CSO isn’t a Designation, but a Privilege

Sometime back, I was having a nice little chai-biscuit-chat with a CIO friend. We both were enjoying our ‘Good-days’ and some real nice masala tea. Generally, when you are having a ‘Goodday’, the conversation usually gets directed to good things. And for me the only topic that is ever good enough to discuss is sustainability. And so, the two of us, munching over Kaju Cookies, started talking about sustainability and how it should be driven within the enterprise. All was going fine till I broached the topic of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), and his/her relevance in the organisation. A smirk appeared on the CIO-friend’s face, taking time to munch harder on the kaju pieces, he responded, “Ahh, those people who get paid so much for doing so little.” He went on to state that CSOs were often a nuisance, talking about hypothetical stuff all the while and bringing out an obtuse report at the end of the year. Honestly, I was jolted by his response and this really got me thinking, if a C-Suite within the organisation felt so about the his fellow C-Suite, is the CSO walking the right road? Is there a something amiss, or could it just be a case of the Onida complex, neighbour’s envy owner’s pride.

So, who or what is this new person in the C-suite, the CSO? It has been exactly a decade since Linda Fisher was appointed as the first-ever CSO at DuPont back in 2004. Since, then there has been geometric growth in the number of organisations appointing CSOs not only in the Western world but also in India. The designation can be varied; it could be say aCSO VP of Sustainability, Head Sustainability, Head EHS, Director Sustainability or others. At the moment, there must be close to 40-50 high-profile CSOs across various organisations in India. Sustainability is a growing trend, driven by needs of cutting costs and being nice, Indian companies are now open to the idea of pursuing the 3Ps or the Shared Value roadmap. Just like the presence of a police-officer is reflective of the state’s presence, so is an ombudsman necessary to guide and monitor sustainability actions.

But unlike other C-Suites, there is a certain amount of ambiguity involved when it comes to sustainability, so in effect the CSO is a bit of an Mr. (of Ms.) Intangible. You see, the CFO takes care of finance, the CIO takes care of IT, the CMO is for marketing, the COO is for operations, the CPO is head HR, what is the CSO in charge of? Sustainability? But isn’t sustainability, an amalgamation of all these functions, of people, systems, finance, etc. There is no one system or stream that sustainability is concerned with. Just like the CEO, the CSO has an overarching purview of everything; but unlike the CEO he or she is not responsible for it or has little control over it. The biggest sustainability paradox is that a truly sustainable enterprise would never need an officer for it, as everyone would be doing it as a part of their own function.

Honestly speaking, the primary reasons why a lot of organisations in constitute a CSO position is essentially to bring out a sustainability report. Often, these reports are the be-all and end-all of a CSO’s existence, his or her very reason for existence. It matters little how effectively sustainability has been ingrained in the DNA of these organisations, what is important is a big-fat-fancy A+ report at the end. In that context there, at least there is an objective methodology of assessing the effectiveness of a CSO.

But in a more evolved state, the CSO is responsible for a lot more than what gets discussed or deliberated. Typically, his or her KRAs include the following:

  • Reporting on sustainability, to internal and external audience
  • Cost reduction by energy savings, better resource utilisation, effective supply-chain management
  • Business enhancement through new revenue streams
  • Process-mapping to monitor, manage and mitigate any sustainability-associated risks or exigencies
  • Stakeholder engagement for better business processes
  • Brand reputation management and enhancement
  • Representation of company on all green-related issues

In many a circumstances the variable pay-packet of the hallowed CSO is dependent on the performance on these KRAs. A CSO is more or less married to these goals (there might be a few more or few less). In pursuance of these objectives there might be a motley team Fujitsubehind him/her, or a battery of external consultants. Sustainability for the CSO is not something intangible but a set of well-defined goals. Sadly, these goals are not very obvious to all else in the organisation (except possibly for the CEO, who frames them), the result is, the CSO is an enigma to all else. The rest wonder over lunch and smoky-breaks the very need of existence of CSO, the utility or the futility of it. There’s an instance, I know where a company was laying off people as part of its cost-cutting measures, so, when a non-performing member of the sales team was handed a pink-slip, his manager charged into the HR office, huffing and puffing, arguing that if the cost-cutting should start why not with the high-brow sustainability team.

