Journey to the top: Are today’s sustainability professionals tomorrow’s chief executives?

H&M's appointment of Helena Helmersson as chief executive marks the first time a global corporation has appointed a former sustainability manager to lead the company. Could this be a sign that sustainability is becoming so integral to business that today's CSR professionals are tomorrow's corporate leaders?

Journey to the top: Are today’s sustainability professionals tomorrow’s chief executives?

Helena Helmersson spent more than five years in H&M’s sustainability team before taking the helm as CEO

Most CSR departments didn’t exist 20 years ago. As a result, the concept of sustainability has lacked a definitive set of principles. It has meandered like a river, slowly drawing out best-practise when it comes to things like carbon reduction and ethical value chain principles.

To this extent, sustainability has been built on trade-offs. No company can be truly “sustainable” until all departments have radicalised their processes and priorities. A key role of the sustainability professional has therefore been to bridge these departmental divides over time; to take climate action from a niche idea to an in-built company ethos. The rise of the boardroom-level chief sustainability officer in recent years serves to highlight that, in many businesses, that ethos is now being realised.  

Earlier this month, another breakthrough came. In an unprecedented move, Helena Helmersson was announced as not only the first woman to be H&M’s chief executive, but its first boss with “sustainability professional” on her CV. In fact, this appears to be the first time that a sustainability professional has risen up the ranks to lead a large business. 

Helmersson spent more than five years in H&M’s sustainability team, first as social sustainability manager then as a sustainability manager. 

“I am very incentivised and humble ahead of the task,” Helmersson said at the time. “I look forward to driving the plan forward together with my colleagues, with a focus on the customer to continue strengthening our financial development in the short and long term. There is great potential to expand with existing and new brands, with new types of partnerships and to continue leading the development towards a sustainable fashion industry.”

In recent years, H&M has made a number of big sustainability commitments, most notably pledges to become a “fully circular” business by 2030 and achieve “climate-positivity” by 2040. The fashion giant has adopted a strong leadership stance on CSR by looking beyond net-zero emissions, although its sustainability transition has been somewhat stifled by a fast-fashion business model, compounded by discrepancies over worker pay.

Helmersson’s task at hand is to build those lofty climate and circular goals into every decision-making process and to use her expertise spanning the entire sustainability agenda to begin to remove the trade-offs associated with traditional business models. It is not an easy task, but forms the litmus test of what could be a new dawn of sustainable business leaders.

First of many?

M&S’s former sustainability director Mike Barry’s LinkedIn commentary on Helmersson’s appointment garnered an immensely positive response from the sustainability community, with commenters noting that “we’ve got to a point where ‘woman becomes CEO’ is no longer the headline” and that this would be a “litmus test” for normalising the CSO-to-CEO career trajectory.

For Barry – now a board trustee at A Blueprint for Better Business – sustainability professionals are still some way off becoming chief executives, but many of the skills being finetuned in the CSR department will indeed be critical for business leaders in the future.

“Don’t underestimate how big being a chief executive is,” Barry says. “People climb the career ladder and develop lots of technical knowledge, but the thing that makes the chief executive different is the ability to list the [technical expertise] into a strategy and lead a team.

“The chief executive of the future will have to be brilliant at sustainability and know what it means for business, but I don’t think that it means that automatically serving four or five years in the CSO role will make you able to do it.”

Barry is used to working under an exceptional chief executive when it comes to championing sustainable business. Steve Rowe has been an influential advocate of the retailer’s Plan A 2025 initiative. He sits alongside the likes of ex-Unilever chief executive Paul Polman, former Campbell Soup chief executive Denise Morrison, former Kingfisher boss Sir Ian Cheshire, and current P&G boss David Taylor as just some of the business leaders who have instilled a top-down and bottom-up approach to sustainability across the business.

