The New CISO Podcast Episode 59: Empowering People to Bring Their “Whole Self” to Work
Podcast Transcript | Air Date October 8, 2021
Steve: From Exabeam this is the new CISO. A show about the people who lead IT security teams, the challenges they face and how they overcome them. If you like what you hear, please rate, review and subscribe to hear our new episodes first.
Steve: (silence) Azzam, First off, thank you so much for being on the show with us today.
Azzam: Thanks for having me.
Steve: Yeah, this is great. We had an earlier chat and it was one of the best conversations I had, really, for that entire week, maybe the month. And so I’ve been really looking forward to having sort of the official chat. For those that may not know you, if you would please introduce yourself, who are you and what do you do for a living?
Azzam: Yeah, sure. So my name is Azzam Zahir I have the responsibility of running the Insider Threat Program at General Motors. So I’m the global director there. And as far as who I am, father of four and husband and everything that comes with that, plus a full-time professional when it comes to work in the cybersecurity space. So I probably have at least four or five jobs if I break it down.
Steve: Sure. Now you didn’t start out with that professional title. What was the road that got you to where you are today?
Azzam: Yeah, so I think it was really a series of opportunities to be really inquisitive in the space. So coming out of school not only being in roles that were assigned to me but either taking it upon myself to do additional work or really going back and seeking additional opportunities. Whereas probably the majority of my peers at that time were looking to just do the job that they were assigned to them and go home or go out and party. For me, it was just a constant state of inquisitiveness that really kind of forged my path to where I am right now.
Steve: We’re going to spend some more time on kind of the more steps and methods you use to get there. But how long ago did you move into an official leadership title? I know that in many conversations and it’s something I adopt and I know it is to you as well, but even if you’re an individual contributor you’re still a leader. So I don’t lead the question with that. But there comes a point in time then when you finally get kind of the moniker to go with the action, when did that occur for you?
Azzam: That would’ve been around the 2007, 2008 timeframe.
Steve: Okay. What was the biggest change for you having that title change in terms of your work day? What did you think it was going to be? What was it actually?
Azzam: Yeah, so I think for me as an individual contributor, I think the one thing that I became really good at was managing with a lot of influence without the direct responsibility. What that means in terms of my peers or other people leaders that I had to work, I had to really utilize skill sets that gave me the ability to inject influence without really having the management or people leader responsibility. And I think that was, probably the biggest foundation that kind of laid the path for me to become a people leader. And then the transition was really understanding that maybe my position in the room had changed just a little bit. So you’re giving the responsibility of managing people, so having to spend more time on that aspect versus spending more time influencing people to do what you want. You have kind of direct management control and responsibility and accountability to influence them day to day.
Azzam: But then finding that sweet spot now, because having that level of influence doesn’t really go away overnight, so you’re just managing it with yourself and a team now. So you kind of have kind of building a small army to accompany you. And then you also kind of managing their expectations of how people should respond to me as a people leader, as well as them being in a group.
Steve: Not an easy question to answer immediately unless you’ve given it a thought, but what were you most afraid of going into the position?
Azzam: I think the biggest thing, I mean, I’ve given this some thought because I had a lot of fear around it. You know, I think the biggest thing was failing as a people leader, so failing the people that were under my leadership. Not giving them the needed time and attention was probably the biggest fear.
Steve: When I made a similar move into official leadership role. I actually had a list of things that I was concerned about that I was afraid of that were just sensitive points that I thought, I don’t want to fail, I don’t want to screw this up. And it ended up the that the things that I was afraid of most ended up not happening. And there was this other list of things that I hadn’t considered that ended up happening. Sort of, as good as I thought I could be at sort of predicting my points of possible failure, none of that mattered, and it was a whole old litany of other things that I hadn’t even considered. And I guess, was there anything like that for you? I mean, you covered what you were afraid of and what you saw as a source of fear or concern, but was there anything that you’re like dammit I wish I had a thought about that, or boy that was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, or wow was I weaker at that then as a skill I didn’t have that I had to kind of figure out on the fly? Did anything fall into that category?
Azzam: Yeah, I think the one thing that kind of stands out from memory is primarily around just the day to day kind of administrative people management task. I mean, you run hot as a individual contributor for so long, you’re not concerned about the HR administrative items for someone else because it’s just not within your realm of responsibility. For me, I was more focused on giving them the time and attention individually that they needed to develop or get up to speed. And probably just the HR tasking aspects, working the time in to do that when you’re executing, especially on a technical team, it really just requires you to halt and change mindset a little bit to get those things done.
