Sunday Brunch: is there a doctor in the house? (or why sustainability's a tough gig)

The CSO as the curator of sustainability expertise and driver of change

An article published in Eco-Business in December 2023 was titled "15 things that frustrated Chief Sustainability Officers in 2023." 15 things!

Those frustrations ranged from confusion about what their role actually would involve to the external stressors on ESG - political and legal in North America and the tsunami of rules (for example of greenwashing) in Europe, Australia and other countries.  

The fear of getting sued has led to an almost 'compliance paralysis'.

Being a sustainability specialist and leader is a tough gig.

A survey carried out by Lotti Hawkins, who at the time was a recruiter at Farrell Associates, found that going into 2024 only 17% of her 400+ respondents felt good or energised and half felt burnt out.

I'm sure we have all heard anecdotes that echo the above. Let's look at some more data.

The data below is from a SpencerStuart report and is a snapshot of the Fortune 500 companies as at 30 June 2023. You can see that the average tenure of C suite sustainability officer roles is below the average for C suite roles.

(Data: SpencerStuart; Chart: The Sustainable Investor)

Of course there is a big caveat here in that the roles of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer are relatively new and so conclusions on tenure are perhaps premature. In addition, less than 60% of the companies had a CSO (or equivalent) or a Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer albeit that is higher than previous years and steadily improving.

But what about sustainability specialist roles more broadly, not necessarily at the C suite level?

The average tenure of sustainability specialists in US-based recruitment consultant Zippia's database (~300 people) is only 1-2 years.

So what is going on here? What is driving this turnover and the underlying dissatisfaction?

In a completely nonstatistical way I’ll discuss this in today's Sunday Brunch referring to two analogies, one which I have already discussed in a previous Sunday Brunch and the other which is the title of today's.

So is there a doctor in the house?


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Owner of the largest leech farm in Europe

In the second season of Blackadder, set in Elizabethan times, the eponymous hero of the show, Edmund Blackadder visits a doctor seeking a remedy for his infatuation with his new servant 'Bob'. After a brief examination the doctor recommends a course of leeches. This was the epitome of medical treatment at the time. As Blackadder exclaims:

"A leech on my ear for ear ache, a leech on my bottom for constipation."

One leech to cure them all.(1)

Thankfully medical knowledge has developed somewhat since then with the complexities of how the human body works and interacts with its environment (including other people) better understood.

Whilst there is a strong argument for looking at health holistically, there will be times where expert advice is needed.

If you have twisted your knee you wouldn’t go to a cardiologist. 

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