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Most Chief Sustainability Officers Close to the Top, Report Finds

Nine out of ten CSOs are one or two steps removed from the CEO, according to a report by executive search and consulting firm Weinreb Group.

Weinreb says the report, CSO Back Story, is the first to chart the evolution of the position by surveying every exec with that title among the country’s publicly traded companies. The group found 29 such execs, after searching SEC filings, LinkedIn and other sources.

More are being appointed each year. Linda Fisher was the first CSO, appointed in 2004 at DuPont. Next to follow was Ed Fox at APS Pinnacle West in 2006. Kellogg’s CSO Diane Holdorf is the first CSO to succeed another CSO, Celeste Clarke, who is set to retire later this year.

Other companies with CSOs include UPS, EMC, AT&T, SAP, PG&E and Coca-Cola. A complete list is above. Weinreb notes that it has included Georgia-Pacific even though the firm is not currently publicly traded. The company was public for much of its history.

Ten out of the 29 CSOs (35%) report directly to the CEO and 16 (55%) are no more than two degrees removed, reporting to another C-level executive such as the COO or CMO. Of those surveyed, 12 sit on an executive committee responsible for all corporate strategic decisions, not just sustainability.

With an average of 4.2 direct reports, these CSOs have few resources but often enjoy a growing team, the report said. They all have their own budget but not necessarily their own P&L.

Weinreb said the emerging role is powerful in scope, strategic oversight, and overall management, with CSOs helping to lead their organizations through economic upheaval, internal discord, and environmental ruin. These professionals are good at leading new initiatives and cross-functional teams, and understand how to translate external factors into internal opportunities, the report said.

CSOs have been at their companies for an average of 16 years before gaining their title, and 25 out of the 29 were selected internally. Most chief sustainability officers do not have an environmental background, the survey found.

There were only four MBAs among the group, plus five JDs, three graduates of public policy, and seven science graduates. Three hold PhDs, and nine do not have any graduate degrees.

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5 thoughts on “Most Chief Sustainability Officers Close to the Top, Report Finds

  1. I hope this org structure will facilitate responsible change (rather than prevent it such as if this powerful role were more of a figure head for some organizations.) To assess and act on social, enviornmemtal and long term economic impacts and goals is good business practice especially as related to risk management. Part of a sincere sustainable strategy will require organizations to take a systems approach toward absorbing costs that are currently being externalized. In a society that had not mainstreamed the value of health and the value of the life support systems that maintain health, the  CSO as Change Agent is key.

  2. If they do not have an environmental background, what do they have? Marketing, PR, strategy, health & safety? Depending on their background, they will be concerned with different aspects of the business. It’s a shame this study didn’t give us more insight into their motivations, perspectives, focus, and senstivities.

  3. @Iain: Yes, the fact that on average they are sustainability illiterate worries more than anything else. As Kenny Ausubel said in his open remarks at the Bioneers conference 2010, we need to end the “ecologically illiterate” era. Cheers, MV.

  4. My initial response to this headline: “Most CSO’s close to the top” is ‘so what?’ Which is closely related to Gerry, Iain and Sara’s comments around ecological and ‘sustainability literacy.’ I have witnessed first hand ‘sustainability illiteracy’ amongst CSOs, leading organizations away from a more sustainable future. How will CSOs be held accountable to more than ‘soft definitions of sustainability’? (as described by Elkington and others)?

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