CSO as the Chief Change Officer

The position of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) has started to grow in number and prominence since the early 2000’s and yet to many organizations this position still remains a mystery, or so says a study by George Serafeim and Kathleen Miller. In the article, “Chief Sustainability Officers: Who Are They and What Do They Do?” the authors use survey and interview data to analyze the range of CSO authorities and responsibilities.

In their analysis the authors first describe three stages of organizational commitment to sustainability: Compliance, Efficiency, and Innovation. The authors then study how CSO responsibilities evolve as a company moves through these three stages. Rather self-evidently the study finds that the authority of a CSO grows through the first two stages of sustainability (compliance and efficiency). But interestingly this trend reverses and CSO authority was found to lesson when a firm reaches the Innovation stage. The authors turn to their interview data to explain this finding noting that this could be attributed to “organizational needs becoming more idiosyncratic and CSOs decentralizing activities and decision rights.”

To me this finding is a great example of CSOs completing their mission; to change the culture of a firm to imbed sustainability. In an interview with the Harvard Business School Serafeim states that “[t]he way to think about the CSO is it’s the person who is the change agent…the CSO is the ambassador with the vision, the person who decides what needs to change when it comes to how the company is interacting with the communities and the broader societal context in which it operates.”

A CSO’s chief responsibility is change. Change requires strong leadership but once change is implemented, and an organization is bought-in to the idea then the momentum for change grows organically and the responsibilities of the leader should naturally lessen. A successful CSO is able to lead the change in its early stages, when a firm is moving from Compliance to Efficiency, but knows that their true success is when they are needed less.

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