CISO Scapegoating: Redefining CXO Accountability in 2024

Lalit Ahluwalia

Lalit Ahluwalia is committed to redefining the future of cybersecurity by helping large, medium, and small-scale businesses build digital trust. Here, Lalit addresses the rise of CISO scapegoating and how all CXOs can avoid this menace. He further explores the transformative approaches necessary for redefining CISO accountability in 2024. 

CISO Scapegoating: Redefining CXO Accountability in 2024

The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) has become an integral figure responsible for safeguarding an organization’s digital fortress. However, a disturbing trend has emerged—CISO scapegoating. As you step into the high-stakes world of cybersecurity, it’s crucial to understand why accountability is a double-edged sword and why the CISO seems to bear the brunt. 

For instance, cases like the April 2023 Uber incident that led to the Sullivan verdict have brought the issue of CISO scapegoating to the forefront. Forbes reported a “Clorox” scapegoating issue after the firm experienced a cyberattack in November 2023.  It’s not uncommon to wonder: Why does the CISO always find themselves in the crosshairs, and is it fair?

In this deep dive, we’ll explore the delicate balance between accountability and scapegoating, analyze the potential pitfalls, and propose transformative approaches to redefine CISO accountability in 2024.

Chief Information “Scapegoat” Officer?

Consider this scenario. 

You walk into the office on Monday morning with a pit in your stomach. Over the weekend, news broke that your company suffered a major data breach, exposing sensitive customer information. As the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), all eyes turn to you for answers. The CEO wants to know how this happened under your watch. The board demands accountability. Before you know it, you’re labeled the scapegoat, taking the fall while others point fingers.

This scenario plays out far too often for CISOs. In the wake of a breach, the CISO usually shoulders most of the blame, even when the fault spreads across multiple departments. Some call it the “CISO Scapegoating Effect.” You get appointed to prevent breaches, yet you seemingly fail at the one task you’re hired to do. 

No doubt – accountability sits at the core of being a CISO. Leading an information security program requires responsibility for safeguarding data. But often, CISOs unfairly become the lone scapegoat when things go wrong. All CXOs in the C-suite share in the accountability, not just the CISO. So how do you address CISO scapegoating when striving for collective responsibility?

Taking Responsibility from Day One

From your first day as CISO, take proactive ownership of security. Don’t wait for the board to push a cyber agenda. Present a vision for aligning security objectives with business goals. Foster a culture of shared accountability across CXOs, avoiding the scapegoating trap. Define security governance workflows that loop in other leaders early and often. The CFO oversees the budget. The CMO manages brand reputation. The CRO handles risk processes. 

Understanding the Thin Line

Security transcends silos, so governance should too. Still, a line exists between accountability and scapegoating. Despite best efforts, breaches inevitably occur in today’s threat landscape. Cybertalk argues that scapegoating becomes unnecessary when CISOs demonstrate diligent governance upfront. But human bias can lead executives to vilify CISOs anyway during crises. Avoid knee-jerk scapegoating by codifying accountability across the C-suite before disaster strikes.

5 Ways CISO Scapegoating Can Go Wrong

Here are 5 ways CISO scapegoating can go wrong if left unchecked:

  1. Deflecting blame onto the CISO breeds a culture of mistrust. Employees may cover up issues to avoid being the next scapegoat.
  2. Scapegoating disincentivizes qualified candidates from pursuing the CISO role, leaving gaps in leadership.
  3. IT security requires executive alignment. Scapegoating the CISO can fracture this alignment.
  4. Boards may force CISO turnover after a breach. This disrupts long-term strategy vs. enabling continuity.
  5. When CISOs are scapegoated, the root causes often go unaddressed, leaving more risk.

5 Ways To Avoid “Scapegoating” As a CISO

Conversely, 5 ways exist to avoid CISO scapegoating when breaches strike:

  1. Cultivate partnerships across CXOs to engrain shared accountability from day one.
  2. Discuss crisis scenarios transparently to align expectations for response.
  3. Ensure crisis plans detail cross-functional coordination, avoiding tunnel vision on the CISO.
  4. Codify accountability for all senior leaders in governance policies.
  5. During incidents, the CEO should visibly share blame across leadership to counter scapegoating.

Transformative Approaches to CISO Accountability in 2024

In 2024, out-of-the-box thinking can further address this CISO accountability dilemma without resorting to scapegoating. Here are 3 potential solutions to explore:

  1. Implement mandatory third-party risk assessments of the CISO’s security program at regular intervals. Unbiased outside perspective defuses blind scapegoating.
  2. Form an enterprise risk committee of CXOs to govern accountability collectively. Distribute responsibility via charter.
  3. Appoint an independent Chief Security Counsel to oversee crisis response. Reduces bias risk against the CISO during high-stakes reactions.

Redefining CISO Accountability in 2024

The reality stands – CISOs will continue serving as the public face and internal champion of security. But codifying shared accountability into organizational DNA is essential. When breaches inevitably occur, resist seizing the CISO as a singular scapegoat. Spread responsibility across leadership by embedding cross-CXO alignment into governance, culture and process. 

With collective accountability, organizations can empower CISOs to lead long-term strategic programs without fear of scapegoating. The result? Resilient cybersecurity cultures focused on unified prevention versus divisive blame.

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