Steve: Speaking of HR you said that, and it reminded me pretty early on when I first became what sort of the junior of the two director positions, at one point in time I didn’t have any sub managers and hadn’t been promoted up or there was no sort of sub directors or managers or leads. And I remember one Thanksgiving sitting and doing reviews, I spent the entire break doing nothing but reviews for 16 people. That’s sort of an administrative human, it’s very important. I think the traditional review process is really garbage that most organizations adopt, having this one sort of big bang event at the end of the year is nonsense. But that was one of the things that I was surprised at just the how long it took to basically write 16 essays over your Thanksgiving break. We need to do better as leaders there. I don’t know, I wasn’t expecting to ask you questions about HR review processes, but I guess I will now. So many of your other answers, I know you’re going to give [inaudible] answers we talked about, what’s a better way to review people? How does Azzam review folks kind of not an official answer, but just other ways to give feedback? Treat us with that.
Azzam: Early and often. I don’t know that you sit on feedback, is probably the worst, one of the worst things, that you can do. We all know we shouldn’t wait until the review period to surprise one with some feedback that they hadn’t heard before, because it just doesn’t work and makes it really awkward and contentious. People are already nervous going into it. So for me, I try to take the nervousness out of the room throughout the entire year. So if I have an employee that let’s say exhibiting some behavior is that I know are going to come back to bite that particular employee, it’s a quick, hey, let me pull you to the side. Let me give you some quick feedback. This was observed. No harm, no foul, let’s move on. And doing it early and often what I find is that people are not as sensitive to the discussion. So then they go into a phase where they want the feedback sometimes and I’m like, I don’t have any feedback, I’ll tell you. But early and often is my motto. I don’t wait to provide feedback, whether it’s positive or negative.
Steve: Early and often doesn’t fit within the traditional sort of HR review cycle though, so that’s something that really I think in most cases that the individual leader has to adopt, but I think it’s just being present and giving that feedback often in a candid way. I think a lot of times leaders wall themselves off from their staff as well. And so when you have that, it’s the only conversation you have, it’s this sort of uncomfortable formal talk once a year, maybe twice a year, which is always was a huge pet peeve of mine when I was an individual contributor when I had those examples. So I think the early and often thing is a great technique. Sometimes it doesn’t scale well, depending on how big your team is, but that’s another topic.
Azzam: If it’s an employee of a manager that’s reporting to me, like in a situation now, it’s feedback for them to give that feedback as well. So that they get acclimated to doing the early and often, because the last thing I want to hear is I get a complaint that my manager didn’t tell me that this was a problem until mid-year or end of year. I hold those managers accountable for providing that feedback early and often as well. So when you talk about scaling a team, so you mentioned 16 people that’s a lot harder when they’re directs. So then you almost kind of prioritize what’s worth your time in terms of the feedback. Some things you go, okay, that’s probably a mid-year item, versus no, I’ve got to correct that right now.
Steve: So one more question I thought of before we go back to young Azzam, we’re about ready to take a trip, have a conversation with young Azzam. Before we do that, you’re talking about sub team leads or managers that are leading people that ultimately report up through you, but may not be a direct report. And I’ve appreciated your answers that you’ve given in earlier conversations and today so much, I think you’ll have a good perspective on this. Do you have any rules for leaders, people leaders in your program? Is there any sort of leadership, sort of cornerstones of leadership that you expect to see? And I’ll give you a quick example of one that I had that people that have listened… Well, I’m sure what I’m about to say, is that once you go into leadership and become manager, director, in one of my programs, you give up console access to technical systems. And the reason is, is because it erodes trust. Your job should be focused on mission and leadership and being a good steward of the people and your mission has changed. And so you want to erode trust, you want to be able to delegate well, you’ve got to have that feedback, that two way street. So, that’s one of my examples. I’m sure you have-
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Steve: So that’s one of my examples. I’m sure you have many more and probably more interesting than what I just shared, but I shared it to set the tone. Do you have any?
Azzam: As far as the soft skills, the big thing I try to get the people leaders to see is that they need to allow people to be their individual selves. People are going to bring a certain uniqueness to the workplace that they may not see. So I always give them the analogy, I said, if you look at people in their personal lives, there’s a chance that things that they lead outside of work, they may be doing a better job of that relative to what they’re doing outside of work than maybe you’re doing in terms of being a people leader at work.
