How to Bridge the Email Security Language Gap Between IT and the C-Suite

When conversations about technology come up between the IT security pros working on the ground and company executives, there's often a massive disconnect – neither party knows how to fluently speak the others’ language. 

The IT administrator will talk about the benefits of a particular technology – its features and requirements – but all the C-suite really wants to know is how that technology stops bad things happening and affects the management of risk that could impact the business.  


This has been a problem for years. Gartner VP and Fellow Ken McGee, who interviewed thousands of C-suite executives as part of a study, concluded that IT pros and executives aren’t on the same page. He compared the disconnect to carbon dioxide, in that it's "odorless, colorless and killing [his] clients." It’s a problem that many organizations don’t know exists. What's really striking about this disconnect is that now, the stakes for collaboration between both parties have actually never been higher, yet we still can’t see the problem.

It’s been pointed out that as soon as Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel resigned following the company’s historic data breach, the relationship between all CEOs and IT, particularly CIOs, forever changed. It showed that CEOs and CIOs are now duly responsible for devising an IT strategy, and both will endure backlash if something goes wrong. As one executive recruiter told the Wall Street Journal, "Boards expect that CEOs will no longer keep CIOs at arm’s length and say ‘I’ve got somebody who does that'."

With that in mind, here is some advice to help IT pros on the ground and the C-suite start to speak the same language, specifically as it relates to email security:

To the IT Team: Avoid 'Bottom-Up' Warnings
Gartner's Chief of Research, Risk and Security Paul Proctor says that many IT security pros get into trouble when they're so focused on the granular elements of security – what upgrades may need to be made, what security failures they need to avoid – that they fail to see the big picture and the actual impact on the business as a whole.

As Proctor describes it, this "bottom-up" form of communication might start with a security officer telling a CEO something like, "If we don't patch vulnerabilities, then that's going to be bad for business." From the CEO’s perspective, what this statement doesn't do is frame the importance of patching within the larger context of the business. It fails to connect that best practice and its actual impact on the bottom line.

When it comes to email security specifically, perhaps instead of just urging a CEO to adopt Targeted Threat Protection and multi-layered malware protection, an IT security pro may want to explain that 91 percent of all hacks begin with email-based phishing, and then mention specific consequences of a breach – the costs associated with detection and clean-up, further breach mitigation, notification of customers and clients, reimbursements for damages, and the long-term reputation damage.

That’s the type of big-picture language that will be better understood by the CEO and C-suite.

To the CEO and Board Members: Look Beyond IT and Build a Culture of Security
Whenever there's a security failure, it's natural for the CEO to assign blame to the IT team, the staff members closest to the breach. The problem is that successful attacks can originate from plenty of other sources outside of the IT department.

It's up to senior management to ensure that security becomes entrenched in the culture of the company and isn’t solely the responsibility of IT. The IT team may operate the email security tools, but the burden of prevention ought to be shared by all.

Cyber-criminals are more sophisticated than ever – they look for, and are often able to exploit, any weakness. If IT and the executive aren’t speaking a common language, it makes cyber-criminals’ efforts to detect vulnerabilities that much easier. By presenting a united front, businesses are better able to keep the organization safe.

To learn more about email security, please view our on-demand webinar, “The Human Firewall: Strengthening Human Security.”

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