A “To Do” List for New CSOs

This article from GreenBiz followed up on the session “What to Do in the First 90 Days as a Chief Sustainability Officer” from GreenBiz24 a couple weeks ago. I didn’t attend this panel – there were SO many sessions that getting to all of them wasn’t possible, so it was nice to have a summary. The panelists were Lisa Brady with Insulet, a maker of automated insulin delivery systems; Jill Kolling with James Hardie, a building products manufacturer; and Dave Stangis with Apollo Global Management, a New York private capital firm.

The panel discussed what they think are seven steps to be effective in your initial months as CSO to set you up for long-term success:

Learn the company’s existing processes and structures: This brief phrasing is incomplete in my opinion, and Stangis hit on what is missing – “I literally spent a lot of time with other leaders of the firm just to understand their business.” This is more than understanding processes and structures. It is absolutely critical for CSOs to learn how the company makes money and what the cost structure is. That establishes a baseline of credibility internally.

Explain what a sound sustainability program looks like: “Executives and employees at all levels are often unfamiliar with how sustainability programs are set up and how they work in practice.” As CSO, you must be able to set out a clear plan forward, balancing aspirations and practicality based in the company’s business fundamentals.

Get leadership to agree on scope and ambitions:  Kolling determined disparity in executive views on what the company’s sustainability program should include. She focused their positions somewhat, then “had the [executive] team vote on the strategy they honed in on to confirm that they would all work toward the same goals.” As with so much in sustainability/ESG, success here depends on balancing aspirations and practicality aligned with business fundamentals.

Go beyond those who are already “believers”: “Collaborate with the senior leaders [who are] already willing to cooperate… But that only works for so long. Then you have to go to the others.” New CSOs must be patient in educating those reticent executives on program benefits – but that implies you have clarity on what those benefits are.

Do a baseline materiality assessment: Brady emphasized “understand[ing] the key issues in the industry and for the business … [helping] define how aspirational [you can] be and how to create a sound five-year plan, including incremental resource needs.” At the same time, materiality assessments should not be viewed as a “one and done” exercise. Especially in today’s highly dynamic ESG environment, CSOs should expect to update the assessments at least annually.

Find forcing functions: Scorecards, KPIs and reporting all require sustainability and business teams to keep momentum. C-suite excitement for and continuous messaging about sustainability also motivate employees to keep the program top of mind and perform necessary tasks.

Give permission to work on ESG: “Find ways to embed sustainability initiatives into business goals employees are already working toward day to day.” Minimize the amount of new work, processes and activities necessary. Technology may be helpful here.

One element of success that isn’t explicitly called out is communicating to executives (and others, really) in simple terms, which should be a prerequisite for CSOs.

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