Azzam: Because people lead really interesting lives. They lead, whether it be within their places of worship, areas of volunteerism, charity work, anything that they do outside of work, a lot of times they develop really strong leadership skills within their own right. And so they are looking at you with that lens as them as leaders, and so there are things that they’re going to want from you that they may not be getting. So it’s really important for you to allow them to be their individual selves, because you’ll notice opportunities for them where you can take advantage of it. It’s just natural to them, they’re accustomed to doing it outside of work and they’ll bring that into the workplace. So for me, that’s probably one of the bigger things is allow them to be themselves at work.
Steve: And to be clear, you’re talking about individual contributors being themselves and learning from or I assume asking them, not only understanding their individual self, but asking them about their whole self to say, hey, what experiences do you have? Am I understanding that correctly, you’re saying you want the leader to understand the whole self, the whole person, and maybe there’s something that collectively can be understood and utilized. Is that an accurate assessment or am I off?
Azzam: I think that’s fairly accurate. You may have people that lead multiple teams in a charity event, let’s say for example.
Azzam: If you have them in a role where they’re an individual contributor, but there’s not a lot of I guess, controlled chaos within the workplace.
Azzam: They may not be leveraging all their skillsets. They could work over a weekend, managing multiple teams during a charity event, there’s undoubtedly chaos. So, how do you introduce some level of controlled chaos within the workplace and therefore take advantage of a natural skillset that they may be bringing to the table? Because at that point, they’re not fully utilized and so for me, it’s about at least understanding and seeing if they have an interest doing work that just naturally lends itself to a skillset they inherently have.
Steve: Sure. Absolutely. And I was going to say, not the flip of that, but if you are attempting to bring someone up into the leadership ranks, understanding this is keenly important because it’s going to give, sadly everything’s political and you’ve got to paint a picture of the individual, you’ve got to be an advocate for that person. And there’s all sorts of political blockers, especially in large corporations or even small ones, but especially in large ones, it seems. So if you can discuss and articulate the ways that this individual is a leader, both as an individual contributor outside of the company walls, but also how that will lead to likely success as a, now a new leader, I think that’s something that a lot of folks in leadership don’t do enough of. They don’t cite those examples in personal life, which really, I think the barrier is just giving a damn lot of times.
Steve: I mean, I think that’s a good square one. I like that approach. I was a little more tactical on saying hey, there’s Steve’s rule. Steve says, no more playing in the firewall when you become a manager, that’s somebody else. You took a much more poetic approach. Both I think are important. I appreciate that. We’re going to get more into a bit of that later as well. I’ve got another question for you, but let’s go back. As I promised everyone, we’re going to go back in time and talk to young Azzam. Of my favorite questions, it’s sort of a mentorship one in a way, but what should young Azzam do or or not do? Or what advice would you have given yourself? You had a very specific answer to that, which I think applies to many, many of us. What’s your advice to young Azzam?
Azzam: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things. The first thing I would say is, and this is always hard for, it’s easier to say when you’re looking back and you’re giving this advice, you almost sound parental in nature. But the big thing for me was I think looking back would be don’t chase the few dollars, don’t chase the money, and typically it’s not a whole lot of money when you move from a state job to job. And really focus on the career, not the jobs that are being offered to you. If the job does not offer you a great career opportunity relative to growth, then probably second guess it. When people typically throw money at you, they’re hiding something else, at least from my experience, that’s what young Azzam learned is they’re not going to talk, they’re going to lead with money because they don’t want to talk about all the problems that you’re going to face when they get you in the door. And those are the things that you really should know about, but they throw money out there because they don’t want to tell you about them for a reason.
Steve: But sometimes, I mean, you said you might get hit with a bunch of problems when you get in the door, but could you make the argument that problems, a lot of times working on problems is sort of a come up as well. I mean, if you go into this firefighting scenario and it’s a bunch of failed systems or poorly managed processes, there’s education that comes with that too, or were you taking it a different way?
Azzam: No. So I was thinking more or less, these are cultural organizational problems that you as an individual switch jobs, you take $5,000 more and that’s not your job to fix those cultural problems, nor will you have the capacity to fix them. So they throw a little bit more money at you-
Azzam: … to entice you. And not really tell you about the full culture of the organization.
