Chief Human Resources Officers
Leading companies are hungry for a new kind of environmental, health and safety officer. No longer merely an audit and compliance manager, this new breed of corporate leader works directly with other top corporate leaders, frames environmental issues in strategic terms and operates in the far broader context of environmental and social sustainability.
Our firm has witnessed a substantial rise in demand for what has become known as Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). While technical skills are important, companies today need leaders who think strategically, communicate clearly and persuasively and possess sound business knowledge and judgment – people with broad vision and creativity. Increasingly, the companies we work with say that a successful CSO – like a successful CFO or CMO – needs to think and act like a CEO.
Understanding the new demands of this role and finding the right people to fill it should be a high priority for companies that want to maintain public confidence and protect shareholder value – especially those in industries with high environmental risks.
If there is one overriding competency that the new-breed CSO will need, it is the ability to think strategically. This requires the ability to look toward the horizon, identify an opportunity or challenge before it affects the company, and develop and implement a strategy to either take advantage of the opportunity or manage the challenge.
The new-breed CSO must also be able to communicate effectively, translating complex technical concepts and strategies into terms that resonate with the company’s top leadership and key constituencies, including investors, lenders, insurers, rating agencies, customers, suppliers, the media and the public. Effective communication also requires considerable persuasive skill in dealing with everyone from the shop foreman to the CEO, board members, government regulators, policy makers, the press, and the public.
A brave new challenge
In addition to strategic and communication skills, the new world of sustainability calls for a wide range of interdisciplinary and cross-functional competencies, including:
- Ability to hire, lead, develop, and inspire a diverse staff and to develop trusting relationships with a variety of company constituents before an issue becomes a problem
- A solid grounding in a wide range of environmental, health and safety requirements, processes, procedures, technologies, and, depending upon the scope of the operation, familiarity with these issues at the local, state, federal, regional, and international levels
- A knowledge of financial operations that extends beyond budgeting to include project financing, corporate finance, an understanding of how finance intersects with sustainability, and the ability to make a business case for a new direction
- Knowledge of the company’s processes, products, technologies and business processes coupled with the ability to manage environmental and safety systems within the company and the ability to assess and audit those systems with vendors, suppliers, and distributors
- Familiarity with technological and process advances and an understanding of the trends in sustainability and the influences on the company and the industry segment
- Ability to communicate with community leaders and activists and to communicate with the media in a crisis. In an age of 24-hour news, a wired world and more information sources than ever, media attention can turn a problem into a crisis almost overnight.
- Ability to develop and manage a marketing campaign related to the sustainability aspects of the company’s performance, products, or liability
Over the next decades, top CSOs will bring a genuinely global perspective to challenges and opportunities that will only grow in importance to all of their companies’ stakeholders.