We see continuing confusion regarding the CISO duties in many organizations. When I saw this opinion piece in SC Mag by an experienced CISO (David Nathans) with both commercial and defense sector experience, I figured we might finally get some clarification. Yeah, I should have known better.

I have been involved in a lot of debate on whether a CISO should be a technical leader or more of a policy writer.

Technical leadership and policy writing are not among the first CISO duties that come to my mind – not even close.

David then explains that the CISO’s duties vary by company. Uh, no. Let me try to be clear here. The duty of the CISO is to be responsible and accountable for the organization’s security program. Period. But the definition, objectives, expectations, and funding models for the security program all depend on the organization.

Clearly how the security program is implemented varies from company to company. That’s why we see so many experienced business folks taking on the CISO job. Typically after the technical guys fell on their swords, multiple times. I call these folks, “Mr/Ms. Fix It.” They don’t know a lot about security per se. But they know how to get things done in the organization.

When you are asking folks to do things they don’t want to do – which is basically always in security – you need someone who either has compromising photos of key execs, or is a credible businessperson with a long track record of accomplishment within the organization. That credibility provides enough runway to get the security program moving. Without CISO credibility any security initiative will be stillborn.

He also mentions the need to partner with the business to enable secure innovation; and not putting the organization at risk by pointing out potential issues with emerging business plans, technical services, and partner communications.

The security team’s function could be implementation or just be a validation that chosen technology complies with security policy. A CISO and his or her organizational leaders need to be able to direct technical staff to ensure business objectives and risk tolerances are met.

That is a critical duty for the CISO, which absolutely requires credibility with the business leaders of the organization.

David’s point about the criticality of communications is spot on. Whether it is trying to coerce peers into getting with the security program or providing information about a breach or other attack, the ability to communicate at a high level, in business terms, is absolutely a critical success factor for the CISO.

This is no easy task, as the person filling the CISO role needs to be able to articulate complex technical issues and risks effectively and in a way that is clear, quick to the point, can be well understood, and does not cause any unnecessary panic.

But let’s not forget that without credibility, the CISO (any executive, for that matter) has very little chance of success.

Photo credit: “There goes your credibility” originally uploaded by Hrag Vartanian