Today’s top CISOs come from many different backgrounds. Some have held more technical roles and decided to switch gears and learn the art of business. While others come from a strong compliance and policy background and were inspired by the machinations of security.

Whatever their origin, each CISO has its own blend of qualifications, experience, and hard-won skills. As a result, there’s no strictly defined career path for CISOs.

Where to start? Understanding the CISO Role

If you want to become a CISO, it all starts with understanding what new responsibilities you will have to undertake and your willingness to step up even before landing the job. Be proactive in finding solutions to the problems your organization is currently facing. Security practitioners that take on additional responsibility will demonstrate their added value, and in return, will gain skills and experience that are essential in a security leader.

The typical CISO oversees four main security pillars that include security architecture and engineering, operations, cyber resilience, and regulatory and IT compliance. However, they are increasingly taking ownership of other tasks such as risk and governance, business continuity, identity and access management (IAM), fraud prevention, and more.

Being a CISO isn’t just about being responsible for security functions. A recent study by Kudelski Security discussed the need for modern CISOs to display a broad range of skills and expertise that go beyond technology. 

A CISO needs to be able to: 

  • guide the organization towards a proactive approach to security, 
  • manage risk tolerance, 
  • and advise the board on cyber risks while providing a security strategy.

In addition, today’s CISO has to be well-versed in business acumen and promote security as a business enabler with a clear return on investment (ROI). They will have to build relationships with other key stakeholders across the organization to identify opportunities to add value. A CISO also has to act as an educator, coaching and empowering both technology teams to understand the business goals and business leaders to understand the value of security.

The CISO Career Path

While the career progression to become a CISO is far from linear, there are some steps that help create your own path. Among CISOs, CIOs, and security recruiters, there’s a clear consensus on the steps prospective security leaders should take to ready themselves for the role:

Get a mentor 

A mentor will be critical in helping develop the skills and experience you need. Ideally, you will rely on your current CISO. If they are not suitable, your first step is to identify possible mentors outside the organization.

Build your skillset 

Seek out opportunities to develop yourself, in both technical and ‘soft’ skills. Take advantage of any opportunity to expose yourself to a new aspect of security and leadership. Don’t wait to be asked, proactively seek ways to get involved in new projects within your team and others that might interest you.

Get education and certifications 

Your organization should provide some support, but don’t rely on that exclusively. Ask your mentor and peers for advice on the best training to pursue and invest in yourself. Certifications might not be a requirement for some organizations, but they showcase the technical level of a candidate.

Work on your soft skills

The biggest differentiator between security practitioners and leaders is their ability to build relationships across the organization. Take every opportunity to develop your soft skills and expose yourself to situations that demand skills like communication, relationship building, and public speaking.

Get involved in the industry 

The saying goes that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. In this case, it’s both. Building your network and becoming known in the security industry is a great way to open opportunities for yourself and learn from the people that have gone through the same experience.

Boost your visibility with executives

Look for opportunities to assume responsibilities associated with a more senior role than you are currently in. The more exposure you have to senior-level business and executives, the more comfortable you’ll be in that environment.

Express your career objectives

At all stages of your path, express your career objectives clearly to your leaders, and ask them for development opportunities. If you do this consistently, you’ll gain the experience you need much more quickly than if you sit back and wait for a chance.

Building the Future of Security Leadership

The security field is growing rapidly, and CISOs are taking on an increasingly wide range of responsibilities. As cybercrime continues to grow, and organizations rely even more heavily on their digital infrastructure, strong leadership will be critical to ensuring the effective management of cyber risk.

The next generation of modern CISOs will have to face new challenges. Identifying and nurturing their hard and soft skills will be paramount. Their knowledge of both security and the business will help them navigate a constantly evolving security landscape, become the bridge between technologists and business executives.

This article was originally featured in Infosecurity Magazine.

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