Steve: I’ll tell you one example that I just thought of that needs to be, I don’t know, somebody needs to write this down or remember it, especially those that are newer in their career. A lot of times you’d get an opportunity and it might not even be a good one, but it’s worth more money, let’s say. And it may ultimately be a bad opportunity with poor culture and bad leaders and all the rest, but it’s 10 grand more and you take that to your boss. You’re getting ready to leave, but you take that and say, “Hey, they’re going to pay me 10 grand more.” And then your boss gives you that 10 grand to stay.
Steve: Now the conundrum I have with that, and I’m sure you have a position on this too, is that why in the hell didn’t you just give me this money to begin with? Why did it take me saying I was going to bounce to get out of here and then for you to feel like I was worth … wasn’t I always worth that extra 10 grand? Now I’ve got a position on it, I’m not going to say what I’ve told everyone to do if you’re in that spot, but you laughed so you must have an opinion on it, or at least an example in your own career. Maybe young Azzam does. What do you think about that?
Azzam: So, this is kind of where we get into HR demystified, right?
Azzam: I think the important thing to remember, or to note in this, the thing I learned is that you always got the advice that if you’re going to present an offer that you receive, you got to be willing to leave. You don’t just take the counter and stay. I’ve received that as advice.
Azzam: And I’ve also received the opposite saying, if you want to ensure that you’re getting what you’re worth with the company and you want to stay, then that’s an opportunity, that’s one way to do it. I don’t really know that that’s the right way either, but what I will say is, and we’ve all experienced this, if sometimes that allows us as leaders to pull levers, to say, I’ve been advocating for this person, we’ve been talking about the fact that this person is worth more, is doing more work, et cetera, then that lever sometimes can get pulled. I think the important thing to remember is sometimes we don’t understand what our position is in that lever discussion.
Azzam: And so you go to turn in a resignation thinking you’re going to get matched and that lever doesn’t exist for you.
Azzam: So I think for all of us, regardless of level, we need to understand that.
Steve: So you covered a lot there, and you can use a resignation notice, if you play the game the right way, you can use the threat of someone leaving. So you’re the leader and you’re in with this associate or manager, whoever the person is, you want them to stay and there’s a good relationship there, but you’re stuck in this political quagmire of getting this person promoted or in some other position. And I think you can use that as a lever together, a little bit of collusion there maybe, but you can use it often to get a better situation for your people. And I’ve always done what I could in that scenario. I had it backfire a couple of times, but typically it led to good results.
Steve: The example I was thinking of when I led in with this is a little different. To me, if you’re out applying for new jobs, or even if you get a new offer and you believe it to be a good one, culturally, financially, it may not even be for more money, but at the point that you want to leave, I personally don’t take counters. I’ve never taken a counter. Now that could be bad advice or maybe not good advice, I don’t know that it’s bad, but it may not be good, just because it’s a philosophical reason. It’s like, look, if I wasn’t happy or fulfilled, or wasn’t … extra money or a different title, doesn’t fix the reason why I want to leave, I think is where I go with that.
Steve: But as a leader, you can often utilize the market to right-size somebody organizationally is my thought. I don’t know if you’ve got a counter or an additional point on that topic. You’ve got to kind of answer for young Azzam and then as current leader at GM Azzam, which are two different hats we’re talking about, so you’re in a little bit of a pinch there. It wasn’t intentional.
Azzam: That’s a tough one. The thought that keeps coming to my mind is it goes back to early and often. And so if I’m providing feedback early and often, I think most employers should understand where they would stand with me to begin with in terms of, are they someone that I’m going to go to bat for, based on their feedback. On the flip side, if I were in that position, I’d rely on that same type of feedback.
Azzam: Is my boss giving me a certain type of feedback that would help me understand where I am within the organization? But for me, I’m kind of like you, Steve. I mean, I think if sometimes organizations focus, I know this is probably a little bit of a different answer. They focus way more on where the individual is leaving to go to than they do the reason the person is looking to leave.
Steve: Oh yeah.
Azzam: And it’s not even about money most of the time, they just focus on, are you going to a competitor? Okay, who’s hiring? It’s almost like they start to worry about who you might take with you.
Azzam: What is the impact of Steve leaving the organization? Is it beyond Steve or is it just Steve? Okay, cool. What company is Steve going to? And will not ask one question about why you’re looking to leave. And that always just really gets to me.
