Fractional Sustainability Leadership: A Game-Changer for SMEs

November 6, 2023
5 min read

In today's world, the urgency of addressing the myriad of social and environmental issues we face has never been more apparent. Businesses, regardless of their size, are facing mounting pressure to adapt to evolving needs and regulations, making sustainability a top priority. According to the United Nations, a staggering 93% of businesses now recognize the pivotal role of sustainability in shaping the future success of their organisations. And with 33% citing a lack of climate expertise at the board level as a barrier to reaching their Net Zero targets, finding senior sustainability professionals is an increasing priority. But for small to medium size businesses, a full time Chief Sustainability Officer might not be attainable, or necessary.

Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) have emerged as key figures, responsible for setting and implementing sustainability strategies within businesses. While sustainability departments were once siloed or non-existent in many companies, the vast majority now grasp the essential nature of sustainability for their future success and, in some cases, their very survival. However, for startups and small companies, the journey to find a qualified CSO capable of navigating the complex sustainability landscape can be time-consuming and costly. This is where fractional CSOs enter the stage, offering board-level sustainability expertise on a flexible or part-time basis, providing precisely the support your business needs, for as long as you need it.

With the growing interest in fractional CSOs, we’ve been seeing this offering appear more and more. Two people who are leaning in to the possibilities of this kind of structure are Danielle Azoulay in the United States, and Rick Benfield in the United Kingdom.

Danielle has over 15 years of experience leading, developing and operationalising sustainability and corporate responsibility programs for global companies. Recognising the power of fractional CSOs to identify material risks and overlooked opportunities, markets and consumers, she co-founded The CSO Shop to help companies at all stages of maturity.

“Now is the time for every company to get fully committed to sustainability and social impact. The risks of not doing so are simply too high. If done right, these values-based initiatives can be a tool for strategic business continuity and growth. However, if you’ve never developed and executed a sustainability program before, it can feel daunting. That’s where The CSO Shop comes in. It’s our goal to work with SMEs to develop and operationalize Impact programs in lock-step with our clients, train their internal staff, and then step back and take on more of an advisory role to help them stay on track. This approach has proven very effective and it has enabled The CSO Shop to build capacity across many businesses and sectors.” 

Danielle Azoulay

Rick has over 20 years of experience in advising and developing purpose-driven businesses. He founded the OCSO Group (which stands for Outsourced Chief Sustainability Officers) to provide expert sustainability advice and support including building credible roadmaps to net zero; developing and embedding ESG strategies, acting as a critical friend to the board and preparing businesses for mandatory reporting.

“Being able to articulate your position on sustainability is vital for many SMEs to win new customers and attract the best employees. By having a fractional Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) onboard, SMEs can develop their approach to sustainability and provide credible answers to stakeholders, without the big overheads of a full-time employee or consultant.  At the OCSO group we work with SMEs to provide practical advice and guidance, helping our clients navigate the changing landscape of sustainability reporting and identifying the risks and, more importantly, the opportunities for their businesses.” 

Rick Benfield

Fractional CSOs can benefit organisations in a number of ways:

  • Addressing challenges: Fractional CSOs help CEOs and teams navigate the multifaceted and rapidly shifting challenges of sustainability. They can bring specialised expertise, bridging knowledge gaps. These experts are equipped to develop and execute effective sustainability strategies that help a business to prepare for the future. They can also assist with change management and communication, providing valuable advice.
  • Building confidence: Fractional CSOs can play an advisory role, mentoring, coaching and providing valuable advice. Their varied experience brings objective expertise and new perspectives, which in turn helps leadership and staff build confidence in talking about sustainability.
  • Attracting stakeholders: Fractional CSOs bring access to an expanded network of talent and resources. Their presence can make your business more attractive to new hires and stakeholders who value sustainability expertise. According to IBM, 71% of job seekers and employees say that environmentally-friendly companies are more attractive employers.
  • Scaling: Different companies have unique sustainability needs and may be at various stages of their sustainability journey. Fractional CSOs offer the flexibility to scale up and down as needed, providing valuable expertise at the right time for their organisation. This is particularly helpful for startups heavily reliant on funding, as fractional CSOs offer a cost-effective solution to potentially high executive salaries.
  • Deep expertise: Sustainability is a huge topic covering the full breadth of the environmental and social impact that a company has, as well as governance and ethical issues.  No one is an expert across all areas - so bringing on board a fractional CSO that has a wide network of experts means you can quickly access the skillset needed to address specific challenges, without having to hunt and tender for consultants each time you need advice.

There are a number of roles a fractional executive can take on. They might come in for project-specific expertise or guidance, or fill a leadership gap as in interim hire. Or they might provide strategic advice for longer-term planning, or ongoing support for organisations looking for longer-term assistance.

The fractional executive model is far from a new idea - it’s been a proven approach for SMEs who want to fill key functions such as HR, marketing or finance and infuse expertise on a flexible basis. It’s a growing trend that should be considered by any team looking to hire world-class talent in a mutually beneficial manner.

To find out more about the benefits of this approach and hear from two leading experts in the field, join our free upcoming webinar on 30th November 2023, where The Now Work will be speaking to Danielle Azoulay and Rick Benfield about their experience.

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