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How to find a CSO with the range of skills your company needs 

IbyIMD+ Published 22 September 2023 in Sustainability • 9 min read

CSOare becoming more senior and cross-functional. They need the ability and skills to address ESG issues across the spectrum – from finance to sales, investor relations to procurement. Suitable candidates are rare and a talent war is raging.

When Mattel released its ‘Chief Sustainability Officer’ Barbie recycled plastic doll last year, it was clear the role of CSO had gone mainstream. Sustainability has emerged as a strategic imperative for firms, driving the search for talent to meet new ambitions and regulatory pressures. With it, there’s a significant transformation and growing importance – of the role of the CSO, fueling demand for the professionalization of this expanding role.  

Why is the CSO in the spotlight? Growing global challenges, such as climate change, resource depletion, and social inequality have forced businesses to re-evaluate their risks, opportunities, and impact on the world. They are also struggling to stay on top of changing regulations, investor demands for transparency, and employees seeking careers with “purpose”.  

War for sustainability talent 

Consequently, there’s a growing war for talent as organizations seek executives with the knowledge and skills to navigate complex sustainability issues and drive sustainable business transformation. Finding senior executives with the necessary capabilities and attributes to fit this changing landscape is a challenge. 

Today, 183 US public companies have a CSO, up from 29 in 2011, according to the Weinreb Group, a sustainability executive search firm. The number of companies appointing their first CSO has also seen a dramatic increase over the past three years. More CSOs were hired in 2021 than in the previous five years combined, according to a global Strategy& study. 

In Europe, tightening regulations and demands for transparency are driving firms to embed sustainability in their organizational structures. In Germany, for example, 90% of DAX-listed firms have a CSO, the Strategy& study showed. More than half report directly to the CEO. All Swiss and Austrian listed companies have a CSO. 

In parallel, the remit of the CSO is changing. The title was first used in 2004. Traditionally, the CSO was responsible for implementing initiatives such as employee volunteer programs and waste reduction. The role mostly focused on NGO partnerships, corporate philanthropy, and developing a compelling narrative to mitigate reputational risks. In the early days, CSOs were not involved in strategic conversations or direct communication with investors. 

However, as sustainability moves to the center of business strategy, the role is expanding.  

Source: Weinreb

The CSO role has become much more strategic, taking responsibility for broader business transformation, explained Catherine Zhu, Global Head of Sustainability Practice at leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder (pictured above). Today, the CSO is part of, or works closely with, the C-suite to integrate material sustainability issues into every aspect of a firm’s operations, processes, and capital allocation. 

 “They work on transforming the core business model,” she said, comparing the evolution of the CSO role to how the Chief Digital Officer emerged to transform businesses a decade ago.   

“Firms are seeking candidates for the role with an overall understanding of business processes, with expertise in supply chain, strategy, sales and marketing, and operations. A CSO is now essentially another C-level executive looking to create business opportunities through sustainability,” Zhu added.  The role takes on completely different sets of challenges depending on the industry and engages stakeholders throughout its ecosystem, she said.  For example, the CSO of a mining company may set up a waste management business, while the CSO at a skincare company may build partnerships to introduce sustainable packaging through circular business models.” 

Consequently, their team sizes and budgets are increasing, and their position in the firm’s hierarchy is growing in importance, according to Weinreb.  

This is especially evident in companies going through major business model transformations. Consider Neste, for example, which in about two decades transformed from an oil refiner to a leading producer of renewable fuels. “The biggest risk is inaction you have to be part of those companies that move before you have to,” said Minna Aila, EVP of Sustainability and Corporate Affairs at Neste. “We are approaching planetary boundaries. If we want to be in business for the long term, we need to adapt and change.” 

CSO roles are becoming more senior and cross-functional, managing both internal and external critical stakeholders that may have competing interests. For example, this can include balancing the social and environmental consequences in what’s called a “just transition” to a greener economy where job losses can result from shifts to cleaner manufacturing or assessing human rights risks as firms mine for the raw materials needed to make batteries for electric vehicles.  

The biggest risk is inaction – you have to be part of those companies that move before you have to.
Minna Aila, EVP, Sustainability and Corporate Affairs at Neste

In particular, CSOs are increasingly being tasked with value creation and identifying what areas of focus will contribute both to society and profitability. As investors pay more attention to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors, CSOs are collaborating with chief financial officers to engage investors and demonstrate the link between material sustainability issues and financial performance. 

CSOs also inform boards through stand-alone sustainability or ESG committees, which were unheard of a decade ago. Some report to the audit or finance committee, or even the full board, as new regulations increase pressure for the sound governance of non-financial corporate performance in addition to financial results.  

“For some board members, this is their first exposure to sustainability risks and opportunities, so the CEO and CSO arrange orientation sessions on changing business models and regulatory standards,” said Zhu. 

Traditional CSO backgrounds from NGOs or public affairs are often not up to these tasks, requiring a rethink of the capabilities needed for the role. To fill the gaps, many CSOs are adding experts to their teams in areas such as climate science, supply chain, ESG performance measurement, and reporting.  

Cross-functional capabilities 

Beyond the sustainability department, there are many corporate sustainability leaders who don’t have the CSO title but are responsible for integrating sustainable business practices into their work.  

Firms across industries need professionals who possess a deep understanding of sustainable value chains, energy efficiency, social impact, and stakeholder engagement. But that’s not enough. At the same time, they require in-depth knowledge of the operations of the firm to tie sustainability to its core business strategy. 

Companies are, therefore, seeking talent with the skills and knowledge to address ESG issues for practically all functions, including finance, sales, investor relations, operations, and procurement. Changing regulations worldwide also require that sustainability, finance, legal, and strategy teams work more closely together.  

