CSOs are Everywhere, But Are Their Days Numbered?

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CSOs are Everywhere, But Are Their Days Numbered?

My recently released report CSO Back Story explored the somewhat amorphous title of chief sustainability officer. As GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower noted earlier this week, "the elevation of sustainability inside companies is in large part a testament to the commitment and resourcefulness of CSOs and their ilk" Weinreb Group's research shows the senior-most sustainability leader trending more senior over time -- as high as the chief title.

But where is this profession headed? Is the growing prominence of the Chief Sustainability Officer a sign that an executive-level position dedicated to sustainability is here to stay? There is a spectrum of possibilities. One on end, the position can disappear -- sustainability could be embedded in the culture, self-governed and owned by everyone. In the middle, the function can remain in the hands of the chief sustainability office. On the other end, the position could be held by the CEO.

The Obsolescence End of the Spectrum

EMC's CSO Kathrin Winkler strives for the obsolescence end of the spectrum. Nothing will be more satisfactory than her title becoming obsolete one day. She envisions a corporation where sustainability is as obvious and intuitive as operational efficiency. After all, who doesn't want an efficiently run business?

The other side of the spectrum, however, is that the sustainability role breaks the final frontier of corporate hierarchy and becomes the responsibility of the CEO.

Examples exist in the "CEO as CSO" camp -- but none are perfect fits.

The CEO as CSO End of the Spectrum

Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent has often emphasized that as a CEO, sustainability is part of his job. In a recent interview with Forbes, he said that he considers himself the company's CSO, adding, "I have not appointed another one and never will. That's me" His reasoning: "That's my responsibility. It starts at the top and it is driven and permeates through the entire organization from the top"

Well, he may have misread his crystal ball on at least one point there: This summer, Coca-Cola Enterprises appointed Bea Perez as its first Chief Sustainability Officer.

But over the years, Kent's determination to lead sustainability from the top has helped establish the beverages producer as a compelling leader in addressing social and environmental issues like water scarcity, recycling, and stakeholder engagement.

Next page: PUMA's CEO has two executive roles

In fact, Kent hit the nail on the head in the same interview. "Sustainability wasn't part of the process of our planning. It didn't have the right metrics around it. It was just a warm and fuzzy word in our CSR report, and part of compliance."

CEO for One Company, CSO for the Parent

Jochen Zeitz, the former CEO of PUMA, today serves as the Chief Sustainability Officer of PPR, the holding company for brands like PUMA, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega and others.

Zeitz's success at PUMA is legendary. After becoming the youngest CEO in German history at the age of 30, Zeitz put into motion a long-term development plan that would increase the company's share price 4,000 percent over the next 13 years. Last year, he took on the CSO title at PPR in addition to Executive Chair of PUMA's board and head of the Sports and Lifestyle Division. He is tasked with integrating the company's many brands with the same ethical and sustainability mindset that helped shape PUMA.

While Zeitz is not PPR's CEO, he has held the CEO role for a global sport and lifestyle brand and did hold both the CEO and CSO titles for six months. The point here is that the CSO role is so integral to business that someone of CEO stature has been tasked with it.

For both Kent and Zietz as well, sustainability emerged as a company's social license to operate.

So What Makes a CEO the Perfect CSO?

First, they are good spokespersons. One of the primary findings of CSO Back Story is that of the 25 CSOs who were internal hires, nine held external affairs roles prior to being named CSO. Today, they continue to act as external facing company spokespersons while working on changing organizational culture and operational processes.

Second, they take community and employees to heart and are able to connect with both groups while understanding the business inside out. In fact, on average a CSO worked at a company for 16 years before assuming the role of sustainability chief. That's knowledge often missing among members of this top echelon of leadership.

Third, they see the big picture and the true value of sustainability. What Kent emphasizes, Graf, Winkler and many others are acknowledging and implementing.

But is this the right way forward for the Chief Sustainability Officer? What side of the spectrum do you think they belong -- obsolete, or further up to the corporate ladder to the CEO?