The Five Hats Worn by Every Successful Chief Sustainability Officer

By Tony Calandro, Senior Vice President and Partner, VOX Global

Companies are increasingly reporting bottom line benefits they’ve achieved by integrating social and environmental issues into the DNA of their business operations, and those results are quite impressive. But, what is not as well known is how a company actually accomplishes this integration.

The Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) position is still a fairly new leadership role in most organizations, with little guidance given on how to do the job. In a recent study by Ellen Weinreb titled, “CSO Back Story:  How Chief Sustainability Officers Reached the C-Suite,” she observed that many CSOs have influence, but little direct power. What role do these individuals and their team play in driving integration when a CSO has little direct management over different and diverse business units that make up a company?

These issues and others are addressed in a chapter I recently co-authored with Charlene Lake, AT&T’s Chief Sustainability Officer. Titled, “Sustainability for Business: A New Global Challenge,” it’s a featured chapter in The Handbook of Strategic Public Relations and Integrated Communications, and is a roadmap for companies looking to integrate sustainability into their business operations. The chapter provides several key insights into the approach AT&T is taking to further drive sustainability inside the company. More importantly, it contains useful guidelines for anyone trying to navigate this tricky position.

The following are five hats an effective sustainability executive must wear to be successful:

1.    Catalyst: Integrating sustainability into a business, particularly a large company, can be a slow process. Knowing the corporate culture and framing the business case is a key ingredient in being a catalyst for driving change.

2.    Engineer: Driving change requires some type of organizational structure to integrate sustainability top down and across a company.  But, this runs counter to most companies that tend to be a collection of people organized in silos with minimal cross-pollination. The establishment of such a structure, while it may resemble herding cats, is a necessary function that requires an engineer who appreciates and can successfully navigate all the silos in a company.

3.    Connector: Bringing the outside world in to create a better understanding of the social and environmental issues that intersect with the company is another key aspect of this job. It requires someone who understands the value of the outside perspective and can convince business units to listen with an open mind.

4.    Scout: The adage, “the only constant is change,” aptly describes the world in which companies operate. Social, market and regulatory trends ebb and flow, constantly evolving over time. It’s essential to stay one step ahead and scout out and interpret emerging trends, so that the company can mitigate the risks these trends will bring and take advantage of the opportunities that will be on the horizon.

5.    Collaborator: Working inside a company where direct oversight is virtually non-existent necessitates the need to collaborate on initiatives with different business units. Collaboration has its pros and cons — it further helps to drive sustainability inside a company, but it may also require that one accepts the fact that the pace of adoption may be slower and less than ideal.

This case study chronicling AT&T’s experience is a great resource for any company looking to integrate social and environmental issues into its business operations. Integrating these issues  not only makes good business sense, but it strengthens the communities where a company  operates and positions it to better compete tomorrow.


Tony is a senior vice president and partner in the sustainability practice at VOX Global, a public affairs firm specializing in designing, integrating, and communicating corporate social responsibility and sustainability programs for leading corporations. Learn more about VOX’s services around sustainability here.

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One response

  1. Sounds like a rewarding and socially useful position but how do you convince companies that having a sustainability officer on board will improve their bottom line?

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