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
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-wast-
ing 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 ‘Sustainabil-
ity 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
key at CDC.
initiatives like the
promotes sustainable action in
every level of
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.
Liz York, Associate Director for Quality and
Sustainability & Chief Sustainability Officer,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention