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As a security or IT leader, researching and vetting security solutions is step one. What’s step two, then? Convincing key stakeholders like the CEO, CFO, and the board that the product needs to be implemented, that it needs to be implemented now, and that it’s worth the cost.
This is easier said than done, but security is business-critical.
So, how do you communicate risk and make a compelling case to (eventually) get buy-in from executives?
We talked to security leaders from some of the world’s most trusted and innovative organizations to find out what they do to get buy-in from CxOs. Here’s a summary of their tips.
1. Familiarize yourself with overall business objectives
While cybersecurity has historically been a siloed department, today, it’s an absolutely essential function that supports and enables the overall business. Think about the consequences of a data breach beyond lost data. Organizations experience higher rates of customer churn, reputations are damaged, and, with regulatory fines and the cost of investigation and remediation, there can be significant revenue loss.
The key, then, is to attach cybersecurity initiatives to key business objectives. The security leaders we interviewed recommended starting by reviewing annual reports and strategic roadmaps. Then, build your business case.
If customer retention and growth are KPIs for the year, insist that cybersecurity builds customer trust and is a competitive differentiator. If the organization is looking for higher profits, make it clear how much a breach would impact the company’s bottom line. (According to IBM’s latest Cost of a Data Breach, the average cost of a data breach is $4.24 million.)
2. Create specific “what-if” scenarios
A lot of security solutions are bought reactively (after an incident occurs), but security leaders need to take a proactive approach. The problem is, it’s more challenging for CxOs and the board to see the value of a solution when they haven’t yet experienced any consequences without it.
As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
That’s why security leaders have to preempt push-back to proactive pitches by outlining what the consequences would be if a solution isn’t implemented so that stakeholders can understand both probability and impact.
For example, if you’re trying to get buy-in for an outbound email security solution, focus on the “what-ifs” associated with sending misdirected emails which – by the way- are sent 800 times a year in organizations with 1,000 employees. Ask executives to imagine a situation in which their biggest clients’ most sensitive data lands in the wrong inbox. What would happen?
Make sure you identify clear, probable consequences. That way, the situation seems possible (if not likely) instead of being an exaggerated “worst-case scenario”.
3. Work closely with the security vendor
You know your business. Security vendors know their product. If you combine each of your expertise – and really lean on each other – you’ll have a much better chance of making a compelling case for a particular solution.
Ask the vendor for specific resources (if they don’t exist, ask them to create them!), ask for product training, ask if you can speak with an existing customer. Whatever you need to get buy-in, ask for it. Rest assured, they’ll be happy to help.
4. Collaborate and align with other departments
It takes a village and cybersecurity is a “people problem”. That means you should reach out to colleagues in different departments for advice and other input. Talk to the folks from Risk and Compliance, Legal, HR, Operations, and Finance early on.
Get their opinion on the product’s value. Find out how it might be able to help them with their goals and initiatives. In doing so, you might even be able to pool money from other budgets. Win-win!
5. Consider how much the executive(s) really know about security
To communicate effectively, you have to speak the same language. And, we don’t just mean English versus French. We mean really getting on the same level as whomever you’re in conversation with.
But, to do that, you have to first know how much your audience actually knows about the topic you’re discussing.
For example, if you look into your CEO’s background and find out that he or she studied computer science, you’ll be able to get away with some technical jargon. But, if their background is limited to business studies, you’ll want to keep it simple. Avoid security-specific acronyms and – whatever you do – don’t bury the point underneath complex explanations of processes.
In short: Don’t succumb to the Curse of Knowledge.
What is the Curse of Knowledge?
It’s a cognitive bias that causes one person to incorrectly assume that other people have the same background and/or information as they do.
6. Use analogies to put costs into perspective
One of the best ways to avoid the Curse of Knowledge and give abstract ideas a bit more context is to use analogies. It could be the ROI of a product or the potential cost of a breach. Either way, analogies can make big, somewhat meaningless numbers more tangible and impactful.
For example, imagine you’re trying to convince your CFO that the cost of a solution is worth it. But, the 6-digit, one-time cost is a hard sell. What do you do? Break the overall cost down by the product’s lifespan. Then, divide that number by the number of employees it will protect during that same period.
Suddenly, the cost will seem more manageable and worth the investment.
7. Invite key stakeholders to events or webinars
Before you even start pitching a particular solution, warm-up executives with educational webinars or events that aren’t product-specific. This will give CxOs a chance to better understand the problem, how it might apply to them, and how other people/organizations are finding solutions.
Bear in mind: most vendors will have at least 1 (generally 2+) webinars or events during the standard sales cycle.
