Why every SME needs a fractional CSO

December 19, 2023
6 min read

The Now Work recently convened a panel of experts online to discuss a new frontier in sustainable leadership models for small and medium businesses. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Fractional CSOs offer a new type of adaptable, agile sustainability leadership. In the face of increasing regulation, growing consumer demand and climate change itself beginning to impact value chains and supply chains, organisations are seeking extra support and expertise on how to navigate these challenges and leverage sustainability for the future of their businesses. But knowing where to start on this journey can be overwhelming, especially for growing businesses, so having the guidance of seasoned professionals is very helpful. This is where a fractional (also known as part-time or outsourced) Chief Sustainability Officer might be the answer your SME has been looking for.

We spoke to Danielle Azoulay, founder of the CSO Shop, and Rick Benfield, founder of OCSO Group, about their experience as fractional CSOs.

What working with a fractional CSO can look like

As a fractional CSO, Danielle generally works with clients on a 12-month retainer basis. Her goal is to take them through the process, lay the foundation and then help them find someone with the right profile to help them manage the programme going forward. She uses a series of steps:

  1. Current State Assessment: understanding what the company is already doing in terms of processes, policies and procedures. Investigating the gap between where they are now and where their peers are, and working out where the opportunities lie. She wants to ensure that the company has business continuity, and is developing a programme that really reiterates and complements an existing mission, vision or values, and considers the full value chain approach to sustainability. That means engaging every functional area, and making them feel like they are part of the journey.
  2. Strategy Goals Development: this involves assessing KPI metrics to design roadmaps and implementation plans, developing some of the tactics for priority areas, defining accountabilities and ensuring there’s enough budget to support the work.
  3. Defining Reporting and Data Collection: This requires asking how a company can ensure that they’re reporting to their stakeholders in a meaningful way. Not every company necessarily needs to report according to GRI standards, for example. If a company doesn’t want to, or isn’t ready to IPO or go public, they’re going to have different reporting and transparency needs than a company who is.

“I try to be very thoughtful about how to make sustainability and social impact complement and accelerate existing business goals”

- Danielle Azoulay, The CSO Shop

On a practical level, having all staff attend the kick-off meeting is key to making sure everyone is involved from the beginning. Buy-in from the CEO is critical.

The idea of fractional leadership is not new for SMEs and startups, with many, for example, having outsourced their chief financial officer or chief marketing officer roles. Conversely to consultants, fractional CSOs represent experienced hires who get fully embedded into the businesses in which they work. While a consultant might be tasked with a specific project and timeline, this fractional approach helps SMEs who might not yet know what they need to look at or how to articulate their needs in this area.

“It’s all about helping companies prioritise and direct their efforts to have the biggest positive impact.”

Rick Benfield, OCSO Group

When is a fractional CSO needed?

Once a company grows past a certain level, retrofitting these ideas becomes much more burdensome for the business, so it’s never too early to start having these conversations. A fractional CSO can help you align around certain identified areas of risk and opportunity, keep an eye on you as you grow and make sourcing and business development decisions, assess you mission, vision and values - and all of these things are critical to think about from the beginning. That’s why this kind of assistance can be beneficial to even the smallest of businesses, who may need advice without a full retainer contract.

Who are fractional CSOs?

In terms of finding the right fit for this kind of role, alongside significant time working in the industry, Danielle feels that some kind of implementation experience in-house is important. Rick also set up OCSO Group as a collective of individuals with varying experiences over different sectors. As no one person is an expert across all areas of sustainability, this structure as well as the large personal network a fractional CSO is likely to have, means that a company can be reassured that there’s a vast pool of knowledge to pull from, without having to hire multiple subject matter experts who would be expensive at this level.

Depending on the amount of support a company needs, fractional CSOs are able to work with multiple clients at a time and cross-pollinate their learnings while doing so.

How a fractional CSO can help your organisation become a sustainability leader

Rick likes to use a simple framework for assessing a company’s approach to sustainability. Companies ‘playing in defence’ are focused on compliance, mandatory reporting, meeting expectations and getting your house in order around regulations. They concentrate on minimising the negative impact of a business. Whereas those ‘playing in offence’ are interested in the opportunities and creating value for their business. When it comes to sustainability, this might mean redesigning business models, reviewing existing products and services to ensure they’re fit for the future, and using the skills, resources and expertise that you have at your disposal to actually make a positive impact. This is where the competitive advantage lies for business and where that can be gained.

As Danielle puts it, sustainability can also:

  • Help create additional value
  • Help you understand global risks and opportunities
  • Be a driver for solving other business challenges, such as employee retention, gaining external stakeholder engagement, or supporting supply chain continuity.

Looking to the Future

Danielle was clear about the need for collaboration in this work, and the need to think about how we want to work together and complement each other. She believes it’s going to take new business models like this that can reach companies who haven’t been engaged yet to really catalyse the change we need.

“This is a space where a rising tide lifts all boats, and there’s a lot to be done”

Danielle Azoulay, The CSO Shop

Both Danielle and Rick believe that it’s never too late to start thinking about how to become a sustainable business, but you need to start now. Deciding on your vision and ambition - where you need to take your business - is urgent.

Useful Resources

About The Now Work

The Now Work is a flexible talent platform for sustainability, matching world-changing people to world-changing work. In the wake of COVID-19 and the Great Resignation, we saw a huge shift in how people want to work, and we feel passionate about creating a future for work that is fit for life. If you’re a brand looking to curate specific expertise or bespoke teams to help you deliver your vision, or if you’re a freelancer looking for opportunities to work with brands who take sustainability seriously - register your interest on our website or email us at hello@thenowwork.com.

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