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Talking to the Board about Cybersecurity

A chief financial officer shares five winning strategies for an effective board-level conversation about right-sizing risk.

As enterprises have become increasingly reliant on technology for every aspect of operations, technical executives such as CIOs and CISOs have found themselves in a completely new operations center: the boardroom. This move from the security operations center can present a significant challenge. Board members are often not well-versed in technology or security best practices, let alone jargon. At the same time, CISOs often lack the business experience to speak in terms that the board can understand, defaulting to technical discussions that the board can't parse.

This breakdown in communication can have a cascade effect. Board members might fail to fully understand the security risks posed by a certain initiative. Or, with the growing number of costly and embarrassing security breaches, they might overemphasize caution and risk mitigation at the expense of implementing important technical advancements.

As a long-time executive in the technology industry, I've spent my fair share of time in boardrooms. I know how boards view risk, and how to effectively communicate about it. Below are five top CISO strategies for an effective board-level conversation about right-sizing risk.

Strategy 1: Manage the "Fear Factor"
Headline-grabbing breaches can draw a lot of attention from business stakeholders and board members who want to avoid finding themselves in similar circumstances. But not all breaches are created equal. Some breaches, like those due to misconfigured cloud services or ransomware attacks, are incredibly common. Others, such as those involving service provider employee malfeasance, attract a lot of attention but are vanishingly rare.

For CISOs, managing the fear factor is the first step toward successful interactions with the board. It's important to come prepared to address concerns around the uncommon attack vectors while also putting those risks in perspective. At the same time, keeping the board and business stakeholders focused on the highest risks and most likely attack scenarios helps ensure that security resources go toward controlling what can be controlled.

Strategy 2: Lead with Resilience
Speaking of control, telling the board that the organization is 100% secure is setting the security team up to fail, and setting up the CISO for a new acronym: Career Is Soon Over. That's why, in addition to putting risk in perspective, CISOs need to come prepared to talk about resiliency — how the organization will recover in the event of a breach, what measures are in place to react quickly, and how the security team can effectively investigate and use that knowledge to move forward in a more secure and intelligent way.

Strategy 3: Mind the Gap
CISOs should be prepared to communicate their security posture in terms of the key gaps in enterprise security programs and their coverage model. For this purpose, leveraging security frameworks can be effective. While business stakeholders may not grasp the technical nuances of frameworks such as CIS Controls, MITRE ATT&CK, and NIST, these frameworks provide a programmatic, logical, and standardized way to evaluate the completeness of a security program against industry benchmarks.

Using these frameworks, CISOs can provide a contextual overview of the technologies they have in place (such as next-gen firewall, SIEM, and endpoint protection) as well as the technologies they plan to implement to close gaps in their architecture (such as cloud access security brokers and network detection and response).

Strategy 4: Focus on Business Risks and Rewards
One of the most critical success factors for CISOs in a board setting is mapping the priorities of the security team to core business objectives. While the security team might consider having zero expired SSL certificates a major achievement, the board likely has no understanding of the business implications of this effort. For CISOs, presenting this information in the context of business objectives can make all the difference. In the case of SSL certificates, that means talking about the implications for consumer trust, service reliability, search engine rankings, and website engagement and conversion. Framed this way, maintaining SSL certificates is a driver of important business outcomes.

While SSL certificates are just one example, if CISOs brief the board through the lens of the organization's top objectives and how they are supporting them, the conversation will be much more productive.

Strategy 5: Build a Road Map to "Yes"
Even as enterprise budgets get poured into security initiatives, at the board level security is often seen as a necessary evil, and sometimes an outright impediment to business operations. Almost everyone has a story about how some "draconian" security requirement prevented them from using a technology that to help them perform better in their job. This pain point gave rise to an entire category known as "Shadow IT" — itself a massive security headache.

For the board, these anecdotes can make members feel like security is diametrically opposed to innovation. This is why it's critical for CISOs to come prepared with a road map for getting to "yes." If CISOs, together with CIOs, can demonstrate a clear understanding of business requirements and objectives, and talk about what security measures need to be in place to achieve them, it reframes the conversation around when not if.

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "Security 101: What Is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack?"

Bill Ruckelshaus is an experienced public company executive with a passion for technology-driven businesses – ranging from VC-backed pre-IPO firms, to profitable companies with $500M + in annual revenue. Bill is a hands-on executive with experience in strategy, ... View Full Bio
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