What Does a Job as Head of Sustainability Involve?
Also known by various other titles such as Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) or Director of Sustainability, the Head of Sustainability (HOS) provides an organisation with the tools and expertise to manage sustainability-related environmental, social and governance issues.
The HOS typically brings technical skills and “soft” skills and works with the company’s senior management to align sustainability policies and processes to the overall mission of the organisation or promote the changes necessary to bring the corporate mission into alignment with societal and stakeholder sustainability interests.
In collaborating with other C-level executives, the Head of Sustainability utilises technical experience acquired in technical areas including environmental assessments, policy and various aspects of environmental management. Additionally, a HOS must possess a high level of other professional, less technical skills such as people management, communication, overall professional management and awareness of wider issues outside the organisation.
The world has developed a greater consciousness around the issue of sustainability in recent years, which has paved the way for sustainability professionals looking to make a real impact. More opportunities for sustainability jobs have arisen, with more companies prioritising the hire of Heads of Sustainability to address environmental and social issues.
Operationally, the HOS will develop strategies around issues such as pollution, occupational safety, employee education, water and energy use, waste reduction and improving the recycling efforts. The HOS must ensure the compliance of these activities in line with local and national environmental regulations.
A key element of HOS duties is to understand the organisational activity chain, including interactions with external stakeholders, and seek improvements in sustainability performance accordingly. As a result, the capability to track trends in the market is important as these will be used to inform new initiatives and advise senior decision makers on better practice opportunities and risks, and relevant legislative and regulatory frameworks.
HOS’s are integral in determining how the organisation’s sustainability strategy is delivered across the company. For example, they can push for the development of training programmes for employees and implement guidelines that ensure sustainability is embedded in working practices. They can also advocate for the universal organisational use of the business’s resources in sustainably-determined ways as they measure the company’s environmental impact and the success of its existing sustainability initiatives. They may set goals and/or timelines for the improvements they expect to see in order to make those initiatives more effective.
Strong communication skills (written and face-to-face) are imperative in a Head of Sustainability role. The role involves writing and reviewing reports, proposals and grant applications, as well as giving presentations to employees, regulators, customers and key business stakeholders. The role requires professionals who are well-spoken and who are able to be persuasive. They also need to demonstrate strong leadership qualities as they guide and inspire their colleagues and organisations to adopt more sustainable practices, all the while ensuring that they are contributing to the organisation’s profitability.
The road to leading sustainability in an organisation typically includes an initiation through a degree in something like business/business administration, environmental engineering, finance, social sciences or sustainability. To become eligible for such roles, one must typically work up the sustainability careers path from operational roles to management positions and hone those necessary senior leadership skills over a period of years, usually no less than 10 years but often more than that, depending on the sector of industry and the qualifications of the individual. Some people opt to also undertake an MBA or Master’s degree and achieve further certifications with accredited bodies such as ISSP (International Society of Sustainability Professionals).