To create more understanding about the position, Serafeim wrote the paper “Chief Sustainability Officers: Who Are They and What Do They Do?” with Kathleen Miller, CEO of Miller Consultants. The CSOs in the study made a variety of suggestions for success:
1. CSOs should plant themselves as close as possible to the corporate areas where sustainability can produce value for the company. Initially, CSOs need to work with company officials who oversee compliance and issues. As sustainability goals become more ambitious, the areas where sustainability will produce value will vary from company to company.
2. CSOs should have their finger on the pulse of the company culture, understanding what motivates employees and devising a strategy for implementing change that aligns with the workforce. Sometimes the strategy needs to be customized to work for offices located in separate geographic locations. “If you come up with a strategy that the workforce is not going to buy, you will have a very tough time implementing that strategy,” Serafeim says. “The strategy needs to be compatible with what employees are expecting, the skills they have, and their aspirations.”
3. Some say the CSO should be placed on the executive team because the mere presence of the CSO at the C-suite table keeps sustainability on the agenda.
4. It’s important to articulate a compelling business case for such efforts and to make the strategy understandable and relevant to internal stakeholders. CSOs are often challenged with pushing company leaders out of the “trade-off” mentality. “For years there was this institutional logic that says if you do the right thing, your competitiveness will be hurt and it will come at a cost to the firm,” Serafeim says. “People don’t understand that if you do things strategically, you can create significant value for the firm. The CSO is in the best position to change this perception, but he needs to have the data and the tight business case to communicate that.”
5. CSOs should focus on a manageable set of sustainability issues, rather than biting off more than they can chew at once. And they should keep in mind that sustainability goals will change over time. Edelman says his approach is “evolutionary, not revolutionary.” IKEA CSO Steve Howard says, “You can’t transform everything at once. The hardest thing about leading the change is managing the complexity”
“Sustainability is not something that’s static,” Serafeim says. “It has to be dynamic because social expectations are continually changing.” “The way to think about the CSO is it’s the person who is the change agent,” Serafeim says. “It’s the person who sees how the future is developing, how social expectations are changing, how regulations and the business environment are changing in the future. The CSO is the ambassador with the vision, the person who decides what needs to change when it comes to how the company is interacting with the communities and the broader societal context in which it operates.”