By Matt Hines
March 10, 2008
As the threat of attack, both external and internal, continues to take
root and as data-handling regulations continue to proliferate, the role
of a chief information security officer appears to be growing more
complex by the day. Many CISOs are doing an admirable job of stemming
the tide of data loss and keeping their heads above water around
compliance. But some IT security leaders are doing it better than the
rest, according to a recent Forrester Research report, which has
identified several characteristics that make these top CISOs more
successful than their peers.
Beyond predictable recommendations such as having a close relationship
with their employer's business leaders and making security a pervasive
issue across their entire organizations, several unexpected practices
arose during Forrester's discussions with users, vendors, and
A moral compass is the key to success
The top finding was that truly effective CISOs must have a strong moral
compass that allows them to lead as much by example as they command
respect via mandate. "CISOs are expected to have a certain level of
technical skill, but the character of the person really drives a lot of
the success that they might have in this position," said Khalid Kark, a
Forrester analyst and the report's chief author.
"Having the integrity, the visibility, and letting people know that you
as an individual will always do the right thing is of great importance
when you are being trusted to protect a lot of sensitive information."
Other C-level executives may be able to get away with taking sides in
corporate standoffs or going behind people's backs to accomplish their
goals, but CISOs who expect to garner the level of respect needed to
carry out their jobs most effectively must emit a persona of undeniable
"Before doing the research, I wouldn't have guessed how important this
aspect might have been, even having managed security operations myself,"
said Kark. "But it became clear that this is a characteristic that many
people really value in a CISO. One of the issues that these executives
face is that it takes time to build trust, and if you have that [moral]
compass where you instinctively know what [is right] to do, you can
achieve that [trust] in a shorter timeframe."
Also important to gaining that trust and executive buy-in is an ability
to work with "the corporate psyche," as well as balancing the CISO
position's political and policing roles.
Flexibility, patience, business acumen, and mentoring are other keys
Other key attributes of the most successful CISOs include having the
flexibility to look for creative solutions to problems and move quickly
from one project to the next, remaining patient whenever possible, and
running security as if it were a business unit. That latter talent
requires the ability to gather important security and compliance data,
plus knowing how to use it to defend related budget items and project
One of the most important assets for any CISO, Kark said, is to behave
as a "kingmaker," someone who helps other people improve their own
skills by acting as a mentor, rather than as a draconian ruler who
merely gives commands and expects them to be followed. "CISOs need to
help other people succeed and take over different responsibilities. This
should be part of their overall security strategy," he said.
A related talent is not playing the blame game. "CISOs also have to be
willing to take on a lot of the blame when things go wrong, even if it
was someone else's fault. You don't want to take the blame for
everything, but if you can stand up for someone else's mistake and use
that to work on issues that improve the overall position of the
organization, that's a great thing to do."
Value of deep technical skills is questioned
One aspect that the Forrester report did not cite as critical to a
CISO's success was having a high level of technical skills. "Some people
said yes, and others said no. This is an old debate," Kark said. "I
think the key is that you absolutely need to have the ability to
comprehend technical data, but you don't necessarily need the hands-on
skills. Many successful CISOs don't focus on operational issues like
managing firewalls, but they do need to be aligned with defining
security policies and crafting the risk posture of their organization."
In fact, many CISOs who do have technical skills contend that the
knowledge often leads to them getting tied down in too many operational
decisions and projects, he said.
Regardless of a CISO's technical abilities, Kark said that it will
become increasingly important for security leaders to move away from a
bottom-up approach to security, where the focus is what tools to use, to
a top-down approach driven by risk management and governance concepts.
"These executives need to move from operational expertise into more of a
role of a strategic thinker, from a policeman to a trusted adviser," he
said. "They need to see themselves more as a consultant, as opposed to
an auditor, and transition from a specialist in IT security to a
generalist in overall business risk."
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