The European Union’s new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is the most far-reaching, requiring a double materiality approach, referring to reporting on both how ESG topics impact the bottom line and how the company has a wider environmental or social impact. This requires a substantial change in the firms’ measurement and reporting of impact.   

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While on paper CSRD initially affects about 50,000 large or listed companies, it will also require detailed reporting for companies within their supply chains. In addition, the International Sustainability Standards Board has issued two new disclosure standards meant to serve as a global baseline with a broader geographical reach.  

To comply with CSRD, larger firms have the resources to set up cross-functional project teams, including colleagues from finance, legal, human resources, health and safety, strategy, internal control, IT, and risk management. Smaller firms, however, often struggle with leaner teams trying to manage the shift.  

Still, while the importance of sustainability has grown, there can be confusion around the scope of sustainability-related roles and the ideal organizational design. While more CSOs are being appointed and the topic is reaching the C-suite, the distribution of responsibilities across the organization can create competition for resources, miscommunication, and duplication.  

It is helpful to take note of reporting lines to better understand a firm’s commitment, maturity, and potential to succeed in its transformation. For example, 42% of CSOs or heads of sustainability report to the CEO, according to a Gartner survey of 175 executives. Additionally, 34% of heads of ESG report to the CEO. Those reporting lines can indicate to investors that the firm prioritizes sustainability, since the leader will be shaping core strategy. Reporting to a general council or to the communications lead indicates more of a compliance or reputation-building focus. 

To be sure, there isn’t one ideal model. The organizational structure depends on the maturity of the firm’s sustainability strategy and how embedded it is in the core business. Firms need to design a structure that harnesses the data and insights needed to develop an informed strategy and to create accountability. Thus, getting the talent equation right is essential. 

Five factors for sustainability leadership 

Regardless of what organizational structure is chosen, our research with sustainability leaders across industries highlights five skills and competencies that are sought by companies seeking to position themselves at the forefront of sustainability strategy. 

1. Define strategy

CSOs must define a comprehensive and forward-thinking strategy that goes beyond compliance by analyzing the company’s environmental, social, and economic impacts setting clear goals and establishing a roadmap to achieve these objectives. The CSO must align the sustainability strategy with overall business goals to ensure a holistic and integrated approach. This involves identifying potential risks and opportunities, developing sustainable business models, and incorporating ESG factors into investment decisions. By integrating sustainability into the core business strategy, companies can drive innovation, enhance brand reputation, and gain a competitive edge. 

2. Bridge the knowing-doing gap

One of the critical roles of a CSO is to bridge the knowing-doing gap within the organization. They need to ensure that the sustainability strategy is effectively implemented throughout the company and translated into language that allows employees at all levels to understand their roles in contributing to the objectives. This requires effective communication, education, and the establishment of processes that embed sustainability principles into day-to-day operations. 

3. Engage and influence stakeholders

Successful sustainability efforts rely heavily on collaboration and engagement with a diverse range of stakeholders, both internal and external. Rising societal demands and regulatory risk mean major groups of stakeholders – including potential employees and investors – are paying attention. Losing focus means alienating one or more of these groups. CSOs must possess strong communication and relationship-building skills and tap into their passion to engage with employees, investors, customers, suppliers, communities, NGOs, and governmental entities. Internally, the CSO works to foster a culture of sustainability, creating awareness and driving behavioral change, and attracting and retaining talent seeking purpose. Externally, they engage with customers, suppliers, NGOs, and governments to establish collaborative networks and advocate for sustainable practices across the value chain. This requires resilience, as they often work through influence rather than authority, to foster shared understanding, support, and alignment. 

4. Drive innovation

The ability to drive innovation amid ambiguity is crucial for CSOs to identify new and creative approaches to complex sustainability challenges. This entails staying informed about emerging technologies, industry best practices, and global trends that can enhance sustainability performance. The CSO needs to foster a culture of continuous improvement and open-mindedness to embrace innovative solutions and adapt to evolving demands. 

5. Measure and demonstrate impact

Measuring and reporting the impact of sustainability initiatives is essential to demonstrate progress, transparency, and accountability. CSOs must have teams with expertise in data collection, analysis, and reporting to provide meaningful metrics to measure, monitor, and highlight the firm’s sustainability performance. This information enables stakeholders to assess the company’s efforts and outcomes, driving better decision-making and reinforcing the organization’s reputation and commitment to sustainability.  

In the driving seat 

A CSO who is empowered with the authority, resources, and support from the top can drive sustainable transformation throughout the organization. By embedding sustainability into their strategy, businesses can build resilience, mitigate risks, attract and retain employees, and foster innovation – ultimately creating value for both the company and society as a whole. 

By driving sustainable business strategies, engaging stakeholders, and demonstrating impact, CSOs are leading change. These skills are also in demand for more traditional functions that are being influenced by the shifting landscape towards greater transparency and accountability. With the right talent in place, organizations that prioritize and invest in sustainability will emerge as “future ready”. 


Natalia Olynec, Head of Sustainability at IMD

Natalia Olynec

Chief Sustainability Officer at IMD

Natalia is the Chief Sustainability Officer at IMD. She designs and implements sustainability strategy, develops executive education programs and advisory, publishes research, builds cross-sector partnerships, and communicates IMD’s ambitions and progress. The Center for Sustainable and Inclusive Business, co-led by Olynec, aims to support leaders and companies to take steps towards a more sustainable and inclusive business world by harnessing IMD’s knowledge and expertise in the area and offering tools to help them deliver systemic, innovative, and impactful responses.


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