Updated: May 5, 2022
As we desperately seek accelerated road maps to decouple economic growth from extraction for the first time in our history, the rise of the $1m Chief Sustainability Officer shows no sign of slowing down.
The tension between the ‘Extractive growth is better than no growth’ majority and the “Regenerative now” minority will continue to increase, but how it plays out is yet to be determined. This discussion is happening as we are seeking consensus on how quickly we need to shift existing business models.
Following every other economic contraction in our history, including the 2008 financial crash, growth was growth, and we knew how to stimulate it. There was no mainstream debate on how extractive that growth was and the associated impacts.
We now have the data and analytical tools to immediately assess every policy framework, every corporation’s revenue and profit, their business models and their products. This helps highlight not just how ‘net’ extractive every element of the business is, but year on year incremental change.
We have two broad views on how we decouple growth from extraction, with both sides viewing the other as being fantasists and potentially dangerous at the extreme.
The Innovators — We have a growth addicted system, so Extractive Growth is better than no growth even if it means things get worse in the short-term.
The System Changers — We don’t have time to go backwards to move forward, even zero extraction now might not give us the time to shift to a regenerative system.
How quickly can we really clean up growth? How quickly will our living systems reach a tipping point of no return, and critically, who will our citizens be angrier with? The Innovators, our leaders for leaving things so late, or the system change advocates for pushing for ‘Extractive Cold Turkey’. Your CSO has to have road maps for all scenarios to maintain credibility across the full spectrum of stakeholders.
With that in mind, here are 4 things I’d look for from any potential CSO to ensure their experiences are still relevant in 2023 and beyond, regardless of how things play out.
1. EXPERIENCE IN BOTH SCALING THE NEW AND RETROFITTING THE OLD
An individual who has track record in scaling the regenerative models we seek, not just making the core business less extractive. If they don’t have both, be prepared to re-hire in 2023/24
Most first generation CSO’s are experts in making the core business less extractive. That’s not going to be good enough to have credibility across the ecosystem. I encourage candidates to separate their achievements between scaling the new and retrofitting the old on their resumes, so potential employers really know what they’re getting.
Of course, when there is strong customer demand for your product, when it’s still very profitable, when your employees know how to sell it and in the absence of global legislation to price in regeneration. It’s understandable to focus attention on making your core product extractive neutral. As you need extractive profits to fund a regenerative future. My question is, when will the demand for those who can scale the new, outstrip the demand for retrofitting the old. When it tips, it will tip quickly, leaving stranded assets and perhaps stranded careers.
2. COMMERCIAL, STRATEGY, INNOVATION AND INVESTMENT EXPERIENCE
Once you give at least equal emphasis to scaling the new, by default your CSO will need to have commercial, strategy and innovation experience. That should also include investment strategy and M&A experience. The right CSO will play a key role in differentiating between acquiring what superficially appears to be cheap but maybe a business model which is unable to deliver enduring value.
Bonus experience. Even better, an individual who also has experience in scaling business based on the consumption of time and experiences, rather than stuff. Global society will almost certainly have to make a somewhat uncomfortable shift from happiness based on extractive consumption, to one based on time and experience.
3. NON-LINEAR CAREER EXPERIENCES RATHER THAN ONE SYSTEM
Has this individual worked in multiple systems, not just the business system, and have they demonstrated an ability to move between systems at ease?
As many of you know, I have been championing the relevance of non-linear careers for at least a decade. Employers are still not yet putting a premium on these skills, but this attitude is changing. When I explain the rationale for this type of candidate to employers, they want it.
A commitment to a non-linear career, a working non-linear MBA if you like, takes single mindedness and confidence with such large fluctuations in salary from Think Tank to Business, Investor to Government etc, etc. I’ve worked with individuals whose salaries have seen 60% drops and 500% increases at various points in their careers, but I believe the demand for non-linear talent will continue to grow.
I see organisations getting it wrong by ignoring this imperative. Most organisations now recognise the need for an individual who has commercial strategy and innovation experience. However, more often than not the candidate will have only worked in one system and have never had to deal with the complexity of balancing extractive and regenerative growth to keep everyone on board.
4. AN INDIVIDUAL WHOSE PERSONAL BRAND DEMONSTRATES THAT THEY ARE COMFORTABLE CONFRONTING CONSTRUCTIVELY BOTH INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY.
What do I mean by that? In 2016 the then CSO of IKEA, made headlines around the world when he said the West had reached peak stuff, and by association it had reached peak home furnishings. Some took it as predicting the end of IKEA, some said it had the feel of a whistleblower desperate to agitate. For me, it showed an individual and an organisation comfortable confronting really big issues constructively, externally not just internally.
If you Google ‘IKEA peak stuff’ you will see how this speech made headlines around the world. Perhaps I’m biased because I was involved in that recruitment, but when I’m researching a potential candidate, I don’t see enough examples of that confidence to discuss these big system contradictions.
As a result, most CSO’s personal brand can appear overly positive or simplistic externally. Substituting the examples of addressing the tension across the ecosystem, with too many examples of passing off relatively minor innovations as groundbreaking.
I don’t think the norm of the last 75 years, of keeping all that tension internal and presenting a united front externally is going to work anymore. In government, business or civil society.
If your CSO has no experience confronting constructively, externally as well as internally, then they have very few road maps on how this tension can be harnessed as an accelerant and not a brake, which only comes with experience. More than just a big risk to the organisation, this places huge stress on the individual.