Steve: As it should. It should bother everyone and I don’t know that there’s enough folks out there that give a damn, frankly, at least in my experience, which is certainly not a full sampling of everyone that should or shouldn’t, but it’s a tough one, man. I mean, another point that you mentioned earlier is you were talking about just earlier in your career, you just wanted it to go fast. You just … and I did the same thing, man. I mean, I would look at, I remember as a quick story, my first salaried position I had, I negotiated for an extra, going in an extra two grand, and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. I didn’t have a damn thing. And somehow I got the fortitude to negotiate from 48,000 to $50,000. And at that point in time, I was the richest man on earth. What I didn’t realize is that negotiation that took an additional seven minutes on a telephone, that two grand was more than my next two …
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Steve: … that two grand was more than my next two merit raises. That’s not fast, that’s pretty slow, in terms of increase in salary and all that. That was merit. That was bonus. That was everything. But all I was focused on from that point on was title and money. Didn’t care what I was doing. Didn’t care what the work … Title and money. And I was looking at everyone else. Why is that person so much higher than me? They’re not as good as I am.
Steve: And you said something to me. So pursuant to this, you said, “Do you want a job or a career?” Is kind of the question that you were kind of asking yourself or had asked of you, and now you ask others. Not knowing the damn difference between the two. And so how does young Azzam or young anybody, know the difference between the two, if they don’t have a mentor telling them? Does everybody just have to fail through that? How do we fix that for folks new in a professional career?
Azzam: You nailed it. I think the keyword there is mentorship. There was a time in my younger career, I didn’t have it. My general philosophy, I tell people all the time, if you work within a company, find a mentor within the company, but always maintain an external mentor as well. You need the internal and yet external perspective.
Steve: Let me pause you there. So, why? What are each of those? Why do you need both? What’s the difference between the two before we move on?
Azzam: Sure. For me, the internal mentor can help you navigate politically within the organization. They know typically no players within the organization. So they can help you avoid some pitfalls, and how you’re moving within the organization. The external mentor doesn’t have any association with the company. They don’t know the people, the players, et cetera. If you calibrate the feedback and the advice based off of what you tell the internal and external mentor, you typically, at least for me, I landed in the best positions, relative to making the right decisions and moving the right way.
Azzam: Just having an internal mentor, they have to fight to be really objective, especially if they like you. You may have some internal mentors that all of a sudden, they ping you and say, “Hey, just want to give you heads up, this is coming. You might want to go apply for this job.” They’re helping you move based off of their fear sometimes.
Steve: Ah! I think that’s worth restating. So someone that you’re close with may be then close to your org. And a move that you could make might introduce pain into their world.
Azzam: Not necessarily their world, but they project their fears. They put themselves in your shoes and where you are within the organization. And so their advice is based off of how they would move, not necessarily objective feedback.
Steve: Which of the two is more difficult to identify and foster? I have an opinion, but having a coach or a mentor, and many people use those terms interchangeably, even though they’re not technically the same thing, but in both cases, you’re talking about someone who I would assume is a longer term contact that’s aware of your career and maybe elements of your life. Which for a young person, again, we’re kind of leaning back toward young Azzam, maybe not the youngest Azzam, but maybe getting into leadership Azzam, which one’s the more difficult to cultivate and to identify?
Azzam: I think the internal one, at least for me it was, because the options seemed really plentiful, because you typically will look like within your org, maybe not within your direct management chain, but you might look within your org. And by the way, I think it’s always a bad idea to have a mentor within your direct management chain. You typically look within your organization, let’s say, for example, it’s IT. You’ll go find an IT leader people speak highly of him or her. Okay, I’m going to reach out to that person.
Azzam: It’s harder to identify and then acquire them as a mentor because you’ve gotten that feedback. Everybody thinks they’re great. They usually give good advice, which means that you have competition for time. They’re at capacity. They’re not going to be able to take any and everyone that comes to them. They have to see something in you that makes them want to be a mentor. Otherwise, I mean, they would spend a hundred percent of their time doing mentorship.
Azzam: So for me, it’s always the internal one is a little bit harder. The external one you also typically have for, I think you highlighted, you know that person typically a lot longer. Maybe they’ve seen more career progression than they’ve seen job progression from you. The mentorship is a little different from that aspect as well. And because you’ve established that relationship, they’re a lot more committed to your success.
Steve: I would agree to that for sure. On this journey, you had kind of an interesting statement talking about being promoted. One of the statements you mentioned that if things happen out of order there, your quote was, you’re asking for an adversarial situation. And it involved the concept of influence. We were talking earlier about you kind of have to have influence before you have a title, but there’s a risk there if you’re promoted and it happens kind of out of the order that you’ve established. It can come with quite a bit of friction, this adversarial situation. What did you mean by that?
