What should you call a company’s sustainability leader?

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What should you call a company’s sustainability leader?

Despite my frequent conversations about leadership in sustainability, I often wonder who is the leader? What is the leader? And how is the leader defined?

While the term to describe such an individual is chief sustainability officer, rarely is their title Chief Sustainability Officer. For example, while conducting research for Weinreb Group’ CSO Back Story in 2011, we found all of 29 CSOs with that title working for publicly traded companies in the United States. Compared to the number of executives leading sustainability across corporate America, that's a small number.

Apart from research, the debate on sustainability leadership often comes up when I am brought in to do a search for a company’s sustainability leader and the client asks me what title I should give for the leader. I always suggest that this person get the title “Chief Sustainability Officer” in which case I usually get the rebuff, “that title would not go over well here.” 

Even longstanding senior vice presidents of sustainability who would like the titular promotion have a hard time convincing upper-level management that the CSO title is indeed the best choice to give sustainability the gravitas it deserves.

After we published CSO Back Story late last year, I spoke with a number of vice presidents and directors who report to the CSO.  The report had nurtured a longstanding debate among the practitioners of the field between the efficacy and necessity of titles. They wanted to clarify that while the CSO had the title, they were in fact the ones implementing all that comes under the umbrella concept of sustainability. So shouldn't that make them a sustainability leader in their own right?

The short answer to that is yes.

Fast-forward a year to Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability from Inside Corporate America, a research paper I coauthored with VOX Global, a PR and marketing firm. We surveyed 32 sustainability leaders to determine how these leaders were indeed moving the sustainability dial forward. We found that establishing business context and building relationships works better than the shunned S word.

The research created an interesting debate about which leaders we should include in the survey. This time we defined “leader” to be anyone responsible for moving the sustainability dial forward.  Therefore, several individuals in a company could be sustainability leaders, from the CSO to directors, vice presidents and managers. Turns out, leadership is not assumed to be owned by any one title.

This is the starkest difference between the evolution of the sustainability field compared to such professions as finance and marketing. With an expansive scope and lack of professional standards, sustainability professionals are making their way in organizations across functions and hierarchies. While I still believe that every organization should have a C-level executive to give the function the authority it deserves, our research revealed that that is, for now, a long shot for most companies.

There is hope. As Making the Pitch revealed, it is the many leaders within a firm who are succeeding in making headway in introducing, institutionalizing and, even more crucially, gaining acceptance for sustainability principles inside organizations. Irrespective of where they sit, these individuals are the boots on the ground -- and have a pulse on their organization's appetite for change.

As a recruiter, I see this as a positive development with immense potential. For example, for the thousands of students and professionals getting ready to gather at the annual Net Impact conference later this month, this represents evidence -- that they can pursue a career in a field that is on the surface fragmented and haphazard, but starting to find acceptance and even permanence within companies.

Corporate America might not be rushing in to add a sustainability chief to the C-suite, but our research confirms the anecdotal evidence that sustainability is indeed becoming a core function across industries. My hope and advice for companies -- and sustainability leaders -- is that today's managers and directors must become tomorrow's CSOs. They must use the present to train, set standards, mature the profession and continually look to building an entire army of professionals to follow in their footsteps.

Image by ThisGeek via Shutterstock, with modification by GreenBiz Group

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