1652312908321 Connectingthedots

Connecting the Dots: Experiences of Chief Sustainability Officers

Sept. 22, 2016

Learn from two CSOs how your experience can lead you to the C-suite.

Sustainability carries more importance now than ever in facilities management because it’s become so distinctly connected with the bottom line. Efforts in sustainability can help businesses not only become more environmentally friendly, but they can also help reduce costs and develop a positive reputation.

Because buildings are often the easiest places to introduce sustainable practices and save energy, resources and money, many FMs are already taking on sustainability projects. Furthermore, working in sustainability can take place in a variety of arenas within a business, school, hospital or any other organization.

That’s where opportunity might present itself for the savvy FM. Typically operating at the top tiers of leadership within an organization, the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) is a position that has been developing in both the public and private spheres for over a decade and is still growing. In 2004, DuPont hired former EPA regulator Linda Fisher to take on sustainability efforts as CSO. DuPont was the first publicly traded company to name a CSO, and dozens of the world’s largest companies followed suit. That practice continues today in organizations of all sizes.

This position might go by other names (Director of Sustainability, Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility, etc.), but they are all positions that provide a level of executive input. But how do you become a CSO? And what if your institution has no position like this? What might seem to be roadblocks are actually part of the development of the position.

Kathleen Miller, CEO of Miller Consultants, and George Serafeim, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, produced research on the responsibilities and development of CSOs and found in most cases, the position of CSO only becomes an official role once sustainability efforts are already underway. This gives FMs a distinct edge in pursuing and developing the position.

Adding to that advantage is the fact that 86% of CSOs have been hired from within the organization, according to a study conducted by Weinreb Group, a sustainability recruitment agency. Kate Nelson, CSO at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), and Liz York, CSO at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are two sustainability executives who rose to their current positions through this form of internal promotion.

Early Stages

After working a series of jobs and internships involved in conservation, Nelson identified a growing need for comprehensive sustainability at her alma mater, UWM. “I started seeing that there were students doing environmental work, but they were all doing different things and weren’t working together. So I pulled them together to address the administration about this idea of environmental policy for the campus in 2006,” says Nelson. In 2008, the university took Nelson’s advice and put her at the forefront of a new sustainability program initially housed under the facilities department.

At roughly the same time, CDC was looking to boost their sustainability efforts. Looking for someone to specifically champion these efforts, they placed Liz York – an architect and project manager at the agency – as the Acting Chief Sustainability Officer. By the end of 2008, York took on the role of the first official CSO at CDC.

“The fact that our facilities department was already doing LEED buildings, recycling waste at building sites and utilizing green cleaning just shows there was a culture at CDC before the CSO position was even established,” York explains. The expansion of the sustainability program with an official leader at CDC was then a way to solidify the agency’s efforts.

Nelson and York both identified the need for fostering innovation and exemplifying how it positively impacts the organization and beyond. “If people who are doing the day-to-day work see how what we do in sustainability solves issues, they will buy into it,” Nelson explains.

York recalls one CDC employee who identified a paper-wasting process and developed an environmentally friendly solution. York’s office recognized the employee’s sustainability efforts as an opportunity to share their story to promote similar changes. “One of the things that my office does is look for stories like this,” York says, “and we award people with what’s called a ‘Sustainability Star.’ We do a write-up about what they’ve done, and that gets circulated. We found that it breeds more innovation and copycat projects. Someone reads the article, calls that Sustainability Star, and says, ‘Can you help me with my project?’”

One major aim of the position is to bring people and solutions together within an organization to promote positive solutions to setting-specific issues. York notes that the CSO is always in the process of “connecting the dots between the people who want a change and the people who can authorize or support the change,” even if it might run contrary to the way things have always been done.

“I look to build and strengthen community on the campus between staff, faculty, students and even community members,” says Nelson. “Almost on a daily basis, when we come up with an idea we try to solve multiple issues. We try to fold as many needs as possible into one solution.” In these efforts to connect people and solutions together, the more specific goals and methods towards sustainability can be approached.

Making Progress

Just as connecting people with each other and with ideas is part of the job, bringing together the ideas of experts is an important component of being a sustainability executive. “I need to understand the science, engineering and things like that, but I’m not going to be the expert in everything,” Nelson explains. “You just can’t be. You need to know how to bring people together who have expertise to solve problems.”

At CDC, York has brought in experts in a variety of fields to not only advise her on important projects, but they also go to individual departments to implement change on-site. “We focus a lot on reviewing and overseeing the annual sustainability plan,” York explains. “What is different is that the subject matter experts now work in the areas where the work is being done and have a dotted-line relationship to my office.”