Barry is of the belief that the overwhelmingly positive response to H&M’s announcement denotes that “people are really crying out for a change in leadership” and that CSOs have a unique skillset to change the business model. However, he also pointed out that Helmersson’s stint at H&M’s chief operating officer (COO) will have given her a much clearer understanding of different business functions, which is more translatable to the role of CEO.

The demand for a change in leadership is in response to high levels of disruption across the private sector. Investor and consumer demands for sustainable products and services are squeezing traditional approaches to businesses, while rapid changes in areas such as energy procurement, mobility and food production are causing businesses to respond to market shifts.

As sustainability becomes business-critical, more businesses are turning to their CSOs to articulate the threats of climate change, explain the necessity of science-based targets and outline the need for long-term value creation in a sphere of capitalism that has predominantly been driven by short-term economic gain.

But, as businesses look to embed sustainability holistically, CSOs will also need to know how other departments operate and translate what sustainable business means for each specific function. The CSO is also looking outward much more frequently in order to forge partnerships with on-the-ground NGOs to strengthen supply chains, and with competitors to drive systems-wide change.

“CSOs have to be able to build partnerships,” Barry adds. “It is something some leaders today fail on; they’re used to winning and winning alone. But a sustainable future demands that you work with your competitors. They also need strong footing today to be able to perform, while also preparing for the future. Some struggle with that dichotomy and you have to be tremendously courageous as a sustainability professional because it doesn’t always go in a straight line and there will be bumps and bruises along the way.”

C-Suite spot

Look across CDP’s Climate A-list or the Dow Jones Sustainability indices, and it is clear that leadership on sustainability is reliant the CSO’s ability to deliver the skills listed above into the boardroom in a way that enables the chief executive to champion the required changes.

Indeed, executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles’ 2019 “Route to the Top” report notes that “the CEO is now not only the head of the business but also the standard-bearer for corporate reputation”, which is increasingly including non-financial factors such as climate change and sustainability that “have a direct impact on the health of an organisation”. The report found that, of new chief executives appointed in 2019, 73% had worked their way to that position from internal positions within the company, and that many businesses were prioritising C-suite experience. While this is good news for the CSO, the report found that ff the 78% of new CEOs with C-suite experience, 54% had prior CEO experience, 29% came with chief financial officer experience and a quarter had worked as COOs.

As such, the skillset of the sustainability professional still needs to change before the door to the top opens. And for former Carillion chief sustainability officer, David Picton, CSOs will need to craft new skills that are focused much more on outreach across the business.

“Sustainability professionals have arguably been seen as the conscience of an organisation, its scientists, its reputation-guardians and even its ‘disapproving friends’ at times – much of that driven by the guilt agenda (which I think is past its sell-by date),” Picton says.

“For me, the evolving skillsets of sustainability professionals relate far more closely to business growth, purpose and operational delivery – being able to identify the opportunities presented by sustainability investment and swiftly translate them into actionable targets, business cases, programmes and plans. Above all, those professionals will need a keen profit awareness and agile business acumen, helping organisations to see how sustainability is not something that has to be afforded, but something they can’t afford to ignore.”

Picton – now managing director at Hengist Inspired – believes that the ability to “craft communications with authentic and relatable roots in the factors which matter most to that organisation’s clients and its employees” will be a crucial evolution for the sustainability professional.

It appears the CSOs still need a more agile overview of how the business operates and functions before they are equipped with the relevant skillset to step into the role of CEO. However, with the chief executives of more than 180 corporates now lobbying for other big businesses to stop maximising profits for shareholders at the expense of the environment or society, corporate sustainability is definitely rising up the agenda.

As businesses begin to redefine their purpose and integrate sustainability, the career path of the traditional CSO is now changing. Could Helmersson’s appointment be the prelude to a wave of ex-CSOs taking up leadership positions?

“What makes a CSO today sounds a lot like what will make a CEO of the future,” Barry concludes. The CSO role will change from being a unique role populated by a professional who rotates to different businesses every few years. It might actually become careerist within an organisation, where the CSO role equals your knowledge of something that is of profound importance to the business.”

Matt Mace

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