RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security

Susan Nunziata, Director of Editorial | 2/27/2013 | 24 comments

Susan Nunziata
Chief information security executives working in financial institutions are finding that boards of directors are more interested than ever in learning what, exactly, their teams are up to.

Information security leaders from Fidelity, Liberty Mutual, and Manulife Financial shared their experiences and best-practices for presenting to your board of directors during a session at RSA Conference 2013 on February 26 in San Francisco.

The overarching message? Get yourself out in front of the board of directors before you're called to stand before it. "If you wait until you're summoned, you're behind the eight ball already," said Chauncey Holden, chief information security officer at Fidelity. Oswin Deally, senior director for enterprise information security operations at Liberty Mutual, noted that if you're called before your board because something security-related has caught their attention, they'll have already formed their opinions about it. Instead, he said, "You want to be able to help form that opinion."

John Schramm, VP and chief information risk officer for Manulife Financial, added that taking a proactive approach to educating your board members about security is key throughout the year, not only for quarterly meetings. "One of things we started to do is prepare brief memos on topics that had come up [in the media] like DDoS attacks," said Schram. "We started circulating those to board members for education purposes. Sometimes you get little bits of feedback to allow you to prepare for when you're presenting to the board."

Media attention about cybersecurity is one of the reasons that boards of directors tend to be more open to allotting precious meeting time to their information security officers. "I realized I started getting more emails from our CEO on information security related topics every time there was something in the press," said Schramm. Holden said he's invited to present an update to the board nearly every single quarter. "Boards are more aware than ever that they have a fiduciary responsibility, and they don't want to be called to the carpet on that," he said.

Educating your board about information security
In spite of these trends, you may find you're still having trouble catching the attention of your own board. If that's the case, Schramm advised that you invest the time to develop a working relationship with the company's audit committee head. "They know [your board] better than you will ever know them," he said.

The security executives shared their insights on the worst things you can do when presenting to your board:

  • Deally: Have a very technical conversation about the things you are doing.
  • Schramm: Put up a really complex network diagram.
  • Holden: Walk in without knowing the backgrounds of the people to whom you're presenting.

Chances are you'll only be given about 10 minutes to make your presentation. How do you do so in a way that makes sense, without talking down to a room of accomplished business people? "I start by putting the concepts that I want to convey on paper and revising them 15 to 20 times," said Schramm. "I get them down to point where they are summarized on a level that anyone will understand them. Then I go over them with my wife, who is a healthcare professional who doesn't know technology, and with other friends who aren't in tech."

Schramm said he learned this lesson the hard way. At one of his first board meetings, he said, he prepared a technically detailed presentation, only to have one of the board members ask: "When I get that mail in my inbox from someone in Africa about winning a lottery, is that spam?"

That's not to say you should underestimate the intelligence of your board; rather, speak to them in the business terms that they understand. According to Deally:

You can predict, based on something that could happen against your value chain, what the risk is to your company. Those are meaningful things to convey to people who are interested in making sure the business makes money. The way [the business] makes money is by making sure your company keep selling products, servicing customers, and keeping customers happy. It's applicable not just to an insurance company, it's applicable to any company.

Getting your internal stakeholders on board is key, noted Holden:

You have to sell. If you haven't coordinated ahead of time with your head of audit, your head of risk, your CFO [and] if they look at you sideways, roll their eyes, whatever their interaction might be during the board meeting, you lose off the bat. You have to make sure you've got a full story across the board that really makes sense before you go in.

Most importantly, never try to bluff your way through, said Schramm:

One auditor told me that when you're dealing with boards never answer a question if you don't know the answer. Just say, 'I don't know the answer to that question. I'll have to get back to you.' If you position something incorrectly you end up living with that.

Have you had the chance to present to your board? If so, tell us about your experiences in the comments field below. What do you think of the advice offered by Deally, Holden, and Schramm? Can it work for you? What other important factors should you keep in mind?