Azzam: Yeah. And I was speaking more from personal experience, and not necessarily me being promoted and having friction, as much as I’ve seen it happen, where the individual contributor didn’t have really good influence management skillsets. Didn’t really manage themselves and their peers in a way in which they foster trust. If he gets promoted, people naturally question then. Because it’s based off of their relationship with you.
Azzam: If you were adversarial or perceived to be, as an individual contributor, it’s only natural that now they’re going to question the promotion. It’s just human nature. And the worst you are at managing those relationships, you create more friction. I mean, how many times have you heard someone got promoted and the feedback from the org is like, are you kidding me? Right?
Steve: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, I’ve been there.
Azzam: People can’t see it. Now on the flip side, it may be well deserved, but that person didn’t create enough visibility for themselves to the point where people would understand it. They worked within a bubble. Limited visibility to certain leaders. And then they all agreed like, oh, okay, great, yeah, I think this person will be perfect for the opportunity. But the response from the organization is, I don’t know who this person is. I don’t trust this person.
Steve: They’ve worked in a bubble or they’ve spent a lot of time popping the bubbles of others. I’ve done both. I’ve been a bubble popper and worked in bubbles. That’s a very real situation. And then you get in and that absolutely happens where they’re like, why’d they promote that kid over there? He does nothing but flip over tables. That’s a really important … Having the optics. My father used to say, there is no reality, there’s only a perception.
Steve: That’s an absolute statement that isn’t necessarily true. But in corporate America, you have to think of, what is the perception of you as an individual, as a leader, as a contributor? How well can you work with others? Can you get things done? Are you taking credit for other people’s work that you shouldn’t? Are you hardy with praise, giving that to others? Or are you quick to own that as your work, knowing that it was a team’s effort? That I see that all the time. And that’s typically a great way to upset your new team, if you’re seen as the only contributor when there’s a larger thrust towards a solution and you take all the credit.
Steve: You had a phenomenal perspective on diversity and inclusion and utilizing the idea in a way that wasn’t apparent to me. I learned something from the conversation. It was in the form of an exercise that you did with your team. I thought it was fantastic. And I’d like us to unpack it for the benefit of the listeners. It’s a series of exercises you did that I think is honestly something … People that know me know that I don’t glad hand. I’m very direct. And I think it’s something that all of us would benefit from doing. Would you do us the favor of walking through kind of this, maybe the purest diversity and inclusion exercise I could think of doing. And talk a little bit how it benefited your program at GM.
Azzam: Yeah. And it kind of extended from my time at the Coca-Cola company. The CIO there at the time, Ed Steinike, used to have this saying, and unfortunately he’s passed, but he would say, grant sincerity. And was really around his leadership team. At the time, there was a lot of friction and he would say, “You guys are going to learn to grant sincerity because the friction is being inherited by your teams. While y’all may each individually, and your teams might be doing really well, you guys kind of suck when it comes to working with each other.”
Azzam: The exercise was really around, look, I’ve got a pretty desperate team in terms of backgrounds. There were things that I could see, that they couldn’t see in themselves, just at least from my vantage point, my individual conversations with those individuals. But instead of saying, hey, Mikey is a really interesting individual. Mikey, why don’t you get up and tell the class about yourself. I wanted to do it in a way in which they didn’t know who was providing answers.
Azzam: We came up with a short questionnaire and it was pretty informal, but it covered things like, where did you grow up? If it was a different country, state that country. How many languages do you speak fluently? Like true proficiency in the language. If you migrated to the country, then name your country of origin. A series of questions like that, educational background, just a variety of things that people wouldn’t naturally guess about someone. And so correlated all the answers, we put them up on a screen, we walked through the questions.
Azzam: We had a map that highlighted the different languages that people spoke. The countries that they had either lived in. That was another one. If you lived in a country, I think for more than three years, that provided a perspective. Places traveled, that was another one. So we created this visual map with all of the answers. Based on that exercise, we just walked through it. And you could see people literally looking around the room at people that they thought provided those answers.
Azzam: And from my perspective, I’m sitting there chuckling because everyone I saw that was looking at someone else, 99% of the time had it wrong, unless it was obvious. Like they already knew about something about a person. You had way more similarities than you ever had differences. And where there were differences, people naturally started to tap on the shoulders of those individuals. To tap into their strength. Or make those connections.
