The Making of a Top Chief Sustainability Officer: 8 Non-technical Competencies to Have

24 August 2022 by Paddy Balfour
blog author

​As our world continues to navigate the climate crisis, the role of a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) has never been more urgent or important. At its very core, sustainability is about  fulfilling the needs of those in the present without compromising those of future generations. With the global shift towards an ESG mindset, businesses are racing to integrate ESG into their business strategies. Companies can no longer afford to close an eye when it comes to the division between conceptualising and actually executing a sustainable business strategy.

Although companies are increasingly turning their sights to sustainability, many still struggle to implement concrete sustainable business practices due to a lack of talent. In other words, companies might not have enough bandwidth or expertise to develop a robust sustainability strategy – and this is where the importance of the CSO comes in. 

The role of today's CSO is constantly evolving to address different developments within the ESG space. Of course, we cannot leave out a good set of knowledge about both the sustainability landscape and the organisation, but this does not mean that we can simply push for any high-ranking position holder to take on the role of the CSO; other factors must be considered as well.

In purpose-led roles like the CSO, it takes more than technical expertise to succeed in driving change and delivering desired business outcomes. We need to look beyond a candidate’s experience and technical expertise to determine if they have the key skills to disrupt traditional thinking and deliver measurable impact.

At Acre, we co-created a market-leading competency framework in collaboration with industry leaders that identifies the key non-technical competencies required for current and future leaders. This allows us to better understand the candidates’ strengths as well as development needs, and determine their fit for a specific role or company. 

We’ve identified eight non-technical or “soft” skills, as listed below: 

Strategy development and delivery

An ideal CSO candidate should possess a future-focused perspective when creating a strategy; one that places purpose right at the very heart of the business. While ideating this strategy, the individual should also keep all business goals in mind, designing a versatile but innovative approach that responds to the needs of all stakeholders involved.

Legacy and impact

While irreversible damage to our environment can be created overnight, the same cannot be said about systemic change; enormous amounts of time and effort are needed to create sustainable impact. The CSO candidate must understand this and the importance of improving an evolving strategy that is prepared to address any issues that might be thrown their way. As purposeful networks are created and expanded, knowledge is shared and all of us will stand to improve from it. A legacy is created from one’s genuine motivations. 

Executive influence

To exert one’s influence, stellar communication skills are needed to convey how systemic challenges create organisational risk and opportunity across all business functions and at all levels, including C-suite. An image that is consistent with company values should also be exhibited, demonstrating one’s energy and passion to achieve company objectives.

Innovation and courage

Compared to other disciplines, ESG started to gain traction not too long ago; it is vital for a CSO candidate to possess professional curiosity and creative thinking as developments within the practice of ESG analysis take place. Confidence and bravery to back one’s beliefs, even when deemed controversial, is also extremely vital. 

Inclusive leadership

CSO candidates need to be able to understand the complexities of operating across different businesses, business units, geographies, and cultures – this is important as a company adapts their approach to ESG. Above all, both consistency and flexibility have to be present in the strategy conceived by a CSO.

Leads high performing teams

Just like any leader in any business unit, an ideal CSO candidate should possess a trove of leadership qualities needed to lead a successful team. The candidate should understand the needs and motivations of their members to provide effective guidance, at the same time mobilising their diverse skill sets to deliver the highest standard of output.

Business insight

Company values and beliefs are important in any organisation, hence the need to explore ways to embed purpose and add value in line with the company’s objectives. Aside from a targeted focus on the areas of ESG and sustainability, a CSO candidate should be able to develop a strong understanding of other core business functions, analysing how his strategy or plan might impact the bottom line.

Driving change through others 

All in all, inspiring others to adopt your views on sustainability is key – by amassing a substantial network, mutual benefit can arise from co-delivering a purposeful sustainability strategy.

While these 8 non-technical competencies offer only a glimpse into the intricacies of the role of the CSO, I hope this article helps companies get a better sense and understanding of what to look for in a CSO, and also serve as a guide for current CSOs and leaders to further hone their current skill set as well. 

Paddy joined Acre in 2022 to lead the expansion of the Acre business in APAC.

Originally from the UK Paddy has spent over 15 years working across multiple markets in the APAC region with relationships in the finance and commercial sectors. At Acre he is specifically aligned with the growth of the sustainable finance, impact investing and sustainable energy practice. This includes working with banks, insurers, pension funds, investment managers, private debt, equity & real-asset funds, family offices and foundations for roles which are sustainability themed and/or impact aligned as well as any sustainability and ESG related positions across all other functions.

Paddy has a BSc (Hons) in Geography from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

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