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Susan Nunziata   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   3/25/2013 1:59:49 PM
Re: Talking to the Board about Security
@tekedge: Agreed. The key is to make sure you follow up as quickly as possible so they know you are on your game.
tekedge   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   3/25/2013 12:15:57 PM
Talking to the Board about Security
 I agree .I think the CIO should be able to take in an expert if he can otherwise just be truth if a question which floors him and say that he would like to look into it and get back to them later and follow up on the question!
Susan Nunziata   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   3/5/2013 9:22:56 PM
Re: Talking the right way
@Curt: That's true, the context is key. By far and away, research shows that compliance is the No. 1 security concern for board members and other non-tech executives. So to speak in the language of compliance is one way to accomplish providing that context. 
Susan Nunziata   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   3/5/2013 9:07:17 PM
Re: Talking the right way
@Kicheko: I understand your point. Much of this probably depends on how much leeway any company gives to allow you to bring in an expert from your team to provide backup support should challenges arise on the fly. In some cases, that's probably permissable while in others there may be a need to limit the number of attendees to a meeting. If i were cuaght in the latter case, I might attempt to surreptiiously text a colleague, almost as if I were using a Lifeline call in the game Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Though tapping away on my smartphone in front of the board probably isn't the best career move either, come to think of it. :)
batye   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   3/3/2013 7:12:19 PM
Re: Talking the right way
yes, you are right truth should be a best policy/solution... but a lot of times all the truth get hidden in the pilies of reports and paperwork... and only years after or after the fact you could find true....
kicheko   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   2/28/2013 4:15:17 PM
Re: Talking the right way
Susan, -  I don't mean to say that a CIO must be perfect at all times. However i was under the impression that you can bring in an expert to help you sort through your report should anything arise and even take some questions.However if alone and are caught unawares, truth may then be the best policy.
Susan Nunziata   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   2/28/2013 4:09:11 PM
Re: Talking the right way
@Kicheko: That's sensible. The folks providing the guidance for this article are in no way suggesting that you go into a board meeting without being ultra prepared. In addition to knowing your material, they say it's essential to know the bios of every single board member. They recommend speaking to the head of your audit committee prior to the presentation for some insight into the questions you might expect. The advise you to practice practice practice. And yet, as we all know who have done any public speaking, every once in a while a question arises that "stumps the band," as the saying goes. Has that ever happened to you? What do you recommend as the appropriate response, if not "I don't know the answer right now, i'll get back to you with a followup." Can you suggest some alternate ways to deal with that?
kicheko   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   2/28/2013 3:42:52 PM
Re: Talking the right way
Susan, - Precisely, i'd even say students might be more forgiving than boards of directors. the stakes are a lot higher at this level so if you actually said it twice that you had no clue about key questions they would probably start by switching you with someone else who would provide answers.
CurtisFranklin   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   2/28/2013 9:22:13 AM
Re: Talking the right way
@Dave, that falls squarely into the category of understanding which question is which. I agree that CISOs should know about security issues, but if asked about the details of an attack on a competitor -- an attack that was only made public earlier in the day -- I think it's quite OK to say, "I'm still getting the details, but I'll get back to you."

At a certain level it gets back to the issue of confidence: If you're confident in your general mastery of the subject and in your ability to lead your area of responsibility, then a question about details on a rapidly evolving or tangential subject won't throw you.
David Wagner   RSA 2013: Talking to Your Board About Security   2/27/2013 11:38:00 PM
Re: Talking the right way
@Curt- I'm sure age and status have a lot to do with it. But some of it is also whether you think you're expected to know. For instance, when my mother-in-law calls to ask me a pop culture question, I hate when i don't know the answer because she thinks I know all of these things. When someone asks me about hockey, I'm not bothered at by not knowing.

When someone asks the CISO a security question, i suspect the CISO feels more pressure to answer than if the question was about the diameter of the Earth.
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