ZURICH, November 15, 2023 – Sustainability transformation isn't just a buzzword; it's an unstoppable force led by visionary Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs). Egon Zehnder, the world's preeminent leadership advisory firm, has explored the insights of CSOs from diverse industries and regions to reveal three major findings that highlight their pivotal role in steering sustainability transformations.
To maximize impact, CSOs are expanding their scope to include all five domains of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) framework. Our data reveals that three-quarters of our respondents oversee all five key domains outlined by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) framework, including Environment, Social Capital, Human Capital, Business Model & Innovation, and Leadership & Governance. This is significant progress from our previous survey in 2021, when many companies were still defining what sustainability meant for their organizations and their KPIs.
Without support from the CEO, the CSO’s job is nearly impossible, resulting in a potential loss of motivation and momentum. If a CEO isn’t fully bought into sustainability, that sentiment often trickles down into other C-suite roles, leaving CSOs to tackle transformation alone. Our survey showed that nearly half of CEOs (47%) take full ownership of the sustainability agenda, while 4 in 10 CEOs seek guidance from their CSO. In organizations where the CEO is fully responsible, CSOs perceive sustainability as more deeply embedded into the company’s core and is less considered solely as compliance. Moreover, they also believe the pace of transformation is faster compared to their peers.
Boards must be more aware of the tension between short- and long-term results and how that impacts the CSO’s work. Sustainability transformation cannot happen overnight, and it may take more investment upfront and a longer timeline until results are visible. Boards must fully understand this and support the CSO in navigating this balance. One way to do this is to ensure CSOs have greater exposure to the board. Our survey found that 40% of CSOs already have direct exposure to the board, with an additional 28% integrated into the board's Sustainability Committee. This deeper connection signals a significant shift toward sustainability taking center stage in organizations. However, 32% lack that level of direct involvement, which could be an area of development for organizations.
In addition to our key findings, the report uncovers CSO trends on the skills, leadership traits, impact, and career paths to get a clearer picture of this change leadership role.
Catherine Zhu, Global Leader of the Sustainability Practice at Egon Zehnder, emphasizes the pivotal role of CSOs: "They are the architects of sustainable transformation, embodying unwavering commitment, the power to inspire, and an unflagging dedication. They are guiding organizations toward a more sustainable future.”
For further details and insights from the survey, please click here.
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About Egon Zehnder
Egon Zehnder is the world’s preeminent leadership advisory firm, inspiring leaders to navigate complex questions with human answers. We help organizations get to the heart of their leadership challenges and offer honest feedback and insights to help leaders realize their true being and purpose. Our 567 consultants across 63 offices and 36 countries are former industry and functional leaders who collaborate seamlessly across geographies, industries and functions to deliver the full power of the Firm to every client, every time.
We believe that together we can transform people, organizations and the world through leadership.