Building Executive Alliances
Print Issue: January 2015
On paper, a chief security officer (CSO) may be ranked on the same level as other C-suite executives, as high up in the management tier as the chief financial officer, the chief technology officer, the chief operations officer, and so on. Yet it often doesn't seem that way in practice. A security executive may be perceived as the firm's "top cop"–serving a crucial function, certainly, but not thought of as a true business leader in the same way that the company's other executives are. The CSO may in fact have less business school training than his or her executive peers, which can lead to feelings of insecurity, of feeling like an "other," in the world of upper management.
But this kind of second-tier status is not a fait accompli for CSOs, not even for those who come into organizations that do not initially value them as executive equals. Security chiefs can reach out, build executive allies, and foster close working relationships that benefit not only the executives involved, but also the company at large, which is more likely to prosper with a tight-knit executive team, management experts say.
"We all need allies at work to be successful, and we need it even more so at the executive level and in the C-suite," says Carol Vernon, an executive coach and principal with the firm Communication Matters. For a senior management executive, success requires more than just being good at your particular job, she adds. "It's a given that, in a highly competitive world, you have got to have something else. You have to have to relationship ability," she says.
Given this, Vernon and other business experts offer advice and counsel covering a range of ways that CSOs can successfully build executive allies, through engagement, effective verbal and nonverbal communication, and being conscious and self-aware of aspects of workplace behavior that can be hard to quantify, such as presence and demeanor.
Experts say that, for a few reasons, the time is ripe and general business conditions are conducive for security executives who are aiming to foster stronger working relationships with their peers in the C-suite.
Peter Metzger, vice chairman of CT Partners, a global executive search firm, sees private sector firms worldwide striving to ensure that their senior management executives can function efficiently as a well-integrated team. To avoid silos in operations, companies are interested in better coordination and interdependency among departments like technology, finance, and human resources. This calls for more cooperation among the executives who lead them.
"The trend we see around the world is a much more cohesive C-suite," Metzger says. "No C-level executive can operate in a completely independent fashion." Moreover, in an era of perpetual cybercrime and high-profile physical security breaches such as intruders entering the White House, the importance of the chief security officer's job is appreciated like never before, he adds. "Boards and CEOs understand the importance of this role," Metzger says.
As a result, the general perception of CSOs in the business world is increasingly positive, to the extent that more CSOs who work for large dynamic corporations are finding that they have "won the battle" of getting buy-in from the CEO for security operations, says Kathy Lavinder, owner and executive director of Security & Investigative Placement Consultants, an executive recruiting firm. "I'm not going to say it's across the board, but it's happening at the top," she says.
And so, with the role of the security executive better understood, and with buy-in from the top, many CSOs are now in prime position to strengthen relationships with peers in the C-suite. But that process doesn't happen automatically, and it doesn't happen overnight, according to Vernon.
"Just because you serve as a C-suite executive, that does not instantly build that connection," Vernon says. Complicating this potential connection is that some executives consider their peers in the C-suite to be rivals for company resources or potential promotions, or both.
How can a CSO build bridges with other executives by fostering alliances rather than rivalries? For Metzger, the first step is to get on the calendar of other C-suite members for a 30- or 45-minute one-on-one meeting. In those meetings, a CSO should familiarize other executives with the full capability of the company's security operation, and "invite them to take a look around."
CSOs should also make sure that their conversation reflects a knowledge of the business and strategic goals of the organization. "Portray yourself as a business person who understands security, not as a security person who's trying to understand business," he says.
For example, a CSO should be conscious of budget ramifications. At the same time, part of the cost of doing business is protecting assets and intellectual property. So it is wise for a CSO to communicate that he or she understands the balance that must be struck between the two, Metzger says. Any hard analysis that a CSO can present to support his or her argument can be effective, he adds.
By no means should a CSO be imperious with C-suite colleagues, emphasizes Rick Kelly, CPP, director, global security, at Ingersoll-Rand who formerly held senior roles at the FBI. "Some CSOs who come directly from law enforcement arrive and take the position that they know all things and can bring tools from their previous role and survive," says Kelly, who speaks on these issues as president of ASIS's CSO Roundtable Advisory Board. As a leader, you must speak the same language as the corporate team and integrate into this culture to be a successful CSO, he says.
And to best nurture an alliance, CSOs should treat one-on-one meetings with executive cohorts as a two-way street, Vernon recommends. They are an opportunity not just for discussing security operations and business strategy, but also to "listen deeply" to find out what your colleagues may need, so that you can look for possible ways to help them. "You've got to be available when you need something, and when they need something," Vernon says.
Steve Kayser, a business communication expert and author of The Greatest Words You've Never Heard: True Stories of Triumph, is another advocate for reaching out and engaging in one-on-one meetings, which can showcase a CSO's communication skills.
