The role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) has become more important than ever as organizations have responded to the pandemic by shifting to more remote work and ramping up their IT and cybersecurity infrastructures and policies to meet this increased demand for services.

In fact, a recent State of the CIO survey found that CIOs are expecting to increase the amount of time and expertise spent on security management because of this remote shift and associated changes that directly impact the IT department. Considering the average data breach costs a company more than $4 million, not including reputational damage, this trend does not surprise anyone. As organizations continue to navigate the continuously evolving business landscape and its security architecture, the responsibilities CIOs have within a company – and at the decision-making table – will only become more significant.

As their prominence grows, it’s vital for CIOs to help develop a strategic security or cyber defense plan, and to prioritize specific strategies to ensure holistic success. With this in mind, there are a few important steps CIOs should take to ensure a successful cyber defense plan gets integrated throughout the organization. This includes implementing a zero-trust architecture, promoting better synergy across IT teams and collaborating with the right people.

Lead with a zero-trust architecture

With the rise in digital transformation and the increased distributed workforce in recent years, we’ve witnessed the attack surface accelerate and expand exponentially. Thus, there’s never been a better time for organizations to take zero-trust security seriously. A zero-trust approach to security enforces continuous behavior monitoring and strict access controls for all users, devices, networks, workloads and data across an organization. As part of its cybersecurity executive order last year, the Biden administration made zero-trust an important part of the federal government's security strategy.

Whether in the public or private sector, CIOs must take initiative and lead the development of a zero-trust strategy and a phased implementation plan prioritized by perceived risks and current deficiencies. By being this leader, a CIO can help implement a zero-trust architecture that’s effectively applied to workloads throughout the company, while helping to avoid significant security blind spots that come with ignoring just one of the aforementioned domains. A CIO will also understand that there’s no single, one-size-fits-all tool that can deliver an effective defense against all possible types of threats. Using the unique perspective that comes with the role, CIOs must personalize zero-trust technologies that are most effective for the organization and its employees.

Promote better synergy across IT teams

IT leaders have to refrain from overpromising and underdelivering – it’s a sure way to lose credibility among employees and difficult to recover from. It’s vital for the CIO to take the time to listen and understand perspectives from all IT teams to gather robust data used to inform decisions and manage expectations. Leaders who understand where different teams stand on certain issues can identify any misalignments and test-out solutions that will benefit the parties involved without making conflicting promises.

With that said, this also builds a united front among all employees, especially when an organization's network experiences any sort of issue. By making sure everyone feels heard, CIOs can work to build this synergy within all IT teams and keep them happy and aligned to the overarching organizational goals. If and when a data breach hits an organization, this synergy will aid in a successful cyber defense plan, making sure all team members work together to stop or at least mitigate the damage of a cyberattack.

Collaborate with the right people

An effective cyber or security defense plan doesn’t just involve IT teams – it’s a companywide effort. The CIO should develop strong relationships with other departments (i.e., communications or change management) within an organization. These teams are excellent partners in helping to set the cultural tone, which can help an organization adopt a defensive cyber mindset.

Additionally, these teams can assist the CIO to generate awareness as to what a security strategy entails and explain the “why” to any members of an organization who must endure change – ensuring such changes are understood and therefore being implemented. Especially within the last few years, cybersecurity has been recognized as not just an IT prerogative, but a business one as well. Any cyber threat will have a direct impact on the bottom line, which will then affect the success of the entire company and its employees. The CIO really needs to convey this message properly, which means continuing to prioritize important collaboration with all teams across an organization.   

CIOs play an integral role in an organization – they protect a company and bridge different teams within the organization. With cyberattacks on the rise, businesses will continue to rely more heavily on the role of the CIO to lead and bolster protection proactively, as well as guide an organization in understanding the need for any relevant changes throughout the business. This role emphasizes the importance of creating a good defense plan, and also creating productive working relationships with the multitude of teams a CIO interacts with. It’s important for CIOs in all fields – not just security-oriented ones – to prioritize specific steps that better equip their organizations for the next security threat and reduce the impact it might have on the company as a whole.

John DeSimone, president, cybersecurity, intelligence and services, Raytheon Intelligence and Space