CISO Series - Communication

The ability to communicate effectively with a diverse array of stakeholders, from your own security team to C-level executives is extremely if not the one of the most important aspect of leadership in security.

Striking the right balance is key, I will try and share some wisdom from a number of years where I enjoyed leadership roles for different organisations. I had several mentors who helped guide communication strategies in different ways, each though emphasised the importance of communicating business risk when engaging with C-suite executives over the technical issues.

Leadership in security will no doubt involve interacting with diverse teams, each with its unique set of expectations, priorities, and jargon. Understanding your audience forms the cornerstone of effective communication. Communicating the same risk to engineering teams will require a different approach than talking about the same risk to the rest of your colleagues in the C-Suite.

Learn the Landscape: Key before you begin, as I touched on in the first blog post in this series, get to know the business really well. Know Their Priorities: Every team and individual you communicate with will have different concerns. Be it a technical issue for your IT team or a business risk for a C-level executive, always tailor your communication to address their specific priorities.

To do this I keep a seperate section of notes for each team, at the top of the notes I keep a list of the key stakeholders, skills, projects and the teams priorities. I take note of any particular acronyms the team uses that are not yet familiar. It makes it more personable when then communicating with the team, you understand their priorities, their language and can tailor your communication.

Simplify Complexity

Having this knowledge mapped out for each team, the ability to convey complex security concepts in simple terms becomes easier. This is especially important when dealing with non-technical stakeholders.

Use Analogies: The ability to explain complex issues through simple, engaging stories is a great and effective communication strategy. Apply this by using analogies or stories to explain intricate security concepts that the team can relate to. Visualise Data: I would recommend not presenting complex data to teams to underpin security but instead turn this into easy-to-understand visuals can be effective. Charts, diagrams, and infographics can help make abstract concepts more tangible.

Speak the Language of Business Risk

When communicating with C-level executives, the focus shifts from technicalities to business risks. You need to articulate how potential security issues could impact the organisation’s bottom line.

At this level, discussions revolve around strategic decisions, organisational goals, and significant risks. As a CISO, you need to articulate cybersecurity issues in terms that resonate with other C-level executives.

C-level executives are concerned with the bigger picture. They focus on business growth, risk mitigation, and strategic objectives. So, your first step should be to align your perspective with theirs. Understand their goals and priorities to effectively communicate the relevance of cybersecurity.

Technical jargon can often create a communication barrier. When interacting with other C-suite executives, translate technical details into business language. Show how cybersecurity risks can impact business operations, reputation, customer trust, and if applicable regulatory compliance.

Quantifying risk can help highlight the importance of cybersecurity. If a potential data breach could result in a hefty fine or significant brand damage, that’s a clear and compelling argument for action.

Don’t wait for a crisis to communicate. Regularly update your fellow C-suite executives about the cybersecurity landscape and any potential risks. This proactive approach not only keeps them informed but also helps build trust and shows your commitment to the organisation’s well being.

C-suite executives are often time-poor. Therefore, it’s essential to communicate concisely. ALWAYS be prepared to answer questions succinctly.

Foster a collaborative relationship with other C-suite executives. Involve them in cybersecurity decision-making where possible and always be open to their feedback. This approach not only enhances understanding but also ensures everyone is invested in the cybersecurity strategy.

Remember, the aim is not just to inform but to influence, fostering a culture that values and prioritises cybersecurity.

  1. Quantify Risks: Express cyber risks in terms of potential financial loss or reputational damage. This will resonate more with C-suite executives, who are typically more concerned with the broader business impact.
  2. Align with Business Objectives: Show how your cybersecurity strategies support the overarching business objectives. This could be improving customer trust through robust data protection or ensuring regulatory compliance to prevent potential fines.

Encourage Open Dialogue

Fostering an environment where all stakeholders feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and concerns is a hallmark of good communication.

Solicit Feedback: Regularly invite input from all teams on security matters. This will not only foster a sense of collaboration but also provide you with valuable insights. Practice Active Listening: Listening is as important as speaking in communication. Show empathy and understanding when others express their concerns, fostering trust and opening the door to productive discussions.

Stay Ahead of the Curve

As a CISO, being proactive and staying abreast of potential security threats is essential. I do this by reading a collection of blogs each morning with a cup of coffee, before I land in the office or sign-on. This provides an understanding of the wider security issues and hot topics of the day that may be coming my way.

Anticipate Questions:

Try to predict potential questions or concerns from your stakeholders and prepare responses in advance.

Regular Updates: Provide regular updates on the evolving cybersecurity landscape that relates to the business. This keeps everyone informed and helps manage expectations and encourages discussion within the teams.

Great Advice

Some really good advice from Derek Brown MBE, that I thought I would include here also. Derek first introduced me to Apprenticing with the Customer some 13 years ago on my first government assignment and it proved invaluable to my consulting career.

“Senior leaders generally only want to know if they need to do something now or may have to do something in the future or they don’t need to do anything. They don’t have time to read every briefing and if you can influence their support teams that is a good route to get your message across. Build trust and rapport with them and they will heed your advice if/when you need to brief their bosses on key of urgent matters.”

Communication as a CISO involves simplifying complex concepts, speaking the language of business risk, encouraging open dialogue, and staying ahead of potential security threats. Adopting these strategies will not only make your communication ‘fantastic’ but also ensure that you effectively fulfil your role as a CISO, while keeping your organisation’s best interests at heart.