Written by Tanith Allen for HR Zone, published on 08.11.22, How can HR support the rise of the chief sustainability officer?
With COP27 in full flow, Tanith Allen asks how HR can help Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) shape our future far beyond any 2050 net zero goal or report.
HR professionals and recruiters alike will have noticed an uptick in demand for ESG talent and sustainability hires in recent years. As ESG has risen in corporate agendas, we have seen the role of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) become more common across sectors.
Interestingly, although the position has taken off with gusto in North America and several of our EMEA regions, the UK, a nation with one of the longest-established corporate sustainability networks globally, is lagging. We do not seem to have bought into C-suite sustainability yet. So is there a way UK HR professionals can help elevate sustainability practitioners within our organizations?
"There is still a degree of hesitation when it comes to hiring a CSO."
Who is the CSO, and do they really offer value?
To date, the CSO has often been a dual role combining a C-level individual’s remit with a more traditional executive function, for example, Communications, People or Strategy. We have seen some businesses evolve this to stand-alone CSO roles, which will likely be held by experienced Executive Leadership (who may specialise in a broader, more traditional corporate function).
Interestingly, however, there is still a degree of hesitation when it comes to hiring a CSO. Rather than commit to hiring or upskilling talent to join the C-suite, companies are opting for VPs in Sustainability.
In today’s market, which is becoming all the more aware of ESG issues, what we’re seeing emerge is the value a CSO can add to businesses, presenting a new and exciting space for practitioners.
Who are CSOs working with?
The first significant shift we have noticed over the last few years relates to team structuring and management. Where top-tier sustainability leaders historically operated from within Corporate Affairs or Compliance teams (depending on the industry), today they will more commonly be seen reporting to the CFO or Investor Relations.
In today’s world of climate reporting and greenwashing, governance is a significant risk that CSOs need to manage, ensuring their company is spotless when it comes to disclosures, as well as issues such as diversity and inclusion. Leadership teams recognise the reputational risk involved in communicating around ESG, so bring CSOs into commercial, procurement, reporting and investing discussions at an early stage.
"For CSOs, buy-in is the primary challenge to address."
The fact is sustainability is playing a key part in the way businesses make decisions over the long term. Organizations are asking themselves whether the materials, communities, and energy sources they depend on will be available in 10, 20 or even 30 years.
If they find they will not, these organizations are working for change. This is where a CSO’s superpowers can most be seen. Presenting solutions to and influencing the decisions of leadership, investors, and strategy teams, they steer the direction of the business towards a better future.
What training and skillsets are required?
A crucial development is that, in recent years, it is not necessarily a sustainability practitioner that sits in the main driving seat. The ultimate pairing is that of someone who can navigate the business, combined with someone who knows how to implement and execute against these hugely specialist thematic challenges.
This pairing could be either way around, i.e. #1 or #2, but the pairing is crucial to ensure success against modern business's time constraints. Other skill sets that are also advantageous in Sustainable Business Transformation include a background in engineering or experience in strategy; these can provide valuable insights and allow for a more holistic view of investment opportunities.
What’s more, effective communication, creative problem-solving, and an ability to identify strategic opportunities and pitch potential value are all crucial. Businesses require a more technical level of expertise in delivery, and someone with an inclusive communication style and a strong understanding of the overall business objectives
The main roadblock to success
It takes time to drive meaningful transformation within a business. For CSOs, buy-in is the primary challenge to address. Although it is developing across all functions of the organization at a greater pace than before, there is still much progress to be made.
Education at all levels of the business has become essential in driving company-wide buy-in and creating a foundation for long-term sustainable business. While currently, the CSO’s immediate team remains small, bringing in larger networks of sustainability practitioners across other key functions helps a business push the needle on its ambitions.
The good news is, there is now far more clarity about what impactful sustainability strategies can look like. There are also reporting metrics measuring performance and progress (the uptake of SBTi for example). In essence, modern CSOs now have a stronger blueprint from which to work, which wins them back time to focus on the stakeholder engagement element of the role.
HR is the crucial stakeholder for success
Whilst it's clear that CSOs need to have a symbiotic working relationship with the board to embed ESG into mainstream strategy, this is only possible if HR is the CSO's biggest support.
"HR also has a key role in enabling the CSO to navigate the organization's structures, quirks and nuances."
That could be championing sustainability's importance to the board and enabling investment into organization-wide L&D that creates sustainability talent within its own walls or investing in intelligence that showcases the best structures where business transformation has worked and embedded itself well.
HR also has a key role in enabling the CSO to navigate the organization's structures, quirks and nuances. This could be facilitating communication and teamwork or leveraging the best stakeholders to commercialise sustainability imperatives, with the most haste, creating case studies for success.
A sustainable future begins now
It has become clear that, as ESG becomes more consolidated into traditional business functions, we will most likely see fuller integration of sustainability teams across every department or the enveloping of the CSO under the CFO/CEO or COO.
HR professionals will be critical enablers of such a culture shift and have a fundamental role to play in driving impact following COP27 when companies and governments are expected to explain how they will enact the corporate pledges made last year.
Tanith leads Acre’s recruitment teams across infrastructure and manufacturing. Since joining the business, Tanith has developed Acre’s executive consultant platform, the Acre Bench, providing flexible support to clients facing some of the most challenging materiality, strategy and responsible value chain issues in sustainability. She has successfully placed senior ESG professionals with clients such as LyondellBasell, Ball Corporation, and Virgin Atlantic, as well as with leading industry bodies. Tanith spends the majority of her time with Acre's clients, delivering Executive recruitment projects, as well as bespoke consultancy and business optimisation assignments.