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  • Writer's pictureChrissa Pagitsas

‘Couples Therapy’ for the CFO and CSO

How differing C-suite peers can create a stronger partnership to benefit their company and the planet
A therapist or coach guiding a conversation with a CFO and CSO
Sometimes the CFO and CSO need help talking to each other.

Across industries, sustainability and finance executives must increasingly partner to deliver on the expectations of many stakeholders, from regulators and employees to investors and customers. 


Sometimes a happy partnership or “marriage” of two opposites emerges. Other times, conflicts between the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and Chief Financial Officers (CFO) jeopardize company goals and teams’ efficiency. 


Before they can work together again to support the mission of their shared organization, they may need to take a few notes from couples therapy sessions. 


‘They just don’t get me’

A CSO might grumble, “Why doesn’t the CFO just approve this funding request for ESG reporting? We have to meet an EU regulation.” The CFO might sigh and say, “The CSO keeps telling me that we need to expand our commitments on sustainability, but he hasn’t delivered on the ones approved by the Board last year. Why more initiatives? Why more capital and people?” 


Underlying the complaints is the reality that CSOs and CFOs not only have different skill sets and professional backgrounds but more significantly, different tools, control, and company mandates. One of the best ways for them to address this challenge is to identify where the disconnects are, so they can communicate more effectively. 


Learn each other’s ‘love languages’

A CSO is often mandated to deliver on two very different scopes: find growth opportunities through sustainable product development while also mitigating risk from climate change, from physical and transitional to regulatory. But CSOs do not directly control sales nor expenses. Their most powerful “tools” are peer influence and research-backed business cases. A CSO may draw on research from academia and consultants to convince the C-suite that decisions and investment are needed, whether to confirm a goal to achieve Net Zero by 2030 or fund a pilot in an unproven but innovative sustainable technology. 


These tools don’t match the CFO’s love language, which is certainty and water-tight numbers. In addition, the CFO holds a great amount of power through the control of the company’s budget. Cost reduction in an uncertain financial market is likely their top priority as is delivering consistent returns to investors. 


Given the inherent differences between these two C-suite leaders’ priorities, it’s not surprising that their approaches to reaching goals don’t always match up, either:


Timelines, Priorities, and Execution Matter for the CSO and CFO
The CSO and CFO: Can Opposites Attract?

Create trust by getting out of comfort zones 

Relationships thrive when each person commits to making some changes that demonstrate empathy for their partner. Similarly, the partnership between the CSO and CFO can improve if each person is willing to familiarize themselves with each other’s areas of expertise.


Do the homework

If the CSO doesn’t already have a sense of the pressures and levers that drive the company’s profitability, they should learn about them. In return, the CFO should take the initiative to understand the drivers of the sustainability strategy that create revenue as well as risk. With this knowledge, they can come together to have an open conversation about what’s possible and needed, which creates trust.


Be clear on what’s within reach

The CFO must be direct about the commitment of the organization to sustainability goals and what’s available to support them. The CSO needs to spend time planning, executing, and getting really clear about what the specific “ask” is for the CFO, realizing they can’t have everything under the sun and requested piecemeal - which to the CFO can feel like death by a thousand cuts. Similarly, the CSO is looking to the CFO to be up front about what’s possible: “If there’s only $10K, then there’s only $10K. Don’t give me the 'slow no.'”


Embrace the opportunity to grow together over time

Like in couples therapy, people grow to realize that while there are certain aspects of their partners that won’t change, there is opportunity to evolve and change together. The CSO and CFO’s serve different purposes in their roles, but in the end, they’re “in this marriage together” because they have a shared commitment to the company’s long-term growth and success.


Ultimately, CSOs and CFOs will find that understanding each other and communicating openly creates greater value for their company and the planet.


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