executives walking meeting
ATD Blog

The Chief Sustainability Officer: Leading Inside and Out

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

As companies struggle to manage the social and environmental tumult of our times, they are turning to the chief sustainability officer (CSO) to put C-suite eyes on these challenges. For two decades, I have been asking what makes a successful CSO and have interviewed hundreds of business sustainability professionals. While the CSO’s work varies dramatically by business, industry, and country, there are some commonalties that make them successful.

Jack of All Trades, but Master of at Least One

To succeed, CSOs must cultivate general knowledge of many issues, but, in my experience, this broad knowledge usually builds off deep expertise in one area.

Once they master a specialized topic, their understanding of the dynamics of the economic, scientific, social, and political forces driving solutions in one area is transferable to other issues.

Normally, this specialized topic has to do with one of the letters in ESG—environment, society, or governance—and is gained during the CSO’s college studies or in pursuit of outside interests. But other CSOs develop the expertise through years of service in a specific business function like government affairs; environment, health, and safety (EHS); community relations; or legal.

Leading Inside

The CSO’s challenge is that most functional business leaders don’t speak sustainability. It’s literally not in their professional vocabulary.


I have found that many successful CSOs become adept at translating sustainability concerns into something intelligible and motivating for their peers. In effect, they learn “finance-speak” or “HR-jargon” and link it to the sustainability issues that need to be addressed. Doing so creates rapport and gives credibility, showing an understanding of the function’s goals and how sustainability fits into overall corporate strategy.

In the words of one CSO, “If you make yourself indispensable, whether or not you’re advancing sustainability, they want you in the meetings.”

Leading Outside

While business is a player, it only holds a piece of a much larger sustainability solution puzzle. Other pieces are held by government agencies, scientific experts, and nongovernmental organizations. CSOs need to help their companies navigate this multi-stakeholder terrain.


To do so, CSOs build a network of contacts with groups impacted by the company’s operations—like community groups and environmental organizations—and those that can influence the success or failure of the company’s business goals (for example, government officials or labor groups).

As one CSO explained, “Sometimes our business colleagues don’t know what’s feasible or important to other stakeholders, so we have to extend the scope of the people we talk to externally and then translate that back to our internal business peers.”

Training Future CSOs

The executive education program I am leading at George Mason University teaches CSOs the above-mentioned knowledge and skills. It is designed to answer the need for CSOs that can scout for new concerns, help their companies make sense of them, and innovate solutions before they blow up into crises for the company and the world.

About the Author

Dr. Gregory Unruh, Arison pofessor of leadership and academic director of the Chief Sustainability Officer Executive Education Program at George Mason University.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.