What can CISOs do to build strong diverse teams and mentor the next generation of talent?

September 12, 2019

Leila Powell

What can CISOs do to build strong diverse teams and mentor the next generation of talent?

I have just spent a few insightful days at the Evanta Global CISO Summit and one of my highlights was helping facilitate the Mentoring and Diversity reception on behalf of Panaseer.

My earliest experience of the impact of a lack of diversity was that persistent, unsettling feeling,  “Did I miss the memo?”, as I looked around and saw that, yet again, I was the only woman in the room at a technical conference. When I joined Panaseer over 4 years ago, even something as seemingly simple as seeing a woman on the founding team made me think, “here’s somewhere I can thrive.” I felt supported in creating a women’s group and discussing issues around inclusion. Fast forward to today, after a few years of advocating for better diversity and inclusion in startups, my views have evolved and I no longer think in terms of what I can do to empower women, but what I can do to help everyone thrive, regardless of the biases or challenges they may face. I think it’s important that we have a holistic approach to diversity, rather than breaking it down into its component parts, because most people do not just have one facet to their identity.

I believe that all of us, regardless of how we identify, or what our role is, can and should use our influence to drive change in our organisations every day, sometimes in the smallest of ways – from calling out inappropriate jokes, examining our biases, or investing time to educate ourselves on issues we may not understand.

CISOs in particular have the ability to influence, and I was delighted to see so many in attendance who want to direct this influence towards improving diversity in our industry. It was incredible to meet such a diverse and inspiring panel of CISOs; Trish Collins Weedon, Suzie Smibert, Catharina “Dd” Budiharto and Juan Gomez-Sanchez.

Juan, whose security team has a higher percentage of women than typical, had two lessons for us. Firstly, that mentoring isn’t always a formal arrangement. “Who would be your ‘phone a friend’ on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Whether you recognise them as that or not – they are your mentor.” He also emphasised the importance of engineering diversity and inclusion, “if you don’t, it simply won’t happen by itself”.

Suzi, stressed the difference between coaching, mentoring and sponsoring: “Coaching is talking to someone, mentoring is talking with someone and sponsoring is talking about someone.” In fact, it’s the latter that has been demonstrated to have the most impact on the careers of people from underrepresented groups.

One of Dd’s mentees was in the audience – they’d met face to face that day for the first time! Dd spoke about encouraging your mentees to aim higher, as well as the value she got from conversations with them. She focused on the two-way nature of mentoring relationships, noting that mentors can learn from their mentees as well as the other way around. In fact, reverse mentoring, where senior people learn from those less senior than them, is gaining a reputation as another way to have a positive impact on diversity.

Trish spoke about the importance of “paying it forward”, being proactive in your support of tomorrow’s leaders today, and making it easier for the next person than it was for you.


Top tips for mentors:

  • Build the confidence of your mentees – challenge them to believe they are capable of more
  • Open their eyes to possible directions they may not have considered
  • Help map out a path to get them to the next stage

Top tips for mentees:

  • Ask for help!
  • Hunger for growth and a desire to learn are the most important things you need. According to mentors this is what they look for – not some list of qualifications!
  • Think about what you want out of the mentoring relationship, it’s your job to bring the structure

Top tips for establishing a mentor-mentee relationship:

  • The key ingredient is rapport
  • Formal/informal, in your org/outside your org – it doesn’t matter! Do what works best for the outcomes you want

Top tips for improving diversity:

  • Look for alternative skill sets and seek potential
  • Give interns, recent grads, career changers, veterans and older folk a chance to do something new to them
  • Recognise and remember the value of having different perspectives on the same problem

One of Panaseer’s company values is to “Live Authentically” because authenticity allows people to thrive and build trust. Teams who trust one another are essential for business success, particularly in a fast-paced industry like cybersecurity, but without an investment in diverse teams and an inclusive environment “living authentically” is simply not possible for some people because their places of work do not embrace or understand who they are and how they can help them thrive.

It feels very fitting that Panaseer had the opportunity to sponsor this reception – as sessions like these are vital to securing a better, more diverse future for our industry. They help us all hold ourselves and each other to account for making diversity a priority in our organisations. There is no quick fix for diversity, the only way to improve is to keep the conversation going and to constantly listen to and learn from others.

I look forward to continuing the conversation we’ve started.

Dr Leila Powell heads up the Data Science team at Panaseer. She joined the company in 2015 from a career in academia as an astrophysicist, where she used computational and analytics techniques to run and analyse supercomputer simulations in order to study galaxy formation and evolution. At Panaseer she applies the skills developed understanding large datasets to understand and address security risk. Leila works with the CISOs of global companies, applying data science to help solve strategic and operational challenges. She is a founding member of the London based group We Empower Diverse Startups (WEDS) and has a PhD from Oxford University.