A helping hand for Chief Sustainability Officers and their teams

As consultants, advisors and coaches we witness the challenges many companies face in fully metabolizing Sustainability. Many of these relate to differences of opinion on the constituents of company value creation, the importance of different stakeholders and imperfect information on where the company really is in relation to its peers.

Companies and institutions are increasingly required by key stakeholders/regulations to become Sustainable. Many ESG/Sustainability leaders and teams however often struggle to get traction on agreeing a detailed Sustainability strategy which captures the spectrum of stakeholders’ interests. This lack of clarity may at times be detected and amplified by the raft of external commentators/activists who are vigilant and sometimes hypersensitive to anything short of ‘perfection’.

Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) and their Sustainability/ESG teams are frequently at the forefront of these challenges. A recent Harvard Business Review article suggested that CSOs should be even more involved in setting the corporate strategy; capital allocation decisions; stakeholder engagement and become more financially rigorous and be truly part of the board/senior leadership team.

While different companies may emphasise varying mixes of responsibilities it is evident that CSOs and their teams need to have a range of knowledge, skills and behaviors which can increase the likelihood of fulfilling their ambitious mandates.

How then can Sustainability/ESG Leaders and their teams become even more effective agents?

1. Stakeholder Engagement

As Sustainability is a long term and evolving proposition, sustainability leaders and their teams need to build trusting relationships with key stakeholders. ‘Engagement’ is not ‘management’ and to be engaging we need to communicate with clarity and sincerity, deeply listen and be completely open to alternative views.

Whilst passion for Sustainability is a vital and common emotion for Sustainability leaders, we need to be mindful of scepticism amongst our stakeholders. This may stem from a lack of knowledge, a perception that a CSO is insufficiently focused on the financials, differences of opinion on fiduciary responsibility or on the validity of ESG/Sustainability agendas, amongst others.

Self-awareness and objectivity are key strengths in a CSO and their teams as these observable qualities help to demonstrate openness and can encourage vital consensus-building across multiple parties.

Many companies already have sophisticated Sustainability strategies, have allocated investment capital accordingly and it may be now considered Business as Usual. The reality is that CSOs/their teams need to continue to be at the vanguard of these strategies. This means that Stakeholder Engagement is perennial.

2. Get support for the ongoing journey

Internal support is vital and this should readily come from the CEO, CFO and the Board. If a CSO feels uncertain of this support, then bridges may need to be built or time spent on getting onto the ‘same page’.

External support from an experienced consultancy, coach faculty or facilitator is an important resource for a CSO. Leaders and their teams can be helped to take ‘stock’, to assess the current situation, to cut through the ‘noise’ and to establish fresh engagements with stakeholders.

3. Work on developing/refining an adaptive mindset

Much has been written about (Carol Dweck and others) the importance of us developing growth/adaptive mindsets which thrive on and adapt to change. Such mindsets use problems as learning opportunities. Through accepting that there will be issues along the way all of us can move forward with self-awareness, adopting an open, creative approach. In doing so, we can develop ‘grit’/resilience to find solutions.

The relative novelty and dynamism of Sustainability means that a CSO needs to work hard to undertake the wide set of responsibilities that can fall within her/his remit.

How can we develop an adaptive mindset?

Increase self-awareness

An adaptable mindset often begins with us taking time to become more self-aware. This can involve seeking a variety of perspectives from within ourselves (values, motivation, behaviors) and external data (from your personal and public stakeholders). By knowing ourselves better and identifying our potential blindspots we can really improve how we work, interact and deliver.

Use your creativity muscle

As humans we are all creative: we think, experiment, reflect, improve. We can look at problems from different angles, combine concepts and challenge assumptions. Creativity is a skill which is strengthened through use. The development of a dynamic Sustainability strategy for a company should be viewed as a perennial ‘work in progress’. Pilot concepts and prototype strategies are effective ways for a CSO to test stakeholder sensitivities and to move the Sustainability agenda forward.

Ask for help

To increase effectiveness and to build an adaptable mindset CSO’s and their teams can benefit from working with experienced facilitators who can coach them specifically to improve creativity, resilience and crucially self-awareness. Like all adaptations, the acquiring and deepening of these skills and behaviors take time and practice.

Sustainability is ultimately about achieving a balance, albeit one that needs to be regularly re-calibrated in response to changes in environment. A CSO and their team can choose to work with coaches who know the field of Sustainability and its complexities. Such engagements may begin with a behavioral ‘stock-take’ to identifies ‘gaps’ between a team/leader’s current and desired behaviors. This can encourage greater self-awareness of how we show up and engage.

As part of such work, each of us can benefit from visualising our desirable future state/self as this can help to give a sense of control and direction in our lives. Sustainability team members can undertake their own journey through coaching to increase their adaptability and business effectiveness.

Our clients at Sapience Consulting Europe have found such approaches to be transformative for themselves as leaders and team members. Such work has enabled them to be more influential and effective as Sustainability professionals.

The challenges for ESG/Sustainability leaders are exciting and many as the ecosystem of Sustainability continues to change. If you feel that you may benefit from an initial discussion on how Sapience Consulting can help, please reach out.