Four Years of Building the Cyber Leadership Institute – My Reflections

This year, to celebrate my birthday I am reflecting on my entrepreneurship journey.

From The Server Room To The Board Room

My cyber security journey has been fascinating. But my most defining leadership moment came six years ago when I was appointed to build and lead a cyber security function for a reputable Australian wealth management firm.

My accession into the CISO space defied convention in many ways. I was 36 years old and relatively young compared to an average Australian CISO. I also wasn’t aware of any fellow African Australians working in that space. Predictably, the imposter syndrome kept lifting its ugly head. I was stepping in to deal with scenarios that I had never seen before, as well as presenting to directors who also sat on multiple boards for companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

But my sudden elevation from the server room to the board room quickly exposed my Achilles heel. I realised that surviving in this high-pressure position had almost nothing to do with my technical competencies. But rather, my ability to inspire high performance, influence decision-makers and, most importantly, communicate a bold vision with clarity, persuasion, and impact. Further compounding my pain, the cyber leadership world was still heavily siloed, and my executive networks were skinny.

But I decided to push all these challenges aside because I knew that the stakes were too high for me to revert to my comfort zone. I thrust myself on an accelerated learning curve — dismantling the fixed mindset, peg by peg, before building myself up again. My success was also a result of the unwavering executive support and mentorship I received at work.

The Obstacle Was The Way

But as Viktor Frankl once said, ‘what is to give light must endure burning.’ My life has also taught me that behind every significant obstacle lies untapped opportunities. Like oxygen to fire, the challenges and fears I faced during my formative leadership years inspired two of my amazing business partners and me to cofound the Cyber Leadership Institute (CLI) back in 2018.

First is Jan Schreuder, a veteran cyber strategy consultant and board advisor. Jan spent more than 37 years at a Big-4 consulting firm, where I had the privilege to meet and work with him. Then there is Darren Argyle FCIIS, chief information security risk officer at a global bank, former CISO at Qantas and winner of multiple CISO awards.

We determined to set bold rather than timid goals from the start. Our entrepreneurship journey started by asking four important questions. 

  1. What if we created a global community of cyber leaders who think critically and actively collaborate to drive positive change within their enterprises and accelerate the creation of a resilient digital ecosystem?
  2. What if we helped organisations avoid hefty consulting fees by unlocking hundreds of carefully-curated and actionable toolkits — helping them achieve cyber resilience at a fraction of the cost?
  3. What if we equipped aspiring CISOs with proven strategies to beat the competition during interviews as well as quickly establish credibility once they landed CISO roles?
  4. What if we unlocked cyber leadership pathways alternative to the traditional CISO role, helping cyber security professionals realise their full leadership potential?

When Darren, Jan, and I first met at a cafe in downtown Sydney back in 2018, we had no idea that what started with only five participants in our Cyber Leadership Program would reach global impact.

From the charming Capetown to the stunning Fijian archipelagos, from the vibrant Mumbai to the majestic New York City — CLI has equipped leaders from more than 60 countries with practical skills to accelerate transformation, influence decision-makers and lead through a crisis. Some of our members are charged with protecting critical infrastructure and large multinational companies. CLI, in short, exists to build highly effective cyber leaders.

Letting A Thousand Flowers Bloom

We built the institute around the enduring African concept of Ubuntu — a deeply rooted belief that as individuals, our impacts are inconsequential. But together, we can rise above the menace of cybercrime and create a safer digital space for the next generation. Ubuntu speaks of our interconnectedness, selflessness, and respect.

Nothing exemplifies the spirit of Ubuntu better than our quarterly community calls. It’s from these gatherings that we listen to the inspirational stories of CLP alumni who have successfully deployed lessons from our CLP program to land their first-ever CISO roles and shatter glass ceilings. At CLI, community is everything. What unites our members is their extraordinary determination to defeat the menace of cybercrime.

Our Cyber Leaders on the Move series continues to spotlight some of our distinguished alumni using their voices to drive policy change, champion diversity, and inspire possibility.

From partners at leading consultancy firms to CISOs at major global brands, our CLP graduates keep defying odds. As always, credit goes to them, the doer of the deeds, but we are honoured to have been part of their success stories.

We have created a platform that pushes our members to unlock their full leadership potential — a field where a thousand flowers can bloom without dimming each other’s spark.

Sustained By Our High Calling

Building and scaling a business is fraught with challenges — capital constraints, product-market fit, and looming recession, to mention but just a few. Like most start-ups, we must manage these risks daily. But as Andy Groves, former CEO of Intel, famously said, “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, Good companies survive them, Great companies are improved by them”.

We keep pushing through obstacles. Like oxygen to fire, we are fuelled by the unshakable conviction that our mission is deeply connected to who we are. Our obligation to our members and the future generation has instilled a higher sense of purpose. We believe that without effective cyber leaders, digital resilience will remain a pipe dream. John Maxwell was right to say everything rises or falls on leadership.

Building highly effective cyber leaders is our supreme calling that we pursue with remarkable clarity. Our team is encouraged to share their ideas freely, maintain a dogged focus on the needs of our members and reject yes-man thinking. Only by embedding these virtues into CLI’s DNA can we build the enduring enterprise we envisioned from the start.

Like Sticks In A Bundle

But no matter how brilliant or determined our people can be, we can not achieve this lofty goal in isolation. Over the years, we have developed partnerships with Australian Information Security Association, Information Security Society Switzerland (ISSS), Australian Women in Security Network, Info-Tech Research Group and many more. These strategic relationships continue to help us scale our impact and bridge the gender diversity gap. We are stronger together; as the African proverb goes, sticks in a bundle cannot be broken.

In Gratitude

Our members have transformed CLI into the global brand it is today. They believed in our mission when our brand was relatively unknown. Even as we now boast more than 4000 members across all geographies, we remain committed to understanding our members’ individual needs because they are the ones to whom we owe our greatest obligation. But it would be impossible to make these achievements in such an unpredictable space without our extraordinary CLI  team — who constantly punch beyond their weight to service our members.

Looking Ahead

A recent World Economic Forum revealed that the CISO role represents one of the most dynamic careers today. We share the same sentiment. We predict over the next few years, CISO salaries will continue to rise exponentially, more CISOs will gain unfettered access to the board of directors and report directly to CEOs, as well as have constant visibility with the media and investors. But these important changes only reinforce our strategic goal — to equip our members with actionable tools and skills to accelerate their organisations towards cyber resilience. As our mantra goes — “Know You’re Ready.”

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