Azzam: One of the things that I saw happen was people that were not normally connected, all of a sudden were having coffee breaks together. Naturally they became a lot more curious about either a language, a place that someone traveled. Maybe they had plans to travel to that place, and didn’t realize someone lived there for three years of their life. And so it changed the dynamic of the team from my perspective at least, where walls just started to tear down like immediately after that session.
Steve: I think there’s an operational value that is not meant to come first, but it can still be reinforced in a positive way. There was an example from my past is we were doing some work attempting to understand some languages, Russian in particular. We had someone in another team that was still part of the framework, which I helped create, but this gentleman spoke Russian. And so he was not on the intel side, but he kind of became part of the intel side. And it’s kind of I think-
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Steve: … and it’s kind of, I think… Now, I didn’t go through this exercise and I wish I would’ve. We had something that we did that was more Lego block, that was levels of education, certificate… It was the Who we are slide and this infographic we built that outlined… We did include some diversity information, but not to the depths you’re talking about.
Steve: And I think this is a really nice item for teams to consider because of… There’s a great book I’ve mentioned on earlier show called The Speed of Trust, by Covey. And what you’re doing is, is you’re building more awareness, which ultimately leads to more trust. And that unit, that team, group of people, this tribe can make faster decisions, by sharing each other’s knowledge more quickly. Because they trust, they know more, they trust each other, just that much more. And they can move very quickly without friction-
Steve: … is my kind of synthesis. Right. You shared with me that I was asking you, “What do we get wrong as leaders?” Just in general. It was related to this, but just as hiring leaders and you said, “We look for skill sets. We look for skill sets only.” And you mentioned how that kills natural learning and curiosity. Can you add to that? And if you’re not looking for skill sets, then what are you looking for?
Azzam: The big thing for me is, you highlighted it, that you kill the inquisitiveness of individuals. And in as far as the type of individual, I want learners. Right. People who are actively learning. When people say that they’re highly educated, they’re actually talking about their past. They’re not mentioning anything about the process of educating themselves.
Azzam: And so, when we talk about acquired skill sets. Yeah, we talk about things that people know, right? What do they bring to the table right now? We have a tendency when we build these teams to, we’ve got to get it a hundred percent right. For every single role, the person has to have all of these technical skills, et cetera. So, now I’ve put all these similar technical skills or identical technical skills, on one team.
Azzam: And then, every single time that we run into an issue where we have to transform and adapt, we see what happens a lot of times with those teams, at least from my experience. They struggle, right? Because they got hired on or recruited or transferred into that role, based on what they already knew. And it’s not a team that’s highly transformative, adaptive because they’re probably not going to be a team that’s going to continue to learn and evolve.
Azzam: The that a management decision gets made, that we go away from, let’s say, a particular type of technology. We go away from traditional security controls, to zero trust, as one example. It’s a completely different learning curve, all of a sudden. So, we’ve essentially done a soft retirement of skillset, soon as we have to make a change.
Steve: Right. I love that. And that’s just too good. I love that statement. And I think another story… Well, maybe before we jump to this other point. But we fall into this trap when we go to hire folks, when we make a job rack. That HR wants us to list all these skills and programming languages and years certifications. How do we break that mold? What does it take to then look for? Where do we find curiosity and natural learning? How do we put that on a resume? Or how do we facilitate that?
Steve: And how do we utilize that, to maybe pick up the person that hasn’t gone the same road as is most? That hasn’t come out of the machine of schooling that we often see. Or maybe isn’t the person that has a family, where anyone’s even worked in an office before. Or the person who has that natural ability, but just might not look that way on the piece of paper that everybody else has. What’s the method there? Is there something to consider?
Azzam: Yeah. I don’t know that there’s a documented method, but I could tell you what works for me. You follow the guidelines of, okay, let’s list all the skillset, you’ll interview for that. No doubt about it. But for me, I like to look at the resume and say, “Has this person worked on the building blocks of a career?” Right? Because the opportunities that they had, if they worked on a career, versus job to job, they did the same thing over and over and over and over, versus they’ve really been challenged with the roles that they’ve had. It’s completely different.
Azzam: And then, in the interview process, that’s the next great opportunity from our perspective, to pull that out. I’m not the biggest fan of the standardized behavioral interview questions. Tell me a time when you… Right.
Steve: Right. Those are trash.
Azzam: Right. But asking the questions in an open-ended fashion, especially if you have the skillset as an interviewer to build a level of trust, they will tell you every single thing you need to know, in an interview.
