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Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)
Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) are the highest-level of executives in an organization who oversee their company’s sustainability activities. As part of the "C-suite” of chief officers, CSOs provide visionary leadership and coordinate with management, shareholders, and employees to develop and maintain an effective corporate strategy for sustainability. In order to be successful in their executive role, CSOs need strong public relations skills, extensive staff management experience, good strategic planning skills and a firm grasp of financial operations and budgeting. Since a wide range of skills and knowledge are required for this role, most CSOs come from diverse backgrounds, including external affairs, environmental management, research, operations management, marketing, business development, finance, or legal affairs.
At a glance
As the senior executive in charge of your company’s sustainability programs, you wear many hats. In a single day, you might be leading a strategic planning meeting in one moment, then delivering a public speech to a large group of stakeholders in the next.
Today, you’re riding on a boat headed north through the Johnstone Strait into the pristine BC wilderness. Your destination is a small mountain stream used as a barometer to monitor salmon populations in BC’s waterways. In this visit to the local salmon enumeration project, you will learn about the people and processes behind the program, as well as develop a clearer understanding of why this partnership with the federal government is so crucial to a healthy, sustainable salmon population.
When you get back to the office, you’ll shift gears and continue your preparation for an important meeting with local politicians about your company’s latest sustainability initiative.
Your role as CSO is challenging and demanding – you would not be successful in it if you did not have outstanding leadership skills, the ability to think strategically, and a passion for developing people and programs. At the end of the day, your guidance and foresight enables your organization to positively contribute to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits.
In their day-to-day work, CSOs carry out such tasks as:
- Developing a broad understanding of how your business and industry works, including the resources your company uses, long-term business development objectives and existing environmental regulations.
- Setting strategic priorities, goals and objectives for your organization.
- Coaching, mentoring and developing the management team.
- Interacting with internal and external stakeholders, such as other executives within the organization, government representatives, potential funders, and members of the media.
- Leading efforts to implement new programs that contribute to socially responsible operations.
- Reviewing and approving financial transactions or operating budgets.
- Exhibiting the courage and self-confidence to take a position on an issue that may be unpopular or controversial.
- Taking decisive action on new objectives and initiatives.
CSOs work in a variety of locations, including:
In the office:
- Leading stakeholder and staff meetings.
- Meeting with other executives or junior staff members for training or coaching purposes.
- Proposing new ideas to stakeholders and overcoming any resistance or objections from those stakeholders who may oppose new sustainability programs or initiatives.
In the field:
- Participating in site visits to learn about the work that is accomplished within the programs or initiatives you oversee.
- Leading public relations initiatives, such as completing interviews with media on your organization’s behalf, attending fundraising and awareness events, and hosting stakeholder input sessions.
- Attending training seminars or other events designed to keep you informed on new regulatory and legislative developments affecting your organization’s operations.
Where to work
As key executive leaders who shape their company’s sustainability policy, CSOs work in a many different types of organizations. Common employers of CSOs include:
- Municipal, regional, provincial or federal governments
- First Nations, Métis and Inuit community organizations
- Environmental professional or advocacy organizations
- Large corporations that have incorporated sustainability into their core business activities
- Utility companies
- Natural resource extraction corporations, such as those in oil & gas, mining, and forestry
Education & requirements
If you are a post-secondary student seeking a CSO role in the future, consider pursuing a university degree related to:
- Business administration or management
- Public administration
- Organizational management
- Social sciences
- Green business administration
- Environmental studies
In addition to the educational fields mentioned above, you will also need extensive management experience to become a CSO, with well-developed human resources management and leadership skills. Consider educational seminars or post-graduate studies that will hone your analytical thinking, such as:
- Organizational or administrative management
- Environmental law
- Public speaking
- Finance or Accounting
The mean annual starting salary for CSOs in Canada is approximately $81,000, while more experienced CSOs earn an average of $105,000 per year.