The Voice of the Chief Sustainability Officer

Sustainable LeadershipSustainabilityBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability Officers
min Article
November 01, 2022
3 min
Sustainable LeadershipSustainabilityBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability Officers
Executive summary
CSOs tend to make a bigger impact when they report to the CEO, approach sustainability through value creation, and set clear targets.


Uncovering the Enablers of Successful Chief Sustainability Officers

As more organizations turn to C-level executives to drive sustainability results, we surveyed global sustainability leaders to understand the enablers of successful chief sustainability officers.

An effective chief sustainability officer (CSO) can have a substantial impact on organizational success by delivering on the evolving demands of investors, employees, and customers. But with the role being newer than other C-suite positions, setting CSOs up for success can be tough.

That’s why we surveyed 56 CSOs and heads of ESG from around the world to discover how organizations can get the most from this critical role. This sustainable leader survey uncovered three enablers of successful CSOs:


They report to a CEO who has publicly committed to sustainability


They create sustainability strategies that focus on value creation


They have prioritized targets and the freedom to achieve them

Successful CSOs report to the CEO

CSOs who report directly to the CEO enjoyed three outcome-related benefits. They were:


more likely to say their organization is on track to meet sustainability targets


more likely to say they have access to the information needed to make good decisions


more likely to be on the executive leadership team and present at board meetings.

Successful CSOs create value

Most CSOs told us value creation is the main driver of sustainability in their organization. Less than half said they’re focusing on traditional sustainability drivers such as brand management, impact reduction, or risk avoidance.


Primary drivers of sustainability strategy


Value creation


Brand management


Impact reduction


Risk avoidance



Successful CSOs have the support to reach their targets

Competing priorities, organizational complexity, and a lack of skilled teams all hamper CSOs. But the most successful CSOs feel their CEO supports them in setting and measuring actionable targets, streamlining bureaucratic hurdles, and ensuring key talent is in place.


said their CEO is personally committed
to sustainability goals


said their CEO’s compensation is tied
to sustainability outcomes

How to set up your CSO for success

To bring these enablers of CSO success into your organization, there are six leadership actions you should take:


Align the board and CEO to sustainability goals


Position the CSO as close to the center of core decision-making as possible


Anchor your sustainability strategy to value creation


Ensure the CSO has adequate access to the right people, resources, and information


Measure sustainability progress and communicate it internally and externally


Empower next-generation leaders to become strong champions of sustainability


Read the full sustainable leader survey

Learn how to set up your CSO for success.

Contact our sustainable leadership experts



Kurt Harrison, co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Sustainability practice. He is based in New York.

Sarah Galloway co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Sustainability practice. She is based in London.

Beth Hawley is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in Chicago.

Emily Meneer leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Sustainability practices. She is based in Portland. 

Tom Handcock leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. He is based in London.