Bridging the gap: What CISOs must do to get the C-suite on their side


A person attracts people to his side with a magnet.
Image Credits: Andrii Yalanskyi (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Sean McDermott


Sean McDermott is the founder and CEO of RedMonocle, a SaaS-based risk
intelligence software designed to help cybersecurity leaders find, fund and fix their blind spots.

Every CISO must face a cold, hard fact: You might not have a seat at the boardroom table or the executive leadership team meeting.

At some organizations, this relatively new role doesn’t get C-level attention yet, and at others, the organizational structure can prevent you from ever getting a permanent seat at the table. Other complexities arise if you report to a CIO or CTO and feel muted by the hierarchy. Or, perhaps your message is diluted by the time it gets up the chain of command.

While lack of access to the highest levels of your organization can be disheartening, remember that you can still have a significant influence on your organization and its security. You may just have to hustle.

As an executive, I’d happily meet with a team member (at any level) who wants to run ideas by me. If these ideas are interesting, I’d likely let them marinate for a few weeks before reaching back out to the employee with feedback. Now we’ve started an open dialogue and begun building a rapport. In the course of our conversations, maybe this person continues to present thought-provoking ideas. I might take their suggestions to the board or invite them to present them.

Of course, having a permanent seat at the table is ideal. But, if that’s not realistic, work to get yourself — or at least your ideas — into the boardroom. Just because you don’t have a standing invite doesn’t mean that you can’t have an impact.

Create relatable and relevant messaging

To get your message across to time-strapped executives (or just about anyone for that matter), you need to meet them where they are. You already know why cybersecurity investment is essential to your role. Now step into your leadership’s shoes to explain why it’s crucial to theirs.

As a first step, research your C-suite and board of directors and the people that make up the teams. This exploration is important, especially to newly hired CISOs, because executive and board structures can be highly variable with a diverse set of responsibilities.

Examine your executive team and board’s priorities, and consider that they are usually big-picture initiatives like creating long-term value, increasing resilience and boosting stakeholder engagement.

Dig to find out more about the team. Is there a cyber expert or a natural ally on the team? Did someone work for an IT firm? Get creative to figure out where your message will resonate. For example, did any C-suite executives or board members experience data breaches or ransomware attacks at their previous employers?

Now that you have a thorough understanding of your executive team and board and know what makes them tick, modify your message to speak directly to their goals and priorities. Make sure your approach to cybersecurity fits into their priorities and tie the benefits of cybersecurity back to those goals. For example, why will investment in cybersecurity build the company’s long-term value, resiliency and stakeholder engagement?

Putting your business’s security vulnerabilities into context is also critical. Find news stories that are relevant to your business or specific situation and explain how cyber investments can prevent your company from being the next big news story. Use real-life context to make your case. Detail the potential impact using quantifiable metrics and dollar figures, and compare that to the cost for essential cybersecurity projects and programs. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of cybercrime news stories and you are bound to find several that relate to your business.

Imagine that you work for a school system and want to minimize the risk of phishing attacks. Curate articles for the board highlighting that school districts are the biggest ransomware targets and calculate the potential impact — schools pay an average ransom of $50,000. Explain that employees are the system’s most significant vulnerability, but you could mitigate this risk by training employees to detect suspicious emails, simulating synthetic phishing emails and holding people accountable for exercising good cybersecurity hygiene.

Of course, in our 24-hour news cycle, relevancy changes. Yesterday’s Facebook data breach of 533 million users could be tomorrow’s $4.4 million Colonial Pipeline attack. So stay on top of industry news to understand the latest technologies, threats and regulatory and compliance issues.

Become a translator

C-suite leadership and board members typically don’t become high-ranking executives by rising through the IT ranks. In other words, they don’t have your level of IT expertise and probably don’t understand technical jargon and industry-specific terminology. If you start talking about data exfiltration, APTs and IOCs, your board members will start checking their phones.

You have to be a translator: When you engage in executive or board communication, speak like a business person and keep your messages brief and engaging. But, just like your C-suite and board don’t have to become cybersecurity experts overnight, you don’t have to get an MBA to connect with them.

It’s not unlike traveling. If you’re going on a trip to China, you can’t expect to get very far unless you attempt to speak the language. You don’t need to become fluent in Mandarin, but you do need to figure out how to say “yes,” “thank you” and “please bring me the check.” As you navigate through a foreign country, you learn more of the language and people accept you more, making for a much better experience.

The same logic applies to walking into the boardroom. Why would an executive or board member listen to you if you are speaking in technical jargon? You’re in their world now.

Being a CISO isn’t just about tracking rapidly changing technology, managing evolving risks and designing mitigation plans. It’s a complex position that requires you to shape-shift from a cybersecurity expert into a lobbyist and translator. It requires working your way toward the boardroom (if you aren’t there already) by putting threats into perspective with relatable and relevant messaging that speak directly to your board members.

It’s tough, but if you’re successful, you will thrive as a CISO and your business will reap the benefits.

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