Top skills needed by a Chief Sustainability Officer

Eryn Emerich at Footprint Talent in Atlanta, GA just released a new study which lists the top skills for a Chief Sustainability Officer to possess.  They include:

Top Skills for a Chief Sustainability Officer

Most noteworthy are the requirements detailed as key competencies for a CSO. Top picks, for example, included:

    1) Evaluation skills such as LEAN and Six-Sigma are helpful to reach the next level of complexity.
    2) Business development experience and sales training is useful in sharing a sustainability vision across an organization.
    3) Accounting and number crunching skills come in handy while conducting assessments and monetizing risks.
    4) Environmental, health and safety experience are useful as a framework for understanding the core sustainability principles.

But that’s not all; the respondents also believe that skill sets in operations management, business development/sales, and science dominate top competences for a CSO.

Least preferred?

Experience related to research, academia, government and financial services.

Educational Requirements: MBA is Gold

No. 1: The MBA remains gold. Declaring that “the MBA is the gold standard for sustainability chiefs, with engineering, science and communications all coming in second,” the report puts “formal educational backgrounds in public health, education and PhDs” as “largely irrelevant.”

And contrary to popular sentiment, the surveyors predict that in five years, the MBA will “actually increase their importance with engineers dropping in desirability.”

Sustainability-focused degree programs and management programs with a concentration on CSR also rated highly. Respondents believed that these programs, “best address the training needs for a CSO.”

No. 2: Engineering degrees that focus on sustainable design, carbon management processes and lifecycle sciences.

Avoid: Degrees in sustainable communications.



5 thoughts on “Top skills needed by a Chief Sustainability Officer

  1. I highly disagree with the need of a MBA to CSO, the value of a MBA has dramaticaly decreased since the financial crisis. Companies need more ethics champion than finance gurus.

    I agree with the “less communication” part, but I’m not sure about “Business development experience and sales training”, it has to be associated with solid environmental science knowledge, if not it is a reciepe for GREEN WASHING (like a good MBA fellow with sales skills could deliver…)

    • Tom, that is certainly one way to look at it, but our program is not a traditional MBA program. Many of my colleagues have a science background, but they are now examining the MBA curriculum through the lens of sustainability. The study here specifically mentions sustainable MBA programs and their value today. As for your point about greenwashing and scientists, the world is not black and white; you need both the science perspective and MBA skills, especially when one attempts change leadership. It is not as if sustainability is only about the science. It also requires astute business management. You should check out Katie Kross at Duke University; she is writing about the new breed of MBAs.

  2. I agree with you about a “green MBA”, but I read “The MBA remains gold” with no direct reference to green, you are talking about a regular, finance focused program and that is the reciepe for green washing. In my work, I encounter a lot of people with MBAs that can do a great power presentation but fail when you digg into their sustainability knowledge, to me, lead by example is key (knowledge aquired through a BS+MS, or Phd), not just by skills acquired during a 1-2 yr MBA program (for those outside of the sustainability world before their “green MBA”)

    I think that a green MBA following a BS or MS (with sciences related to sustainability) is a great way to strive in the sustainability industry, but “just” a green MBA or worst a regular MBA is just green washing to me (and we have a lot right now, like people that used to be in marketing or communication and are now surfing with buzzwords)

    • The study does specifically reference Sustainable MBAs. Also, I have to ask, where do you work, and what is your position? My understanding, participating in Net Impact and speaking with sustainability professionals, is that an MBA, specifically a “green” MBA, is valuable on its own. The claim you are making, that without a science background, people shouldn’t even bother trying to work in sustainability, seems pretty harsh. Each company is unique, of course, and some would specifically require a science background. However, there are many aspects to sustainability that have nothing to do with science, at least in a technical way. For example, sustainable HR practices, stakeholder engagement, legal corporate organization, and marketing.

  3. Ok, let’s use the reference “Sustainable MBA” instead of just “MBA”. Then we would have to assess the strength of the sustainabilty component of the MBA Programs in question, again a lot of greenwashing there.

    You are right, I’m a bit harsh, a mixed background is also possible to be a CSO.

    I’m a 20 year veteran executive in the sustainability field. As this field became more and more trendy, I saw in the last 5 yrs a lot of green washing with people from marketing and commmunication backgrounds trying to take over this critical field for our society. That’s why I’m a bit too harsh.

    But yes, if you have a true aspiration for being a CSO, then go for it, train yourself a bit in sciences, and best of luck!

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