35% of Chief Sustainability Officers Report to the CEO

A new report – the first of its kind – analyses the evolution of the chief sustainability officer (CSO) position among US companies. Released Wednesday by executive search and consulting firm Weinreb Group, ‘CSO Back Story‘ says there are currently 29 chief sustainability officers at publicly traded companies in the US. But there will likely be more hires soon as sustainability concerns grow in importance globally.

According to the survey, some CSOs already work closely with the CEO. 10 out of the 29 (35 per cent) report directly to the CEO and 16 (55 per cent) are no more than two degrees removed, reporting to another C-level executive such as the COO or CMO.  At the same time, 12 of those surveyed serve on an executive committee responsible for all corporate strategic decisions, not just sustainability. 

With the call for improved sustainability measures louder than ever, companies have started leading new initiatives and cross-functional teams to help influence corporate behaviour. In the past, companies have had environmental managers, corporate secretaries and compliance officers spearhead sustainability efforts. Today, due to the changing regulatory landscape and urgency in the marketplace, most CSOs have landed a seat at the executive table. 

The Weinreb report says the emerging role is both unique and powerful: CSOs are helping to lead their organisations through economic upheaval, internal discord and environmental ruin. 

‘The supporting structure is more important than the reporting structure,’ Charlene Lake, senior vice president and CSO at AT&T tellsCorporate Secretary. ‘If you have support from your CEO and executive management, and support from the base of your organisation, then you have the best environment for success.’

Lake says the sustainability team at the Texas-based telecommunications company has implemented a rigid framework that extends to the top of the organisation and includes officer steering committees and board oversight. ‘That kind of supporting framework promotes accountability and helps us embed sustainability within every business unit in our company.’

Linda Fisher was the first CSO, appointed in 2004 at DuPont. She was followed by Ed Fox at APS Pinnacle West in 2006. Kellogg’s CSO Diane Holdorf is the first CSO to succeed another CSO, Celeste Clarke, who will retire later this year. Other companies with sustainability officers include UPS, EMC, AT&T, SAP, PG&E and Coca-Cola, among others. 

According to the report, most of these sustainability officers have been at their companies for an average of 16 years before gaining their title. Of the 29, 25 were selected internally, while four were new hires. Four boast MBA degrees, three hold PhDs and nine have no graduate degree at all.

[Article by Aarti Maharaj, Corporate Secretary]

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