Navigating the Sustainability Leadership Landscape: Understanding the Four Types of CSO

Navigating the Sustainability Leadership Landscape: Understanding the Four Types of CSO

In an era defined by growing environmental concerns, the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) has emerged as a pivotal position within organisations worldwide. Stewards of sustainability, CSOs play an important part in pioneering environmental practices, driving social responsibility and ensuring ethical governance. But you already know that. 

What you might not know, however, is that not all CSOs are created equal. With different focuses and priorities, CSOs today are varied, and understanding which is right for your company is crucial to your success. So let's delve into the four different types of CSO and their unique characteristics…

1. The Externally-Focused CSO

It’s no surprise that this type of CSO’s main concern is external sustainability. Think: environmental impact, community engagement and stakeholder relations. Externally-focused CSOs monitor global sustainability trends, regulatory changes and industry best practices to ensure their organisation remains at the forefront of social responsibility. Forging partnerships with external stakeholders including NGOs, government agencies and community groups, which enable them to address sustainability challenges collaboratively. Externally-focused CSOs also advocate for transparency and accountability - sharing environmental performance metrics and engaging in open dialogues to build trust and demonstrate credibility.


2. The People-Focused CSO

People-focused CSOs put stakeholders first. Constantly considering the impact of operations on employees, customers and suppliers alike. They recognise that both employee diversity and inclusion, and ethical supply chain practices are key to a sustainable business. Championing sustainability awareness, these CSOs often establish educational programmes, empowering employees to be more sustainable in their daily work and even their personal life - spreading their positive impact even further. People-focused CSOs also collaborate with suppliers to ensure ethical sourcing, fair labour conditions and responsible resource management throughout the entirety of the supply chain. By fostering a culture of sustainability, this type of CSO inspires collective action and drives meaningful change from within.


3. The Strategy-Oriented CSO

CSOs with a strategy focus take a holistic approach to sustainability - integrating ESG considerations into everything from the organisation's overarching strategy to daily decision-making processes. They recognise that environmental, social and financial performance are all interconnected, and work closely with their wider executive leadership team to align sustainability initiatives with business objectives. Their business mind means they analyse market trends, consumer preferences and regulatory requirements to identify emerging risks and opportunities. Regularly conducting materiality assessments and stakeholder consultations to identify key sustainability priorities, and using these to set ambitious goals that drive performance. By leveraging sustainability value creation, strategy-oriented CSOs support not just the planet, but business growth. 


4. The Regulation-Oriented CSO

Regulation-oriented CSOs are focused on the risk mitigation of sustainability. They concentrate on compliance, ensuring their company always meets relevant industry regulations and stays on top of sustainability reporting. These officers make it their mission to monitor legislative changes, interpret their implications and adapt business practices accordingly. Proactively addressing regulatory requirements in order to reduce potential risk. While they have a clear benefit, this kind of CSO can limit business growth by overlooking the opportunity to drive value creation through sustainability. 


Chief Sustainability Officers of all types are crucial to driving organisational resilience in a rapidly changing world. Whether they’re passionate about people or focused on strategy, CSOs all share a commitment to creating a better future for your business and our planet. Finding the perfect CSO for your company will empower you to navigate the ever-changing challenges of sustainability with confidence and purpose. 


But we understand that knowing where to start can feel overwhelming. That’s why we’re here - a global talent solutions organisation on a critical journey to connect the people who believe in leaving the world better than they found it. We’re a B-Corp certified organisation, supporting companies like yours to attract, assess, onboard and retain purpose-driven leaders within their Management and Executive Teams, along with functional roles across sustainability, ESG, health and safety, communications, marketing and strategy.


Get in touch to start your sustainability journey with GS2.