The Challenges of Being a Chief Information Security Officer

Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) have one of the toughest jobs in business. They are essentially responsible for all of their organizations’ cybersecurity, which ultimately protects all of the company’s data and other digital assets. In addition to ensuring protection, they must also consider the business impact and how the organization’s cybersecurity posture affects costs/revenue, productivity and the external brand perception.

CISO’s are expected to wear multiple hats: that of the defender and enforcer who protects the organization, as well as the manager and trainer who enable the members of the organization to stay secure and educate them on the existing and upcoming risks. Not only do CISOs need to have a technical skill set, but they must also be effective leaders for the organization.

These leaders need to be able to (or learn to) “manage up” to other executives and the board of directors — many of whom don’t understand the intricacies of information security nor the cyber risk and how it could impact the entire organization.

CISOs are sometimes present in executive meetings (even though they should always be), but they’re not always considered a true member of the leadership team. This is a major problem. CISOs and their security teams need the platform to work with decision-makers to convey the necessities and benefits of improving the organization’s cybersecurity posture.

As with most leaders, CISOs must also “manage down” and “manage across” to the rest of the organization by enabling their teams with IT solutions to increase security without increasing inconvenience. Ease of use for users is still lacking in many security products. Users will ignore or reject solutions that don’t create a positive experience for users and empower them to maintain security while doing their jobs. It is the responsibility of CISOs to find and implement solutions that help employees, rather than slow them down or irritate them.

Unfortunately, most other executives typically aren’t that technical and almost never have a cybersecurity background. That means they often may have many misconceptions about cybersecurity that impede their ability to comprehend what is required to secure an organization with today’s threat landscape. They may also feel intimidated by the nuances of cybersecurity requirements or industry jargon, and may even entirely avoid engaging with the details.

Company leaders often don’t view information security as a strategic business enabler. They typically see the security team’s responsibly as “keeping the lights on” and systems running. They often qualify cybersecurity as a cost center and not always an essential business function.

In reality, CISOs can be catalysts for business growth. Security can be a competitive differentiator that helps a company build trust with customers and stand out among other vendors. For example, a well-communicated cybersecurity strategy can accelerate sales with security-conscious customers. Additionally, by building security into a development process, organizations can move products to market faster and drive revenue. CISOs need to communicate these benefits in order to raise their visibility and influence as executives.

We have discussed a lot CISOs should be doing, but let’s break down some of the immediate actions they should take:

  • Collaborate with the other leaders of the organization: Work to understand the needs of other business units and find ways to compromise to address what other teams need in addition to increasing security. Find solutions that are easy to use so that they don’t slow down other business processes
  • Share decision-making power: Handle the technical details, but encourage input from other leaders. Since security affects the entire organization, it’s important to ensure your team is helping, not hurting the bottom line.
  • Talk business, not security: You need a use a common vocabulary. Don’t confuse and bore other leaders with technical details. Rather, focus your communication on more general business impact, such as time/cost savings.
  • Improve cybersecurity awareness: Fortunately, the plus-side of all the major data breaches of companies across the world is that organization leaders are more aware of cyber risk and the necessity of cybersecurity. However, it’s still not enough. Continue to educate your organization’s leaders and employees about potential and active threats as well as what they and the organization should do to increase cybersecurity posture.


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