With access to experts, York’s office seeks to find a way to communicate annual goals to the rest of the agency. The federal government releases executive orders outlining detailed sustainability targets and leaves it open to each individual agency to determine how to accomplish those goals. In order to help staff conceptualize CDC’s big-picture sustainability plan, York’s office developed “moonshot goals,” which are intended to develop solution-based ideas for everyone.

For example, instead of referencing the technical details of the executive order that CDC will use to achieve its sustainability goals, York generalizes the message to make it relatable to a wider audience. Instead of detailing how the agency will adopt more clean and renewable energy production each year, York has phrased it as “having solar energy production at all of our Atlanta-based campuses in the next three years” to free up the innovation process from the burden of abstract annual percentages.

“These are goals that people can identify with so they understand we’re trying to reach the moon with our sustainability goals,” says York. “In a way, you could call it an operational effort and a marketing effort at the same time because we are trying to build a culture of understanding about what we, as an agency, want to achieve.”

Communicating clearly in a way that suggests change is actually feasible is one of the keys to the job, according to both CSOs. Once this happens, momentum will build within the organization, and people will see it as a means to solving issues. “If people see a way to do something better, they will buy into that,” says Nelson. “And a lot of time what we try to do is make labor practices better, easier and less toxic.”

The changes that a sustainability program implements do not necessarily need to be drastic to work. As long as the aims are clear, impact can be big with small actions. “I can see anyone in an organization just tweaking the way they do things towards sustainability and getting far with something,” adds Nelson.

At UWM, some of the changes towards a more sustainable campus include stormwater contingency plans, community gardens and green infrastructure. There are even talks to include a brew garden to foster research opportunities in a distinctly Milwaukee way. With these projects, Nelson attempts to connect sustainability directly towards education by working with academic departments and student research projects.


“I always ask myself, ‘How does this fit in with our mission?’” says Nelson. “We’re not necessarily in the business of reducing carbon; we’re in the business of education. So how do our initiatives meet that goal with curriculum, research or student life? When meeting those goals, I feel like I’m succeeding in sustainability.”

One of the most successful projects Nelson has undertaken is an energy conservation program that garnered a 27% reduction in energy usage per gross square foot. The savings from the program, which ran from 2009 to 2013, are still the “gold standard” for the university.

“We are thinking very critically about how our work helps to truly sustain the university,” explains Nelson. These goals make even more sense when considering the budgetary crunch many university campuses are under today. This is especially the case in Wisconsin, where the UW system absorbed much of a $250 million cut to education.

With these cuts, the Office of Sustainability at UWM has attracted the eyes of the administration as a locus for finding solutions to the problems that ail the public university because of the recognition and successes that they have achieved. “Seeing people looking to sustainability for solutions is just an amazing place to be in,” Nelson adds.

At CDC, people look towards York’s office for problem solving, but it hasn’t always been like that. “In the federal government, you have a lot of resistance to change,” says York. “A lot of that resistance isn’t because people don’t want to change, but because people aren’t sure if they are allowed to change.”

Through open and supportive channels of communication, CDC’s culture of sustainability has yielded impressive results. York helped implement a water efficiency initiative to capitalize on a valuable opportunity. The agency lacked water meters, preventing them from seeing how individual buildings used water.

After installing the meters, CDC found that one laboratory was using five times as much water as other labs on their campus. Through further investigation, they found that flush valves that were thought to be closed were actually open. Once that was remedied and preventative efforts were put in place across the agency, CDC has saved over $1 million every year for the last three years.

Looking Ahead

One area where both Nelson and York are finding productive solutions are in health and wellness. “The best angle has probably been public health,” says Nelson. “That seems to be a big driver in sustainability. Any time we are talking about the staff’s health, the students’ health, the community and environment’s health – that seems to go a long way for us.”

“In sustainability, it’s people, planet and profit,” adds York, “so anything we can do to help our people be healthier, have fewer sick days and be more energetic – these are things that are going to help our bottom line.”

That sentiment was in mind when CDC and GSA developed FITWEL, a new certification system for buildings that addresses how workplaces can promote the health of building occupants. In addition to positively contributing to individual workers’ health, the certification can also affect more traditional aspects of sustainability. For example, with clear signage pointing towards stairwells, workers are more likely to take them instead of the elevator. Workers then become more physically active throughout the day but also minimize energy consumption due to less elevator usage.

Because CDC is comprised of health experts in all areas, FITWEL developers utilized the strengths of the agency. It is also an example of how sustainability projects advance not only those driving the project but also encourage a spirit of innovation in others seeking new ways to incorporate sustainability into their own organizations. “I love it when I get to work with the science side of the house on operational things because you get such a positive and broad solution to these sustainability problems,” York explains.

More broadly, both CSOs identify the need to continue innovating. “Just try things, volunteer and experiment,” says Nelson. “It’s a really big field, and you have to find out what you do and don’t like.” Nelson also stresses the advantage she has in the university system that affords her the opportunity to experiment, as long as it stays within budget and has clear aims towards improving the university and its community.

Communication is key in sustainability because so much of it revolves around change. “Pretty much everything you ask people to do as a sustainability officer changes the way they’ve always done it,” says York. “It’s really about getting people to rethink what they are very comfortable with and encouraging them to try things they’ve never done before.”

It’s safe to say that both Nelson and York are in the “innovation” stage of development as CSOs. And although they might work in different settings and have travelled different paths to their current position, they both stress the need for the ability to communicate, manage projects and foster creativity to develop sustainability within an organization.

Justin Feit [email protected] is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

How CSOs Are Made

Kathleen Miller and George Serafeim’s study “Chief Sustainability Officers: Who Are They and What Do They Do?” identifies the ongoing development of the CSO position. They break this evolution into three stages that address the trends and idiosyncrasies of an organization’s efforts in sustainability.

1)  Institutions first take on sustainability during the compliance stage. Most CSOs at this point are simply involving their institution in sustainable practices that fulfill various regulations, most of which are environmental. Miller and Serafeim found that during this stage, “those primarily responsible for sustainability have a wide range of responsibilities but are not positioned for high levels of authority.” They even note that most do not even hold the title of CSO yet.

2)  As efforts in sustainability develop, organizations move on to a more strategically based efficiency stage. At this point, sustainability becomes legitimized within the institution and often addresses reputation and opportunities to save money by reducing waste and fostering efficiency. The position of CSO becomes officially recognized.

3)  The third stage in development is innovation. Institutions “begin to take a proactive and transformational approach to sustainability rather than the more reactive approaches that characterize the first two stages,” explain Miller and Serafeim. Approaches often become unique to the company and larger in scope, often addressing societal problems in addition to other efforts.

Liz York, Associate Director for Quality and Sustainability & Chief Sustainability Officer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

York’s training and experience in architecture have immensely informed her work as a CSO. Earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture at Georgia Tech, York worked as an architect and project manager in a variety of settings, including hospitality and later at CDC.

What York has found most valuable from her work as an architect is an overall understanding of buildings as systems. When people are moving through a building, nothing works on its own – everything is connected.

Ultimately, York has concluded that sustainability is the practice of improving building processes in all their complexities.

Kate M. Nelson, Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Before pivoting towards a career in sustainability, Nelson worked in project management, but not in buildings – she was a theatrical stage manager in Milwaukee. Having graduated from Cardinal Stritch University with a degree in Theatre, Nelson later decided to go back to school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to earn a B.A. in Conservation and Environmental Science.

Initially the Environmental Sustainability Coordinator for the freshly developed Office of Sustainability, Nelson worked with the facilities department to make the first steps in campus sustainability. As the program developed and gained university-wide recognition, Nelson’s office was invited by the dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning to be housed in their building.

The Office of Sustainability at UWM now resides in an academic hall but reports to the university administration. This move and multiple modes of recognition led to Nelson’s promotion to Chief Sustainability Officer. Since then, Nelson has also earned an MS in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Getting Schooled in Sustainability

Just as no CSO is exactly the same, the path to becoming one can be equally varied. Many CSOs come from backgrounds more related to buildings, like architecture and engineering, while others have focused on marketing and business, often with an emphasis on sustainability. But there’s no educational blueprint to becoming a sustainability executive. If you are looking to become a CSO at your organization, demonstrating sustainable practices as an FM might prove to be the most valuable.

Dozens of universities now have programs to educate those interested in becoming sustainability executives. Their programs range from master’s degrees to two or three day intensive workshops. These opportunities exist at a wide range of universities (both public and private) across the U.S. Moreover, professional organizations like IFMA and BOMA provide professional development programs.

MBA programs have also responded to calls for more emphasis on sustainability. In fact, several universities, including MIT, the University of Toronto, Penn State and the University of Michigan have specific concentrations in sustainability for students. At countless others, sustainability is a staple in the curriculum.

Ultimately, CSOs can come from any background, but those looking to boost their credentials have options in education.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Buildings, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations