How to become a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO): the ultimate guide

career change chief sustainability officer job market insights leadership Mar 27, 2023

The role of CSO has undergone rapid growth in the last decade, triggered by the transformation of sustainability into a business-critical issue. But with a swathe of ambitious sustainability professionals now setting their sights on the in-demand role, what exactly does it take to make it as a CSO?

The role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) may not have been around that long – the first CSO was only appointed in 2004 – but that hasn’t stopped it growing into one of the most coveted and in-demand roles in the impact sector today.

According to a new report from the Weinreb Group, the number of CSOs at US publicly traded companies has grown sixfold since 2011, with the sharpest increase over the last three years as sustainability has turned into a business-critical issue. In fact, from only 95 CSOs on this list in 2021, there are now 183.

There is still plenty of scope for further growth though. Though CSOs may have become an increasingly common appointment at major US firms, fewer than 15% of companies overall have a CSO in place, according to research by Deloitte and the Institute of International Finance.

All which means that for ambitious sustainability professionals looking to set their sights high, the role of CSO could be the perfect place to aim.

So, what exactly does it take to become an effective CSO?

The CSO mandate: ‘sense-maker in chief’

Sustainability has become a central thread running through business operations.

Not only does action on the issue increasingly impact reputation, customer engagement and financial performance, but moves by authorities to clamp down on corporate impact has seen senior leadership teams grapple with complex new regulations and reporting requirements.

The role of the CSO, say Deloitte, is therefore as ‘sense-maker in chief’ of this new sustainability landscape. It’s their job to get to grips with new regulation, to understand and predict further external changes that may affect the business, to identify logical opportunities for a company to improve on its own track record and work with all departments within a business to craft a strategy that reflects all of this.

A CSO’s core responsibilities can be broken down into eight, according to the Harvard Business Review.

  1. Ensuring regulatory compliance
  2. Overseeing all ESG monitoring and reporting
  3. Mapping out a portfolio of relevant sustainability projects
  4. Promoting an ongoing and constructive dialogue on the issues with both internal and external stakeholders
  5. Building on organizational capabilities to ensure the availability of ‘green skills’
  6. Communicating the purpose behind business transformation and bringing everyone in an organization on the journey
  7. Scouting and experimenting for relevant innovation to draw from in the ESG ecosystem
  8. Embedding sustainability into all processes and decision-making at an organization

Forget the one size fits all resumé

It goes without saying that the role of CSO is reserved for those with plenty of relevant experience and credentials within the impact sector.

But what exactly would company hiring teams be looking for?

Well, as with many roles within ESG there’s no one size fits all here when it comes to the appropriate qualifications or experience.

Some CSOs will be recruited after spending decades working within the business, coming to the role with a masterful understanding of how each department works and the wider business aims.

Others will be parachuted in from specialist NGOs or consultancies, providing an in-depth grasp on the evolving ESG space that the company may currently lack alongside experience in executing related projects.

In other words, don’t get too hung up on mirroring the CV of an existing CSO.

Instead focus on developing the skills and characteristics that we already know make for an effective CSO.

The skills it takes to make a great CSO

So, what exactly are they?

Well, the fact that CSOs are a relatively new role means there’s no definitive list here, with acting CSOs still refining and reframing their function as they go.

That means the best way to map out the core skills and competencies required is to, you guessed it, ask a CSO.

Thankfully, some of the hard work has already been done. As part of the recent Weinreb Group report, leading CSO were asked the question: what competencies make you efficient in your role?

Here are some key takeaways from what they said.

  • Be a "corporate chameleon": Ensure you can speak to different parts of the business – be it marketing, sales or logistics – and get their buy-in on sustainability.
  • Use “polite persistence”: Organizations, particularly large ones, can be resistant to change. CSOs need to be dogged enough to push through a sometimes substantial culture change, and ultimately shift entrenched ways of thinking
  • Don’t try to “boil the ocean”: Have the knowledge and commercial understanding to figure out what matters most to a company and where the biggest opportunities for sustainability lie.

We could distil this advice down further into a few core skills and attributes that any aspiring CSO will need to be able to demonstrate on their resumé.

You’ll need to…

  • Be a first-class communicator
  • Have a sold commercial awareness
  • Be incredibly strategic
  • Have excellent knowledge of the latest trends in ESG

Nail your network

The ability to rely on a network of relevant industry contacts is a critical part of landing any top sustainability job.

But it’s even more important if you’ve set your sights on the role of CSO.

The fact that CSOs are yet to be the norm across many organizations means there’s no standard roadmap to securing the role. Hiring managers will often be working from a blank sheet and casting their net wide to consider applicants from a huge variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Those who have created a solid industry network will likely be the first to hear of openings and the first to get a clear sense of what a company may be looking for.

Even if applying to CSO roles is years away, start building this network early.

  • Share insights and feedback consistently on LinkedIn to establish yourself as a passionate ESG thought leader
  • Regularly attend industry events, both online and offline. Don’t simply hand out business cards either, spend time developing mutually beneficial relationships
  • Nurture contacts with regular LinkedIn exchanges, emails or even coffees. Remember this isn’t about asking for a favour – it’s about creating a relationship for the long-term.

Set your sights on a CSO role

The role of CSO is only set to become more prominent in the years ahead.

In fact, according to Deloitte’s research, 99% of professionals agree that CSO will gain profile over the next two years, and 70% believe it will become more distinct, making a unique contribution to the challenges organization’s face on sustainability.

That makes it a fantastic aim for ambitious any sustainability professionals looking to take the lead either now, or at a later stage in their career.

And with the right plan in place, there’s no reason it should be out of their grasp.

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