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The Power of Relationships: Executive Buy-In and Security Culture for Bolstering Resilience

“Where do we start?”

This is the question every CISO asks about every new program. In fact, I ask and answer that question many times a month. There’s a reason for this, of course. A strong start to any project builds momentum, reassures stakeholders, and sets the stage for what’s to come. Security resilience initiatives are no different. Security resilience is the ability to anticipate and respond to unpredictable threats or changes, and then emerge stronger. It’s hard to imagine a more vital undertaking for CISOs. And as with all initiatives, CISOs always want to know where to begin.

They’re likely to find some valuable starting points in the Security Outcomes Report, Volume 3: Achieving Security Resilience, the latest in a series of reports released by Cisco and reflecting the viewpoints of 4,700 IT and security professionals from 26 countries. The report identifies seven success factors CISOs can pursue to improve outcomes within their own enterprise security resilience programs, placing a high priority on security resilience. The seven success factors range in nature from the architectural—simplifying your hybrid IT environment, maximizing zero trust adoption—to more relationship-focused factors.

It’s the latter that caught my eye.

Seven success factors for resilience:

  1. Establish executive support
  2. Cultivate a culture of security
  3. Hold resources in reserve
  4. Simplify hybrid cloud environments
  5. Maximize zero trust adoption
  6. Extend detection and response capabilities
  7. Take security to the edge

Solid relationships enable security resilience

It shouldn’t surprise any CISO that the first two success factors are built around relationships. These factors zero in on relationships with company leadership (as measured by establishing executive support) and relationships with people across the organization (as measured by cultivating a culture of security). Experienced CISOs know that these factors can make or break security initiatives.

Given the objective of security resilience is to withstand threats and come back even stronger, it’s clear that resilience must exist before, during, and after a cybersecurity incident. This has repercussions on the executive level and throughout the business. Lack of executive support can lead to detection, response, and recovery capabilities that are chronically underfunded. This leaves CISOs at a disadvantage when security incidents do inevitably happen and panic strikes the C-suite. What’s more, CISOs who lack strong executive relationships may also find themselves struggling to oversee incident management and coordinate communications. And afterward? Remediating and improving the security posture, which often impacts multiple parts of the organization beyond IT and often requires significant investment, stalls without a necessary lift from leadership.

The security report, which scores resilience levels across a series of criteria, finds that organizations reporting a strong backing from leadership have resilience scores that are 39% higher when compared to organizations reporting weak support. “Bridges to the C-suite are built upon a solid understanding of how the business works and how security initiatives can make it work even better,” notes the report. “Support goes both ways in any relationship, after all.”

In addition to keeping the program aligned, CISOs must keep in communication with their peers and superiors. Those who share only transactional relationships within the C-Suite find their interactions limited to status updates and budget requests. Transformational relationships, however, involve more frequent and deeper communication and interactions, which cover a broader set of topics than submitting the latest budget ask. They are, in other words, more valuable.

A security culture can create willing resilience partners

Of course, executive support is just one crucial factor for success. Resilience programs need broad support from throughout the organization, not just at the top. Every time an employee picks up a mouse or accesses an app from their mobile phone, they make a choice to either strengthen or lessen the organization’s security posture. Every time an improvement is necessary following a security event, cultural buy-in determines whether this new request from security is implemented or circumvented.

According to the report, organizations that successfully foster a culture of security can see a 46% increase in resilience compared to those who lack such a culture. Much like aligning a program with the business direction furthers leadership buy-in, CISOs need to align security policy with the functional direction of the business—but in a way that helps employees see security measures as protecting not just corporate data and IT assets but also their own future. When employees aren’t on board or see security measures as IT concerns with no relation to them, resilience suffers. “Frequent security policy violations and workarounds,” notes the report, “are evidence of poor security culture.” By viewing policy exceptions as feedback, and investigating these from the perspective of identifying and correcting misalignment, security leaders can enroll employees as the willing participants in the solution—rather than contributors to the problem.

Security leaders know, by and large, what we need to do to secure our organizations. We have frameworks with pages of controls. We have risk registers with lists of action items. Where we often struggle is translating this knowledge into action. To do that, we must see our efforts within the strategic context of executive leaders and the tactical reality of the line managers in our organization. We must personalize and prioritize our efforts around what matters to the people we collaborate with. It is through engaging people that our security programs become human-centric and, in turn, become more resilient.

Where do we start? With relationships. Good relationships lead to good security programs, and good security programs lead to great relationships. And all of these contribute to security resilience.

Download the Security Outcomes Report, Vol. 3: Achieving Security Resilience today.

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