Azzam: So, things I look for, without even asking, sometimes you’ll get… I actually get this quite a bit for whatever reason. But people will feel comfortable saying, “Hey, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college.” To me, that’s a plus. And it’s not a plus because they graduated from college. But what it says is they probably had a background from a family perspective, that was a little bit different.
Azzam: The work ethic was a little bit different. Most of the time you do fine. Right. They are more blue collar. Get it done, figure out a way to use a wrench, five different ways, in order to get a job done. That a super soft transferable skill, when it comes to the work we do. They won’t look at it the same way, just because they learned it in school. My father was an accountant. Now I’m an accountant and my grandkids will be accountants.
Azzam: And it’s not a knock against accounting, but the practice has remained relatively the same. We are in a highly adaptive, constantly changing fields. And so we need to be able to tap into people that have that mindset, that things are not going to be the same, one day it’s going to rain on the farm. Right. And when it rains, you have mud. And you have to continue with both.
Steve: One of my favorite questions to ask is, of what are you most proud? And most people get that answer to that question wrong. And the example I’ll give, there was a young lady that I interviewed once and she gave an answer. She was a little bit nervous, but she said, “Well, I’m very organized.” I said, “You’re most proud of that.” I said, “I’ve had a conversation with you earlier, where you talked about the elders of your tribe, put money together, to fly you to the United States, to go to school and to see you be successful. And now you’re interviewing, you’re done with your schooling. You won an award from your government, to come here. The members of your tribe put money together and sacrificed to send you here. And you’re now representing them here, as an extension of them.” I said, “Do you want to answer that question one more time?”
Steve: I said, “Of what are you most proud?” I said, “I don’t want to force an answer.” I said, “But I want you to consider that. And out of respect for them, but also that that’s a characteristic that I find personally interesting.” And I said, “And that’s… But as an interviewer, you have to spend some time to get to know the person, as well.
Steve: Had I not asked, “Hey, I see you studied. I don’t even know where that… Explained to me where…” That’s incumbent on the leader, on the interviewer. But, of what it are you most proud. And I usually don’t get, even the answers of folks that haven’t traveled halfway around the world, are sometimes initially, a little bland. Because it’s not something we ask. It’s like asking somebody… People ask you a hundred different things, but very rarely will they ask, “Are you happy?” Right?
Steve: Are you happy? So, any additional thoughts on the skillset topic, or did my story jostle any other gems in your mind to share?
Azzam: Only that, when I was listening to the story. The first thing that came to mind was, how uncomfortable people are sometimes. Especially if they come from humble beginnings, talking about themselves. They tend to probably get that answer wrong, at least from my perspective. Because they’re just looking for… They go to a skillset, that’s not very personal.
Azzam: She’s highly organized. But I think if you had asked the question, at least in my mind and said, “Who have you made proud?” I think her first answer probably would’ve been her tribe, because there would’ve been a reason why. Right. But I don’t know that I have any other nuggets on that one. I think other than that, that’s probably a tough question for a lot of us.
Steve: It involves sharing insecurity sometimes.
Azzam: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: And that is I haven’t gotten there completely myself, but I love the question and I think I like yours even better. Maybe using both in tandem. So, I could talk about… I still have a whole list of other things to talk about, but we’re going to have to do that another time, because we’re out of time. Azzam, you’ve been a fantastic guest. This has gone way to quickly.
Azzam: Thank you.
Steve: I’ve got one closing question that I ask every guest, pursuant to the name of our show, which is the new CISO or you could say the new leader. What does being a new CISO, a new security leader mean to you, sir?
Azzam: The way I look at this is, we talk about being in a field that’s constantly changing. That the big thing for me is, I think some of us wait for things to change and adapt, versus having some foresight around change.
Azzam: So, we are in organizations, we’re in industries, specific verticals. The information is out there. We know in the auto industry, where we’re headed.
Azzam: From an autonomous standpoint, et cetera. Most of the other verticals, you can see the trends. For me, the CISO or the security leader, needs to be seriously proactive in moving the organization or the teams they manage, towards that change, versus reacting to it.
Azzam: And that to me would be the biggest thing.
Steve: Fantastic. Azzam, I’ve very much enjoyed our conversation today. And I appreciate you-
Steve: … sharing your leadership experiences to the community, so they can make use of it and hopefully become better leaders, using your advice. Thank you so much, Azzam.
Azzam: Thanks, Steve. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Speaker 1: That’s it. For this episode of the new CISO. Thank you for listening. Check out more episodes on exabeam.com/podcast, and remember to rate, review and subscribe to get brand new episodes first.