8. Prepare concise and personalized briefing materials
Individual stakeholders will be more likely to consider a particular solution if the problem it solves is directly relevant to them. How? Combine tips #1, #2, #3, and #5.
After taking some time to understand the business’ overall objectives, take a closer look at individual peoples’ roles and responsibilities in meeting those objectives. Then, dig a bit deeper into how much they know about cybersecurity.
Imagine you’re meeting with a COO with some technical experience whose focus is on maintaining relationships with customers. His or her briefing documents should contain minimal technical jargon and should focus on how a data breach affects customer churn.
The bottom line: make it about them.
9. Share these documents in advance of any formal meetings
While this may seem obvious, the security leaders we spoke to made it clear that this is an essential step in getting buy-in. No one wants to feel caught off guard, unprepared, or rushed.
To avoid all of the above, make sure you share any documents relevant to the solution well in advance of any formal meetings.
But, don’t just dump the documents on their desk or in their inbox. Outline exactly what each document is, why it’s relevant to the meeting, and what the key takeaways are. You want to do whatever you can to help them absorb the information, so make sure you make yourself available after sharing the documents and before the meeting, just in case they have any questions or need additional information.
10. Build a strong security culture
Before we dive into why building a strong security culture can help you get buy-in, we want to make it clear that this isn’t something that can happen overnight. This is a long-term goal that requires the help of the entire organization. Yes, everyone.
So, how do you build a strong security culture? Start by ensuring that security and IT teams are committed to helping – not blaming – employees. There has to be a certain level of mutual trust and respect.
Beyond that, employees have to accept responsibility for the overall security of the organization. They have to understand that their actions – whether it’s clicking on a phishing email or using a weak password – have consequences.
If they do accept this responsibility, and if they genuinely care about following policies and procedures and helping secure data and networks, high-level executives will care, too. They’ll therefore be more likely to sign-off on solutions.
11. Keep an eye on security trends outside of your industry
ome industries – specifically Healthcare, Financial Services, and Legal – are bound to compliance standards that formalize the need for effective security solutions. That means that, compared to other industries like Retail or Manufacturing, they’ll be required to have more robust strategies in place. What they’re doing now, the rest of us will be doing in 12 months.
Keep this in mind.
If you notice that organizations operating in the most highly regulated industries are all taking data loss prevention (DLP) seriously, you’ll be able to make a strong case that this is something that should be on your radar, too.
12. Approach non-executive stakeholders early on
While – yes – getting buy-in from CxOs and the board is important, security leaders also need to get buy-in from non-executive stakeholders working in IT, infrastructure, etc.
After all, those are the people who will actually be responsible for deploying the solution and maintaining it.By approaching them early on (and assuming they’re interested in the solution, too) you’ll be able to paint a clear picture of the process after the solution has been signed off on.
How long will it take? Who’s involved? Will employees’ workflow be disrupted? These are all important questions to answer.
13. Match like-for-like people from both sides
If you’re scheduling a meeting with executives from your side and key people from the vendor’s side, make sure you’re bringing in people that “match” in terms of function and seniority level.
For example, if you work at a start-up and the founder of your company wants to be involved in the buying process, ask the vendor’s founders to join, too. Likewise, if the Head of Infrastructure is joining from your side, ask someone in a similar function to join from the other side. Why? Like-for-like people will be best placed to answer one another’s questions.
And, with that in mind….
14. Preempt questions and prepare answers
No one likes to be put on the spot. To avoid being asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, spend a good amount of time considering all the questions different stakeholders may ask and drafting well-thought-out answers. (Better yet, fit the answers into briefing documents or the presentation itself!)
Remember, people are generally concerned with how a problem/solution affects them directly. That means the CEO will have different questions than the CFO, who will have different questions than the Head of IT.
15. Get specific customer references from the vendor
We mentioned in tip #3 that you should lean on the vendor, especially when it comes to specific resources and customer references. And, we mentioned in tip #11 that you should match like-for-like people in meetings.
It should make sense, then, that specific customer references will be more powerful than generic ones. For example, if you’re the CISO at a 4,000-person tech firm in North America, and you’re trying to convince you’re CTO that you need to implement a new solution, you should share a case study (or customer reference) from the vendor that outlines how their product has helped an organization in the same industry, that’s the same size, and in the same region. Ideally, it will also feature quotes from the CTO.
Why? Professionals trust and rely on their peers when making difficult decisions.
16. Be conscious (and considerate of) peoples’ time
Decisions about security solutions can involve a lot of different people. That means you’ll have to balance several conflicting schedules and fight for time.
Your best bet? Book meetings with all relevant people at once and get the vendor involved at the same time. Ahead of the meeting, share an agenda along with any relevant documents (see tip #8).