Security Threats Create Talent Challenges, Opportunities (2017 interview – just as relevant today)

Cyber security might well might the greatest challenge facing corporate America today. The threat to reputation, private information and dollars — both from immediate theft and the cost of repairing the damage of a cyber-attack — can be staggering. Yet too few companies have taken adequate measures to protect themselves. No one can deny that it is a difficult challenge. But failing to meet it head on is only asking for trouble down the line.

“The cyber question given its preeminence in the present national dialog is being asked but not enough companies are getting on top of it,” said Jeremy King, president of Benchmark Executive Search.

Firms are holding off on addressing the threat for many reasons. It is a challenge, for starters, that has no quick fix. “First, it’s a complex issue to tackle,” said Mr. King, whose Reston, VA-based firm specializes in finding security talent. “The need for integration of strategy, policy, technology, human capital, compliance, and legal considerations is daunting.”

“Second, every company must prioritize where to spend money. Do you add more sales reps to drive revenue? Hire more talent to deliver to current customers? Make an investment in training programs for the current executives / employees, or do you use that budget to recruit and hire new executives? Decisions with a clear ROI are easier calls to make than giving millions more to your security shop on ‘what if’ scenarios.”

“Third, the need for top cyber talent will continue trending upward, especially in light of world events, from terrorism to cyber-attacks on corporate infrastructure and networks.”

Finding a Purpose

With nearly 20 years experience, Mr. King is one of the leading recruitment professionals in the cybersecurity sector. His focus is matching VC / PE-backed technology innovators, government contractors and federal missions with senior cyber / national / corporate security executives and board members.

Mr. King is also co-founder and a board member of MissionLink, an exclusive CEO-only organization which fosters collaboration, access and opportunity for companies focused on defense and national security missions.

Mr. King’s commitment to helping organizations find the right talent to combat cyberattacks runs deep. He knows the dangers such intrusions pose and wants everyone to understand how damaging they can be. One of his favorite quotes, in fact, is from retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity and former director of the NSA, and commander, U.S. Cyber Command, who once told him, “The value of theft of intellectual property from American industry represents the single greatest transfer of wealth in history and the probability of significantly disruptive and destructive attacks is rapidly increasing.”

Mr. King regards his work as more than just a way to make a living. He finds deeper value in helping protect organizations and America from the harm that all kinds of miscreants, from individuals to rogue nations, can cause. “Deciding to focus my firm on security brought purpose and meaning to my own career,” he said. “The best way today to protect our country’s economic superiority is to protect our collective creativity and innovative ideas. Our intellectual property is being assaulted by nation states, bad actors conducting corporate espionage, and from hackers looking to enrich themselves and / or wreak havoc. Our companies — from Fortune 1000 to mid-market to startups — are being robbed blind and its time we looked at this epidemic in a new way.”

A Sector In Demand

So it is that the need for top-level cyber security talent is urgently needed, and should continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future. “Companies need smart, motivated, experienced problem solvers to figure out a better way to secure our defenses and find a better way to outmaneuver the adversary,” said Mr. King. “Executive positions that will continue to be in high demand include CISOs, CDOs and CSOs. I predict that chief risk officers will be the hottest search in the next five years and there will also likely be completely new positions created. These could include: VP insider threat, VP external threat and VP crisis management.”

Over the last 20 years, Mr. King has come to know untold numbers of senior executives and top-level government officials. Along the way, he has seen trends come and go. One trend that has remained consistent, he said, is that people choose jobs that are available to them instead of holding out for what they really want. “My old search mentor would tell candidates that you can’t accept the perfect job unless it is offered to you,” said Mr. King. “I would recommend making the effort and taking the time to get more data, gather perspective, rule out what you don’t want to do, then choose wisely. I also encourage other headhunters to truly listen to their candidates’ desires, not just placing a candidate because it completes the search. Everyone will be better off if there is true alignment.”

Another trend, Mr. King pointed out, has been the transition of government officials to the private sector. Over the last decade, many leaders have chosen to work for commercial companies as opposed to staying in their comfort zone of government contracting. That has already begun to have significant consequences. “We are now seeing the biggest transfer of U.S. government talent in history to the private sector and it will only increase,” said Mr. King. “No longer can U.S. citizens count on the U.S. government to protect everyone and every company. Many inherent governmental functions, including aspects of warfare, will be outsourced to a more efficient and reliable partner – the private sector. A few examples include SIGINT as a service, HUMINT as a service, security / training as a service. And the best and brightest from government will continue to join the innovators with the solutions and capabilities to solve hard problems, including protecting our country.”

“Mission Over Me”

“With cyber and IoT increasing the threat vectors and lowering barriers of entry for attacks, the U.S. government can no longer protect all of corporate America’s secrets, IP, new innovations and new disruptive business models. When Hurricane Katrina hit, our government, through agencies like DHS and FEMA, did its best to come to the rescue. When the cyber hurricane hits, the cavalry won’t be coming. You and your company are on your own.”

Like Mr. King, many people see what is happening these days as an opportunity for inner growth and personal accomplishment. Many have found a higher purpose in coming to the aid of their country. “After 9/11 there were countless very successful people who found their calling,” Mr. King said. “Some were corporate executives, NFL players, entertainers, etc. Something triggered their goals to change. My closest friend recently tragically passed away. His calling was to be an astronaut. So to achieve that dream, he was naturally accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, graduated among the top of his class, flew F/A18’s, and around when the movie came out, he was our country’s Top Gun. He would always say our focus should be ‘mission over me.’ People like that can do anything they set their mind to.”

“Legendary headhunter Gerry Roche would ask candidates and colleagues what they wanted on their tombstone. That can certainly change your perspective and help move past your to-do list this week or your quarterly goals to help you internally search for what really matters. Many corporate executives are on exactly the path of their choosing. But far too many others are climbing the proverbial corporate ladder to please somebody else or prove somebody wrong.”

“Know Thyself”

If he were to offer any advice to future leaders, Mr. King said he would, like Socrates before him, urge them to “Know thyself.”

“Learn what your strengths are, your management style or what you aspire it to be, and what component of a team you can do better than anyone else,” said Mr. King. “Ask yourself what job or skill would make you jump out of bed every morning? What mission and vision of a company can you truly get behind? What type of leader would you follow into a burning building? Your values define you and nothing is more important than your character. Strive to be a trusted, committed professional of character.”

He recommends that those coming up find a mentor. Look for someone who is where you want to go, and who is willing to guide, teach and challenge you along the way, said Mr. King. “You should find your path and become a deeply knowledgeable pro in your area of expertise thru continuous learning-education-research-best practices,” he said. “Then go beyond that platform to become a ‘thought leader’ who brings new knowledge to your field of endeavor and evangelize important new thoughts-ideas-practices to your peers.”

“If you or someone you know is at the beginning of their career, challenge them that in addition of dreaming to become a fighter pilot, general, admiral, Navy SEAL or CEO, have them consider becoming a cyber warrior. While we still need the best of the best in each of these roles, securing our country’s way of life, freedoms, democracy, and leadership position may be in jeopardy unless our future leaders’ can solve, or at least mitigate, the cyber problem. Regardless of your path, find your calling. Be passionate about what you do and make every day count.”