Existential Threats: 5 Tips for Educating Boards on Data Security

One must wonder: What is the cause of this disconnect, and what can be done to effectively communicate the urgent existential threat faced by today’s companies? Furthermore, how can these companies create a workforce that understands what it’s up against and is ready to act when data is threatened?

It’s clear that education on the evolving threat landscape must be ongoing as technology continues to be integrated into every facet of every company. Here are a few communications tips and vivid examples that can help drive that understanding home for board members.

“Operating as if a breach is an eventuality, as opposed to a possibility, is the safest way to plan for a secure infrastructure.”

1. Always ask ‘What If?’: Asking questions up and down the organization is important, from the deepest levels of the datacenter all the way up to the boardroom. What if the firewall is breached? What if a board member leaves their laptop in an airport? What if a disgruntled employee wants to steal information? Questions are powerful deterrents—and the vast majority of solutions are born from understanding what happens if it’s not taken care of. Encouraging these questions and greater transparency organization-wide is essential for keeping the borders of your data safe from breaches.

2. Prepare for ‘When,’ not ‘If’: The example of Sony says it all—who would have thought that a rogue state would allegedly drive one of the most devastating cyber-attacks in recent history, all because of a mediocre comedy about a dictator and some bumbling journalists? You never know what is going to give someone cause to attack your system, but the reason already exists: Personnel data, IP, and corporate financial information are worth big money. Operating as if a breach is an eventuality, as opposed to a possibility, is the safest way to plan for a secure infrastructure. The board needs to understand that the nature of most every business today leaves them under the threat of constant attack, and failing to plan for a breach is suicide.

3. Come with Solutions: The relationship between C-staff and directors is no different from that between most bosses and their employees—the C-staff wants to come to the board with solutions, rather than just unanswered problems. Stating the issue is an obvious necessity, but entering with a list of proactive solutions is what will flesh out the issue—making it more understandable for those without a deep understanding of any consequences. Additionally, it will give the board a better view of the landscape—highlighting the litany of solutions available in the marketplace, and which ones best suit the organization’s needs.

4. Lead with the Wallet: Security breaches are tremendously expensive—effectively and realistically communicating this to a board can sometimes get a point across far better than complicated technological explanations. Data from an IBM study states that the average cost of a data breach is $3.8 million—which is enough to completely destroy some small companies. Meanwhile, Target incurred a $162 million loss over 2013-2014 after its data breach, in addition to experiencing a staggering 46% drop in profits in the Q4 2013 holiday shopping season immediately following the attack. More recently, the company agreed to pay $67 million to financial institutions who issued credit cards for which the security was compromised in the breach. And now the courts have opened the gates for banks affected by the attack to file additional class action suits against the retailer. As boards are well versed in the high-level operations of their business, speaking in terms of potential financial impact is an effective way to communicate the ROI on security procedures.

5. Hire that Communicator: Many up-and-coming CEOs get the message that data threats are real and all levels of the organization should be aware of data security risks. These leaders are hiring CIOs and CISOs and lobbying for their appointment to their boards in an effort to better communicate risks, problems and solutions in clear language. Other organizations are appointing liaisons from IT with communications skills to better lay out problems and solutions in clear language. These individuals are preparing organizations to better plan for and mitigate the risk to sensitive data by connecting the technical with the financial and speaking plainly.

Appointments such as these will prepare the company for cyber-threats from the top-down.

The key to all of this is communication. Boards can’t be experts on everything, but they need to be brought into the fold by an expert capable of communicating risks and solutions in a clear and effective manner. Coming to a board without the foresight to answer questions and portray logical and cost effective business solutions is a waste of valuable time. Some organizations will have these qualities in-house, and many will have to seek an outside expert to pick up the slack. Regardless of the method, failing to communicate serious and technical shortcomings challenges a business’s ability to succeed.

Brian Stafford is CEO of Diligent Corporation. Stafford previously served as a Partner at McKinsey & Company where he started and ran McKinsey’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) practice. He holds a MS in Computer Science from the University of Chicago and a BS in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.