Chief Sustainability Officer: The Evolution of a Role

Posted on 06 May 2022

Dr Tauni Lanier

Dr Tauni Lanier - Chief Sustainability Officer at World Wide Generation

Recently, I spoke as a guest lecturer at Columbia University on the UN SDGs and Energy. It went well, if I do say so myself, and the inevitable question arose, “How did I get into Sustainability and how did I make a career of it?” One enterprising student has prompted this missive, given me food for thought and a reason to structure my view on the evolution of the role of Chief Sustainability Officer.

Head to any job board and you will see an increase demand for talent for the role of Chief Sustainability Officer, or CSOs. Side note, it is refreshing to see that such a valuable role is being elevated to Board level. Yet, what are the skills needed to be an effective CSO and what does the career pathway look like? I can only speak from my experience, as I have been a CSO for nearly 2 years – in a fintech company. I can share my roadmap and the skills I needed to hone to be elevated to CSO along with an illustration of what is needed for a CSO.

The CSO role is not standardised, there is no one set of skills. It cannot be compared to a Chief Operating Officer or Chief Executive Officer, which have skills which are expected and synonymous with these roles, easily adaptable. The skills can easily be used in different guises in different companies and industries, as they are mostly universal. Sustainability, whose very nature, is bespoke; illustrates that there is not only one way to be and deliver successful sustainability, and thus there is not only one way to be a successful and effective CSO.

My journey started last century, before it was possible to get a degree in corporate responsibility or sustainable finance. There was a group of us who needed to self-educate, find the prospect and knowledge to drive the subject forward and develop the business case for sustainability. There are a hand-full who were instrumental in creating the business of sustainability, those who have been looking at the world through the lens of sustainability (or Eco, or Responsibility, etc.) for more than 25 years. This group of innovative and creative people were instrumental in establishing the necessary skills to be successful from everything from banking, private equity, standard setting, amongst others.

This group of ingenious people started with an idea – that measuring, and monitoring sustainability was possible and that unique products could be developed on the understanding of sustainability risk and opportunities.

My journey started when I was exposed to the idea of sustainability and realised that there were skills I needed to gather to be part of transformational change and bring value to the business of sustainability. The passion for sustainability took hold, and I unerringly have set down the path of being a recognised subject matter expert in the field of sustainable finance. My path spanned investment banking to working with 160 of the world’s largest companies on sustainability strategy to working with sustainability within the city context. My objective was to understand and relate to sustainability from any aspect for any interested party, from cities to bankers and beyond.

Find your passion and you will never work a day in your life.

The renaissance for sustainability has begun. The demand for subject matter experts in sustainability or climate change or diversity has never been more obvious and needed. It is encouraging to see that the skills of a sustainability, DE&I, or climate change expert is so important and so needed. Yet, the skill set needed to be an effective CSO is amorphous. Once you are a CSO in one company, that does not mean that success may be found in another company in another industry, as the understanding on what sustainability is and the identification/management of material sustainability issues is specific for a company and an industry. The rise of the CSO, one that can be effective across companies and industries, can only be delivered by one who has not only the experience but the exposure to a variety of sustainability issues across many industries and forms. In principle, someone who had been part of making the business case for sustainability.

With that said, that does not mean that an effective CSO can only be drawn from a hand full of subject matter experts; those that have been part of the development of sustainability. But the road to successful CSOs need to be drawn from internal environmental and corporate responsibility leaders; with a keen understanding of what is material for the specific company and industry, part of the catalyst for effective change for those companies who seek the expertise of a CSO.

Back to the request of some, how to make a career of sustainability. What is expected on that career roadmap, whether it be national or international or regional? My first and easiest advice is to enhance broad knowledge, a requirement for all CSOs: seek nimble creativity and innovation, look beyond the obvious and expect the unexpected. Lastly, understand that sustainability is a system of interlocking pieces, the pathway to success is not always straightforward.

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