Core Traits of a Successful CISO

Published in HMG Strategy.

Companies and government agencies need a multi-faceted strategy for identifying, addressing, and countering cyber attacks: State-of-the-art tools. A well-conceived risk assessment methodology. Assembling the right mix of cyber skills.

But in order to pull this all together, an organization also needs a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) who has certain visionary and leadership characteristics. These include a torchbearer who has an intellectual curiosity; someone who is an independent thinker and analytical; a person who has a strong understanding of the organization’s operations and processes. In addition, an effective CISO is also someone who is an adept communicator.

Successful CISOs have other common characteristics. According to an extensive study of CISOs conducted by ZRG Partners across Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and start-ups, dynamic CISOs are also trailblazers within their respective organizations. They have strong opinionswhich they embrace in the face of questioning and scrutiny. They’re not easily persuaded to abandon those plans they believe make the most sense.

Successful CISOs possess other core attributes as well, according to Stephen Spagnuolo, Managing Director at ZRG Partners, who leads the firm’s cybersecurity recruitment and leadership advisory practice.

“It’s someone who fundamentally understands process in terms of identifying and addressing a gap or a weakness in the enterprise,” said Spagnuolo. “Successful CISOs also demonstrate that they’re nimble in dealing with multiple threat vectors; and they know how to address and prioritize those threats.”

CISOs can’t possibly stay apprised of all emerging and potential risks. But first-rate CISOs know well enough to stay connected to different sources of information. This includes regular participation in professional training and networking events; maintaining a fluid dialogue with a range of counterparties; and vigilance in doing continuous outreach to stay on top of developing trends and new/developing security products and service offerings, said Spagnuolo.

Effective CISOs possess strong communication skills and are able to clearly convey, both up and down the leadership chain and laterally across the organization to a variety of stakeholders, the priority threats and corresponding options for addressing them, said Spagnuolo. “Savvy CISOs will have developed a heightened and nuanced ability to forge micro-relationships with business unit leaders across the organization, so that together they may better secure and thus enhance the particular unit mission,” said Spagnuolo.

To sum it up, best-of-breed CISOs today possess an entrepreneurial leadership mindset. “Because of the rapidly changing dynamic that is the cyber security space, there’s a real need to continuously learn and grow from shortfalls and mistakes; it is only through critiquing and adjusting that CISOs can best secure their organization’s digital footprint,” said Spagnuolo.