In Kayser's view, successful executive alliances are built primarily on effective communication. For CSOs who feel they may need some help with expressing ideas and concepts to other executives in meetings and other interactions, Kayser recommends the S.M.A.R.T. system of business communication, put forth by author Stephanie Palmer in her book Good in a Room.
Palmer, the former director of creative affairs at MGM Pictures who has worked on films such as Legally Blonde, argues that to transmit ideas in a powerful way, the communication should be S.M.A.R.T., or simple, memorable, accurate, repeatable, and tonally correct. (Other professionals use SMART to mean slightly different criteria, such as specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.) These concepts are a good guide to executive communication, Kayser says; when expressing ideas in a meeting, a CSO should strive to make it "so memorably encapsulated that people can easily repeat and share it," he says.
As for the concept of "tonally correct," Kayser explains by way of a movie example. Some Hollywood producers were about to release a film called $3,000 a Night. They hoped for a hit, but at the last minute, concerns were raised. The title, with its crass ring of upscale prostitution, seemed tone deaf, and it could turn off a sizable segment of the moviegoing public. So, executives decided to make a language change and revised the title to Pretty Woman. "The title made all the difference in the world," Kayser says.
"It was tonally correct, and a huge success."
Like Vernon, Kayser stresses the importance of deep listening when building executive allies. But he also touts another principle of effective communication, especially relevant in one-on-one meetings, which is sometimes overlooked or avoided: "good conflict," he says, is okay, and often productive.
Kayser defines good conflict, sometimes called cognitive conflict, as "honest differences of opinion or points of view between earnest people wanting to do their best." In that context, respectfully exploring and explaining areas of disagreement is often a net positive, in that it allows both people in the meeting to benefit from a perspective they might not encounter otherwise. "When it gets aired out, good things happen," Kayser says.
The content of executive interactions, the ideas exchanged and the points made, are not the only aspects of executive life that are important, experts say. Presentation and approach are also key in interactions, because they help determine how the CSO is perceived by C-suite peers.
"If you act like you're the top cop, that's how you'll be treated," Metzger says. Given this, he advises CSOs to carry themselves as self-assured business leaders, rather than being stuck in the past when security "was all gates and guards and dark glasses."
Other experts concur about the importance of presentation in executive settings. To illustrate, Lavinder relays an anecdote about someone interviewing for a security executive position who "looked like they came out of the movie Goodfellas." A good rule of thumb, Lavinder explains, is that the CSO's self-presentation should not conflict with an organization's self-image. In any organization, "it's very important to understand what the cultural norms are," she says, and that includes how people dress in the office, and how they carry themselves. If a CSO is uncomfortable making fashion choices, services like a personal shopper may help.
At the same time, CSOs should not strive to construct some sort of executive-on-steroids image that is contrived or phony, Lavinder adds. A CSO can be accomplished and still retain humility and avoid arrogance, so that he or she seems both dynamic and authentic. "There's an aspirational element to your demeanor," Lavinder says.
Indeed, attributes like demeanor, attitude, and approach are all part of what Vernon calls "executive presence." It's a concept that she has spent much time discussing in her work as an executive coach.
For an upper management executive, "everything you say matters," but it's also true that being aware of nonverbal communication is essential for developing executive presence, Vernon says. She cites one study that broke down the ways meaning is conveyed in conversations. The study found that 7 percent of meaning came from the content of the words, 38 percent from the speaker's tone of voice—and 55 percent from nonverbal communication. This is consistent with a workplace reality that is hard for some to accept, she says: "We make snap decisions about somebody that are out of their control."
Developing executive presence, Vernon says, requires "taking the time to be intentional." That means that the executive should think about what he or she wants to look like, sound like, and stand for as a leader, along the lines of, "How do I want to show up as a CSO?"
Through this process, a CSO may gain considerable self-awareness, Vernon explains. "It starts inside, and moves outside," she says. It is not always easy, as the executive may encounter traits about themselves that need adjustment. She gives an example of a hyper-expressive executive whose face betrays emotions during meetings in an unproductive way. "At an executive level, that's not okay. You're going to have to manage those facial pieces," she says.
When CSOs are clear on who they want to be as a leader, they can identify behaviors from role models and other successful executives that resonate with them, as well as behaviors they would like to avoid. The point here, Vernon says, is not blind imitation, such as buying the same suits or using the same expressions as other successful executives in the firm. Instead, the CSO should recognize how executives are successful—how they engage, how they communicate, how they carry themselves—and use it to make subtle shifts in behavior.
"You can't follow a script, or add water and stir," Vernon says. "It's about being who you are, and then fine tuning that."
Experts agree that "being who you are" remains an underlying principle in building executive allies. A CSO should make all the self-improvements possible as far as their performance, communication, and presence in the workplace, but still "be true to your personality, character, vocabulary, and spirit," Kayser says.