Jennifer Prillaman | Palladium - Dec 13 2019
"Chief Sustainability Officer" Missing from New List of Top C-Suite Titles

There are more pathways to the C-Suite than ever, according to a new study by LinkedIn. The professional networking platform looked at hiring patterns for the top leadership positions in the U.S. beginning with “Chief”, and found that Chief Growth Officer was the fastest growing title from 2015-2019. Chief People Officer ranked second, but missing from the top 10 list altogether was Chief Sustainability Officer.

The Rise of Chief Sustainability Officers

Five years ago, Forbes reported that the number of Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) was growing rapidly. Since the start of the 2000s, CSOs have been hired to champion and monitor the impact companies have on the environment and on society (such as improving working conditions in supply chains), and creating company-wide sustainability strategies that embed this work into core operations. According to Harvard Business Professor George Serafeim, “the appointment of the CSO reflects an underlying need for companies to not only monitor but also improve their performance.”

CSOs seemed to be on a rapid trajectory. From 2003 to 2008, the number of CSOs doubled. So why do we not see this officer in the top 10 list this year?

Bigger than the C-Suite

While companies are still making commitments to ethical practices and sustainability, only 2% of these programs succeed. Target, Disney, and Walmart are some of the most high-profile companies to make public sustainability commitments only to find they couldn’t deliver.

CSOs interviewed by Palladium have blamed poor integration with the company’s core business and difficulty engaging with key stakeholders for this underperformance, but analysis has pointed to something much deeper: a lack of ambition. Companies are simply not thinking big enough.

Eduardo Tugendhat, Director of Thought Leadership at Palladium, believes that the answer lies in “inclusive growth strategies”. This approach looks holistically at the entire “ecosystem” in which a company operates, and seeks to transform it in a way that benefits every stakeholder – from shareholders and customers, to employees, suppliers, and the environment.

It’s the kind of thinking that went mainstream when the Business Roundtable, a lobby group of America’s top executives, redefined the purpose of the corporation in their watershed statement earlier this year.

“The challenge is how to align stakeholders around shared objectives in ways that unlock economic, social, and environmental value by building trust and collaborative, long-term relationships in new business models,” says Tugendhat. This is a tall order, and he recommends a “catalyst” to help – someone who can identify opportunities, align stakeholders, and structure an organisational model that facilitates the financing required to succeed.

“Some may say that this role already exists within a company, like a Sustainability Officer,” Tugendhat explains. “But if these tasks were easy to do, they would have already occurred.” It’s beyond just one position to implement scalable, profitable strategies that bring value to every stakeholder involved.

Chief Sustainability Officers may have paved the way for companies to start thinking about ethical practices, but the long-term, deep work required for true sustainability is bigger than the C-Suite.

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