InfoSec Teams Share Keys To CISO Success

Tech expertise and business engagement are critical for CISOs who want to strengthen security but lack authority in their organizations.

Kelly Sheridan, Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

February 9, 2017

4 Min Read

CISOs promise to protect critical business data, but many lack the influence they need to be effective. High-performing infosec teams combine technical expertise and organizational engagement to do their jobs well.

This is the key takeaway of a new research report from IANS entitled "CISO Impact: The 5 Secrets of High-Performing CISOs." For more than two years, researchers collected diagnostic data from more than 1,200 businesses to assess their security posture.

Diagnostics were structured by two best practice models: 8 Domains of Technical Excellence and 7 Factors of Organizational Engagement. The expansive collection of data was boiled down to 75 best practices shared among high-performing businesses and their leaders.

In this report, IANS takes a step back from the granular details of its research and highlights five high-level lessons CISOs should adopt as they aim to build greater influence within their organizations.

Cloud growth is driving the importance of security, says Leonovus CEO Michael Gaffney, but CISOs don't have enough influence to drive change. Most report to CIOs, which are usually trained in basic security but may not be fully up-to-speed on web-based security.

"Security pros don't have enough of a seat at the table," he says. "Boards of directors want to hear from more than the CIO; they want to hear from someone about what’s going on. If you're not at the table from a security perspective and the C-suite doesn't recognize it, that's a vulnerability."

Despite this concern, most infosec pros have to accept they will need to lead without authority, says Stan Dolberg, chief research officer at IANS. Most security managers aren't given full access to the staff, processes, and technologies they need to fully protect data.

"The CISO and security team make a promise to safeguard critical assets, but they have little control over the resources to make it happen," he explains. "Security isn't an isolated function. It stretches over every operation."

Security leaders can build authority by building alliances for a risk-based approach to security through which the business owns risk. All high-performing organizations in the study hold business leaders accountable for the risk of their actions, says Dolberg.

CISOs must connect the dots across businesses, goals, strategies, and results, and handle situations at the technical and negotiation levels. These skills are important because CISOs need to inform boards of exposures, collaboration, and steps taken to secure assets. This data is owned by the business, and CISOs must convince them to work together.

The second key is to embrace the role of change agent. CISOs and their teams are responsible for changing many things; for example, how software is developed, or how people click on emails. It's important to prepare for pushback.

"Change encounters resistance," says Dolberg. "People don't like to change. It costs money; it takes time. Embrace the role of change agent, otherwise you're going to get very frustrated."

Engagement is also important here as security pros have to build relationships to understand what motivates other parts of the business. They can use this research to introduce more informed change recommendations.

IANS' third lesson is to be responsive and demonstrate the importance of security. Organizations don't instinctively know infosec must be integrated into the business, so security pros have to step up, teach them, and prove its value.

"The CISOs who make a difference understand people won't open the door and say 'give me a makeover,'" Dolberg explains. "You have to be proactive and can't just sit back." Few CISOs will be hired into organizations that already recognize the danger. The rest can employ tactics like fake cyberattacks to demonstrate the reality of cybercrime.

"You experience real emotions in a mock situation," he notes. Faking a DDoS attack on the main website, for example, will give business leaders a sense of how it feels to lose customer data and put their reputation at risk.

Most (84%) high-performing CISOs develop a "cyber cadre" or cohesive team of employees who convey the same messages to everyone in the business. This requires proficiency in interpersonal skills, a theme of the first three lessons.

"It takes a lot of effort on the part of the CISO to hire people with the right technical skills and build a cohesive team," explains Dolberg. "This way, when they're out there in the day-to-day grind of the business, they're all telling the same story."

The fifth lesson is patience; getting organizations to value their security teams takes time. It typically takes high-performing organizations five to seven years to build their teams, their cadres, and invest in their credibility before they were viewed as integral to the business.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Sheridan

Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

Kelly Sheridan was formerly a Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focused on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial services. Sheridan earned her BA in English at Villanova University. You can follow her on Twitter @kellymsheridan.

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