I believe, in the Indian context, the blame for the ambiguity that shrouds the CSO, largely lies with the CSO itself. They tend to flock-together with like-minded green birds. While they tend to deal with rest of the organisation, they often do it, in a manner as a doctor treats a patient. In the sense, they are looking for symptoms or prescribing solutions, for them the world is divided into problems and solution, and nothing in between. Also, and very importantly, they tend to suffer from Common Phenome-o-phobia, namely, anything that sounds common (and so less complex) is not good enough, so jargons and complex things will be strewn in a typical conversation, the MDGs, the NVGs, the GRI G4, Triple P, Shared Value, and so else. They can seldom converse in a language that is common denominator these days, say, the Facebook or the Twitter lingo. Little wonder, I have yet to come across an Indian CSO, who constantly communicating his thoughts on Facebook or Twitter. Internationally, I know of the CSO of BT, Niall Dunne and CSO of Marks & Spencer, Mike Barry, who are very communicative and accessible on Twitter. As far as writing blogs is concerned, the less said the better. The one that I liked reading used to be from Anurag Behar at Wipro, but, it has been missing for many months now. By not opening up about their challenges, work, achievements, failures, the CSO is not able to effectively get all the rest on the same band-wagon. A few photos of a beaming CSO receiving some Industry awards circulated to all the employees is not communication, certainly not. In many ways, the CSO is a like a thought-leader or what we call a Guruji, if the communication lines are not clear, how will the respect come.

Secondly, and rather more importantly, it is pertinent to understand the context of sustainability. In the western world, where social equity is less unfair, things like corporate responsibility or sustainability are something extra. But in a country like India where the CSO2divide between the haves and the have-nots is stark – an obvious example of this is that we have the costliest individual home (the $2Bn Antilla) and the largest slum-colony in all of Asia (Dharavi) in a space of 20-odd kms — every rupee needs to be spent with lot of discretion. There is no paucity of good causes, so when the money is actually spent it is very important that it every paisa of it is well-utilised.

In that sense, the CSO becomes a lot more important. He or she might not be a the key-decision maker in lot many things, but a key-influencer in lot many things that get done right from green it to green buildings, from green HVAC to corporate gifts on Diwali and Christmas. With the new Companies Bill being enacted, and CSR going mainstream (from a reporting purview, one might argue), this could be a challenge or an opportunity for the CSO. Considering the overlaps that are there between CSR and sustainability, it makes a lot of sense for the CSO to try and expand his/her sphere of influence. Since, reporting and setting a roadmap comes naturally to a CSO, CSR seems a logical extension.

Yet, never once should the Indian CSO not lose sight of the overarching picture. Sitting in corporate boardrooms and talking about sustainability concepts is one part of the job, making a real difference, is what he or she has been entrusted with. Unlike other C-Suites who can take pleasure in getting their pay-checks for a job well-done, the CSO’s job is never done. He/She can’t rest, be comfortable. The CSO needs be grounded, and for that, I strongly feel he or she should voluntarily discard all the boardroom-perks, travel in a bus with the rest of employees, eat food like one of them, pay attention to the old guy who has been mopping the floor for ages.

Were we to indulge in a little bit of poetry, the CSO would be the custodian of the “heart” of the enterprise. And that is the reason, why, the designation, the post, is not merely another directorial one. It is one of change, of difference, of impact. In that manner, the CSO could well be redubbed as the CCO, or the Chief Change Officer.

And yes, before, I conclude, one final advice to the CSO, have a lot of these chai-biscuit-parties with the other C-suites, it can be a good eye-opener, a reality check. The CIO is usually a Mr. Knowitall, and a Mr. Haveanopiniononall, so his/her office can be a good starting point. A small tip, quite many of them seem positively inclined towards Kaju cookies, so a good start would be a good plate of it.


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