilities, innovation and embedding sustainability into daily processes.

Delivering on that remit requires excellent communication skills, a strong track record in leadership, a fantastic grasp of evolving regulation and the passion to bring others along with you, among many, many other characteristics.

So given all that it takes to become a CSO, what can you expect from remuneration and career prospects once you get there?

A look at pay and bonuses

First, the big question: how much does the average CSO earn?

Well, just as you might expect with any senior level role there are huge variations in the size of a CSOs pay packet, dependent on the size of the organisation they’re working for, their credentials and the sector they’re focused on.

At the top end, Bloomberg estimates that the highest earning CSOs are walking away with annual salaries of up to $1.5m in the US, with negotiations at the top level ranging from $800,000 upwards.

That puts CSOs on a par with some of the far more established executive roles, including CEO.

However, these kind of remuneration packages are likely reserved for executives at multinational, multimillion-dollar organisations. They don’t reflect the average earnings of a CSO at smaller companies.

In fact, according to the average CSO in the US earns between $62,780 and $208,000 dependent on their education and experience.

In the UK meanwhile, estimates average pay at £52,967 per year, with highs of around £134,000.

It isn’t only baseline salary that will make up a CSOs pay package, of course, with bonuses paid out for reaching their sustainability-based targets another likely part of the package for any executive role.

In fact, a recent report from PwC and the London Business School found that more than three-quarters of Europe’s largest companies now include a carbon target in some form as part of their executive pay packages.

An inherently purposeful role

Though pay is an important part of the equation for many sustainability professionals, it often isn’t the only reason they love what they do. Far from it.

For many CSOs there is often a strong sense of purpose and passion woven into their role, which can be equally as appealing.

For example, when asked what she loved most about her job, Jamie Jones Ezefili, chief sustainability officer at Northern Trust, had this to say.

I like the complexities of this space. I feel like I'm having an impact on the organisation I work for and the world. I like that it's always full of challenges. Everything is new. There's always something happening all the time. Lots of people are interested in it. It's not a space I think that people are not going to want to get involved in anytime soon.”

Research has shown that a more purposeful job is often linked to a higher sense of job satisfaction, wellbeing and reward. It’s why some 70% of Americans say they define their sense of purpose through work, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co.

And few roles are more inextricably linked to impact and making a difference than that of a CSO, with those in the role often handed the reins when it comes to sustainability at major organisations. They have the chance to craft strategies, identify the biggest opportunities and execute their vision across the business.

Strong future prospects

Having only been commonplace within the private sector in the last few years, there’s no clear roadmap when it comes to the long-term career prospects for a CSO.

But there’s plenty of reason to think the fast-evolving role holds huge potential.

According to Harvard Business Review, the role is already undergoing a “rapid and dramatic transformation” with a shift away from PR and communications to a key role in crafting genuinely transformational sustainability initiatives within organisations.

CSOs are now more involved in investor meetings, they found, and helping to identify and direct attention to the ESG issues that have a substantial impact on an organisation’s financial performance and risk profile.

In other words, they’re no longer working in small, siloed teams and wheeled out a few days of the year to talk about charitable giving. The CSOs of today are just as embedded in commercial strategy and the broader direction of a company as are other executives.

This puts them in great stead for career progression, with no reason not to aim for the top job of CEO a few years down the line, a leap that may have been unthinkable a few years back.

A big job, with big rewards

The relatively recent role of CSO may still be evolving but it carries with it great career prospects for the right candidate.

That includes a potentially significant remuneration package at the top organisations, to a strong sense of potential and personal reward built in and future prospects that could see current CSOs become CEOs in only a few years’ time.

Are you an ambitious sustainability professional looking to become a CSO or take your career to the next level? With my 12-month in-depth program I can help you reach those goals, working closely with you to craft a personal brand, develop leadership skills and grow your influence. For more information click here

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