Puzzle piece placing

The evolving role of the Chief Sustainability Officer in Insurance

Alex Hindson, Partner & Head of Sustainability
Puzzle piece placing

Sustainability is still a young discipline in many insurance organisations and a CSO or Head of Sustainability (HoS) that’s been appointed in the last two - three years tends to be a ‘greenfield’ engagement; where they need to establish what the role means, establish new processes and influence their executive colleagues to gradually shape their organisation’s strategy to fully integrate sustainability. As it stands, there is no CSO toolkit, but it is clear that one of the key skills required are those of a change agent, alongside articulating the commercial and strategic imperatives.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recognises that the role of the CSO is new and evolving and unsurprisingly reports that “in 2021 more CSOs were hired than in the previous five years combined”. Having previously held the role of CSO although, not as my sole responsibility, my perspective is that the key aspect of the role involves ‘telling the story’ of where the organisation needs to aspire to be on sustainability, why this is the case and how we are going to collectively make it happen. Today’s CSO is a change agent.

“As a sustainability leader, I see myself as an ambassador for sustainability within our business, for our business and within the market, encouraging others to be the best they can be and to seek better outcomes, cutting across traditional silos, and joining the dots across teams and topics.”

Amir Sethu, Head of Sustainability & ESG, MS Amlin

Going a little deeper into what makes for a successful CSO, Korn Ferry’s insightful paper picks out four traits for today’s CSO.

  • Ability to build relationships

The CSO needs to leverage their social capital to build trust and credibility, which will enable them to help shape change. They have to be sufficiently self-aware to understand when they need to slow down or when to speed up and always be the ‘impatient optimist’.

  • Authenticity

The CSO has to put what’s right for the organisation but must act with business acumen to translate high principles into practical plans.

  • Comfortable with change

The CSO needs to deal with ambiguity and help bring clarity to their colleagues. Like with any major change management programme, the major challenge is not in the c-suite, but in mobilising the middle management layers.

  • Intellectual curiosity 

The CSO has to be open to a wide range of views, prepared to adapt and embrace the views of others in order to achieve the overall goal.

In terms of how this applies to the insurance sector, I wanted to reflect on what is specifically being asked of the CSO and whether current models and research are helpful in describing what is needed to be successful. Although the HBR paper does propose eight responsibilities for a CSO, this is predicated on a compliance and monitoring perspective. The clarity that was offered was appealing, particularly in terms of tracking where the CSO’s time and attention is placed over time, but my feeling is that in order to be successful, any sustainability programme needs to be strategy-driven and focused on what its stakeholders require and expect.

Another tool I reviewed in forming a view was the Business Sustainability Maturity Model put forward by Cagnin et al that helpully defined seven key dimensions of how to evaluate an organisation’s maturity. This approach is indeed strategy-driven and recognises the importance of communication and building competence to drive change into core operations.

Reflecting back on my personal experience, and building on these papers, I would now propose six aspects of sustainability change management that are key to a CSO being successful.



  • Capturing and articulating the expectations of stakeholders. 
  • Helping the board to articulate the ambition, with a clearly articulated why.


  • Establishing a clear vision of what is required and how to get there.
  • Communicating the plan and building momentum.

Stakeholder engagement

  • Selling the business case for change and who needs to be involved.
  • Enabling them to shape the solution and buy-in to its delivery.

Continuous improvement

  • Shaping a learning culture and taking everyone with you.
  • Building organisational capability and understanding.

Decision making

  • Placing sustainability within management decision-making. 
  • Enabling data-driven underwriting choices.

Monitoring and reporting

  • Keeping score and making sure promises are delivered.
  • Reporting back to stakeholders on progress being made.

It is possible to break down a CSO’s implementation plan into these six elements. It also very clear from practical experience across the industry that without a clear board mandate and well-defined ambition, supported by a strategic plan, sustainability efforts are likely to remain a compliance-drive exercise operating within a corporate function sphere of influence. The senior level commitment from the board and executive team breathe life into a sustainability programme and ensures it is aligned to the strategic direction of the organisation. It also helps harness cross-functional cooperation given that the CSO’s role is enterprise-wide and impacts on all function areas, particularly underwriting, investments, operations and human resources. The role is very cross-functional in nature, and a CSO can be interacting with underwriting, actuarial, facilities manager, legal and wordings on a daily basis.

In practical terms, having established the foundations with these first three steps; the CSO needs to focus the majority of their time and effort on embedding sustainability into the underwriting processes of the organisation. This means working out what this means for the core risk selection and pricing process.

“The ability to execute is critical in this type of role: being able to translate strategy and principles into concrete actions and quantifiable metrics that can be tracked. It’s about making things tangible for colleagues across all functions and roles.”

Olivia Brindle, Head of Sustainability, Fidelis MGU

A number of organisations have made commitments to Net Zero, and this implies the need to establish credible transition plans. Translating commitments and strategies into action plans is now at the core of what CSO’s are being asked to deliver. Recognising that delivering a transition plan will require insurers to put in place some basic forms of carbon accounting, means that any approach will need to be built into business planning and portfolio management to be successful. Ultimately, we can imagine a carbon-budget being established in the same way as insurers currently allocate capital or underwriting capacity, for instance, natural perils. Integrating this type of approach into business processes will require the deployment of all the aspects of sustainability change management outlined previously.

Beyond a consideration of climate change, integrating sustainability into underwriting implies gathering sufficient data about ESG risk factors. This allows underwriters to make informed choices regarding their risk appetite for exposures. This is a continuous improvement process that takes time and patience to affect, involving the deployment of tools and data and the education on how to use them, inevitably leading to the adaptation and improvement of the tools with use.

“A CSO should take a holistic approach to sustainability strategy in an organisation. Ensuring that all elements of the business are coordinated – whether that be underwriting, investments, operations, employee engagement, through a lens of sustainability. This requires a finely balanced pragmatism to maintain a commercial outlook while navigating an ever-shifting regulatory horizon to build a more sustainable future.”

Adhiraj Maitra, Group Head of Sustainability, Canopius

Experience has suggested that this is not a once-through process. The commitment and strategy need to be periodically revisited as circumstances change and as the organisation’s approach matures. Many organisations go through several cycles of growth in the case of major change programmes and the CSO needs to be there to sign-post this journey, but be sensitive to when the organisation is becoming ready for the next phase of development.

Implementing sustainability within the insurance sector is at an exciting juncture, with a number of CSOs appointed with the requisite skills and board support to affect change. Now is the phase where the influence of the CSO is going to be felt over underwriting community, as the commitments made to date need to be implemented in practice. Through our practical and experienced team, Crowe is helping CSOs and their teams to revisit and enhance their sustainability strategies, to ensure they are able to drive the required change agenda. Please get in touch with Alex Hindson or your usual Crowe contact for more information.


Insurance firms play a key role in the transition to Net Zero.

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Alex Hindson
Alex Hindson
Partner, Head of Sustainability