Much had pointed towards “TO CSO or not to CSO” being a contentious topic, as it gets to the point of whether it is more important for the lead Sustainability function to have business or environmental experience. We had deliberately split our panel equally between environmental and broader business careers, and we were interested that the panel found a lot to agree on - not least that they preferred a Sustainability advisor to the CEO over a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO).
The Chairman opened with a description of the skill set that is required of a CSO: identifying new markets, understanding innovation, mastery of the business case and strong communication skills. In short, a similar skill set to a CEO. Given the complexity of these skills there is an argument that an advisor to the CEO may be more realistic than finding such a person, but companies with the stomach for the search for the Holy Grail will no doubt disagree.
There was broad agreement on the need to retain a Sustainability Function, but importantly it should not sit in a silo. How to embedded Sustainability is a debate that will run further in the months to come.
It was clear that no right or wrong answer to the right internal Sustainability structure exists – but that there are considerations when embedding Sustainability into core business. These included:
* There is nothing more effective than a committed CEO
* The ability to present the business case is critical, whatever the solution
* The structure of the company may be the biggest factor in determining the solution
* Having a “critical friend”, and external third party expressing their views can be valuable
A member of the audience made the case for dropping the use of “Sustainability” as a term altogether – suggesting that this in itself serves to silo and confuse, and in many ways is a contaminated word. But is there an alternative? Alan Knight stepped in and agreed that although the term does have a degree of toxicity about it, it “does the job”, capturing the long term goal and conveying a degree of commercialism.
Finally – the panellists and floor concluded that ultimately it’s not about the name of the role; it’s about the individual and the company. Businesses need a Sustainability function that matches the complexity of Sustainability in their business; it’s an agenda that needs to be driven at Board level and any vehicle that gets Board buy-in is the right vehicle.
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