Corporations are facing unprecedented turbulence across the areas in which they operate. Customers, investors, employees, suppliers, governments and other stakeholders are pushing for new and often conflicting demands. Company leaders are pressed to act on issues ranging from climate change, diversity and inclusion, recession, disrupted supply chains to reproductive rights and political polarization. These complex economic, environmental, technological, social and political issues have become increasingly unpredictable and interconnected.
What are the challenges and opportunities for chief sustainability officers (CSOs) during these turbulent times? How can CSOs exercise leadership both within their organizations and with key external stakeholders? How must the role and capabilities of the CSO change to meet this moment in time?
In this article, we hear the views of the Sustainability Veterans, a group of professionals who have held senior positions in corporate sustainability.
Sarah Severn spent over two decades in senior sustainability roles at Nike and is now principal of Severn Consulting. “We live in what has been termed a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Leadership in these times requires vision, understanding, clarity of purpose and agility. The CSO is often best placed to bring this perspective and can draw on tools such as systems thinking, scenario planning and deep collaboration with experts in those fields.”
Leadership in these times requires vision, understanding, clarity of purpose and agility.
“CSOs possess a core competency around being comfortable with complexity and change,” said Ellen Weinreb, a sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder of Sustainability Veterans. “Our skill set is ready for VUCA. Our modus operandi is to plan for the long term.”
“CSOs need to see around the corner, uniquely providing a holistic view of societal trends and expectations,” according to Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainable development for the DuPont Company from 1998 to 2019. “Turbulent times are often when there are major shifts in what society is expecting of companies so it is critical for CSOs to be outward facing to see the trends and then translate that information back into the company in a way that can inform the overall strategy and initiatives across the organization.”
“Be a systems thinker,” counseled Lynelle Cameron, former vice president of sustainability at Autodesk and an ESG adviser to regenerative companies. “CSOs must understand the complexity and convergence of trends impacting business — from climate change to rising inequality. As Peter Leyden describes, we are undergoing a ‘civilization-scale transformation towards a sustainable everything.’ With executive teams and boards increasingly focused narrowly on ESG disclosure, CSOs must understand and be able to communicate the interconnected systems so that companies can navigate and optimize across.”
“Be a voice for a balanced approach to business,” stated Paul Murray, head of his sustainability recruiting firm, Integrated Sustainable Strategies, former as vice president of sustainability at Shaw Industries and director of sustainability at Herman Miller. “A successful corporate sustainability program is built on balance.” He recommended using the triple bottom line (TBL) concept to review all proposed projects’ impact on people, planet and profit. “During turbulent times, the sustainability professional must continue to be the voice to focus on the TBL. They must promote projects that demonstrate a strong ROI, reduced environmental impact and promote a positive impact on people. Simply put, the TBL will help the company make sound business decisions.”
“The rules of the game are changing,” according to Trisa Thompson, a lawyer and former chief responsibility officer at Dell Technologies. She believes that “the new CSO must have a broad vision and understanding of the role of the corporation, their corporation, in many areas of social impact, from gun control, to remote work, to health care access. The CSO must be thoughtful and seek counsel in advising the leadership on where they should play, where they must play and where they should not play. The CSO must do all of this while never losing sight of their North Star: sustainability.”
Mark Buckley, former vice president of sustainability at Staples and founder of One Boat Collaborative, views the new CSO as “chief sensing officer.” He explained that “chief sustainability officers are unique in their positions and have access to the workings of every part of their organization. The CSO role continues to evolve with the emergence of expanding elements of ESG and the increasing need to collaborate inside and outside the company. Speed and complexity of change is unprecedented. In these times, how can a chief sustainability officer become its ’chief sensing officer’ and provide business leaders insight and navigational guidance?”
“Nurture your emotional resilience, optimism and a sense of humor,” advised Kathrin Winkler, former CSO for EMC, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and an editor at large for GreenBiz. “It can be easy to feel disillusioned but losing your energy can sap your team’s as well. Stand tall, act with confidence and don’t succumb to subservience when approaching leadership. Waylay them in the hallways when you have something to say and remember that you bring special knowledge and a unique perspective, as well as a mission to accomplish — now more than ever.”
“Orchestrate the conflicts,” advised Bart Alexander, former chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors, now helping companies lead sustainable change through Alexander & Associates LLC and climate change action through Plan C Advisors. “Business leaders are feeling increasing pressures — build equality and inclusion, cut carbon, disclose more, choose sides on controversial and political issues — all in the context of economic uncertainties and disrupted supply chains. Sustainability professionals work on the razor’s edge between these forces and the ‘normal’ imperatives to grow profit and shareholder value. We may feel like the unwelcome messenger at constant risk of being eliminated. Yet, if we can build trusting relationships with our internal and external stakeholders, we can guide them to discover win-win opportunities. Our success will depend less on our technical knowledge than our capacity to foster candid discussion of the conflicts and options for moving forward.”