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CISO pressures: Why the role sucks and how to fix it

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Look around the boardroom, and the average tenure of a CEO is 8.4 years. A CFO will spend approximately 6.2 years in the position, while a COO lasts 5.5 years. In stark contrast, a CISO will spend an average of 1.5 to 2 years before leaving behind the constant stress and urgency of the job.

These numbers are no coincidence. There’s a serious problem happening in the cybersecurity industry, and all too often, it’s swept under the rug because it’s uncomfortable to address. The time is now to shine a light on the problem and understand the true challenges and repercussions of the modern day CISO role.

A running list of immediate challenges

When CISOs come to work each day, there’s a growing list of issues to face. Perhaps the most ominous is the constant cyberattacks threatening organisations of all sizes and spanning all industries. Add to this dilemma the fact that todays cyberattacks are more sophisticated in nature, with most fuelled by geopolitical tension and clever cybercriminal techniques such as lateral movement, island hopping and counter incident response to stay invisible. It was recently found that the average organisation’s protected endpoint was targeted by two cyberattacks per month throughout 2018. At this rate, an organisation with 10,000 endpoints is estimated to see more than 660 attempted cyberattacks per day - leading to immense pressure for CISOs and their teams at the frontline.

In many organisations, there’s also an assumption that security is the sole responsibility of the CISO. In reality, it’s a business imperative -- everyone, from the CEO to the seasonal intern, should prioritise secure best practices to keep the organisation protected. This could be as simple as attending regular cybersecurity trainings, and not clicking on the suspicious phishing link shared via an unknown email alias. These small steps can aid security teams immensely and take some pressure off of the CISO.

Add to these challenges the accelerated rate of evolving business technology, with most organisations laser focused on digital transformation efforts; the constantly shifting legal and regulatory environment consisting of legislation like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act; as well as the fact that everyone thinks they’re an expert at the job, and you have a recipe for a burnt out CISO, with no finish line to the job’s responsibilities in sight.

The daunting repercussions: What needs to change

While the list of CISO challenges sounds daunting, what’s even more concerning is the repercussions it's having on the people in the role. With 60 per cent of CISOs admitting that they rarely disconnect from work, and 88 per cent working more than 40 hours per week -- if not more since most cyberattacks seem to strike on weekends -- mental health is often put on the backburner. In fact, nearly 17 per cent of CISOs are either medicating or using alcohol to deal with the job stress. Others give up altogether, with less than a third remaining in their job for more than three years.

So what can be done to change these devastating effects? To begin, let’s look at the fact that there will be over two million cybersecurity positions open worldwide by 2020. CISOs need support and they must fill this talent gap -- but it’s not just looking for external candidates. Look internally for support, and ensure all candidates are being onboarded/trained properly. Next, offer continual education from internal and external resources, and retain by advancement -- reward a job well done and be a regular advocate for promotions and/or raises in the industry, before it’s too late.

On the topic of support, CISOs also need a helping hand from other business leaders and functions. CISOs are known to support every department, but the reality is, it’s not always returned. Look to leaders in finance, marketing, customer service or HR, who often take priority when allocating budgets, for support, not only financially but for sound business advice based on what they’re seeing across the organisation.

Most importantly, from a CISO’s perspective, the role requires a mindset shift. It’s time to change traditional strategy; it’s not proving to be effective. First, let’s stop buying technology because the bells and whistles sound promising, especially as the industry careens towards $124 billion in global security spend this year. Instead, let’s start understanding where the true security problem lies within the organisation and work from there.

Lastly, and this holds true across the board, CISOs need to understand that sometimes, ‘perfect’ in the role does not exist. It’s ok to fail, attempt new ways to solve problems and explore other options. While this won’t immediately solve the burdens, it does provide an opportunity to breathe during the never-ending battle against the bad guys.

Rick McElroy, Head of Security Strategy, Carbon Black

Rick has more than 15 years of information security experience advising organisations on reducing their risk posture and tackling tough security challenges, previously working for the U.S. Department of Defense.