From the first time she was exposed to cyber security as a Project Manager, Betty Elliott has been hooked. Thanks to her work ethic and adaptability — both strongly illustrated by her transition from stay-at-home mom to business leader — she is now the Mercer Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at Marsh & McLennan.
As CISO, Elliott and her teams ensure the Marsh & McLennan systems and data are protected. It’s a role that requires strong leadership and quick problem solving — two qualities Elliott is admired for at the company — because there are “issues and curveballs every day.”
It’s an interesting and fast-paced line of work that Elliott adores. But despite its potential, there’s still a lack of female leaders. That’s something she is working to reconcile with the help of organizations that value diversity and inclusion like Marsh & McLennan.
Recently, we spoke to Elliott about her career journey and path to leadership as a woman in technology. She shared the leadership strategies that have brought her success and the career advice that’s helped advance her. Then, she shared how she’s getting involved in bringing more women into the cyber security workforce — and how Marsh & McLennan encourages all of its colleagues to bring their full selves to work.
How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?
I have been in my role for two and a half years. Previously, I was the Chief Information Security Officer at MoneyGram for three years.
I was a stay-at-home mom for five years and didn’t start my career until my early 30’s. I worked hard to balance my work and home life. I coached my daughter in multiple sports for eight years and was the traveling basketball coordinator for two of those years. I never missed a school or sporting event and was able to advance my career quickly through dedication and hard work.
What first got you interested in cyber security?
I was a Project Manager at Best Buy leading the Sarbanes-Oxley Act remediation effort in 2004. It went so well that they assigned me as the Program Manager for the PCI Compliance Program. I was responsible for 22 projects, 12 Project Managers and a $22 million budget. I got exposure to all of the security domains, technologies and processes. After three years of leading the program, I transitioned into a Security Capability Lead to build out the Security Operations Center at Best Buy.
What about this type of work most excites you?
I was a math major in college and I love to solve problems. Cyber threats are constantly changing and you really need to adapt quickly to find creative ways to address these threats. It’s very complex and fast-paced, and I get the opportunity to work with colleagues across all functions and lines of business.
How do you prioritize and deal with your to-do list each day?
In Security, we have to deal with issues and curveballs every day. You have to be flexible and efficient. I like to assess and address issues quickly. I prefer to make informed, fast decisions and move on to the next item so my backlog remains small. I try to prioritize based on risk and impact to the organization.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am a hands-on leader who does not micromanage but delegates to and empowers my team. I meet regularly with them to stay well informed of what is happening in order to provide guidance and assistance. I also have weekly 1:1s and give continuous feedback to help my team grow and thrive. I am transparent and have open lines of communication. I ask my team for feedback in order to improve my leadership skills, too, so I can be the best leader that I can for them.
What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual (or team) that you think has been particularly effective?
Being my authentic self. When people are comfortable with you, they are more apt to trust you and have difficult conversations. I care about my people and they know that I support them and want what is best for them.
How have you used your role to help bring up other women behind you? How do you build time into your schedule for this kind of work?
I lead a monthly hour-long Global Technology - Female Leader Focus Group meeting where we discuss various topics that impact us as female leaders. Over the past few years, we have taken turns telling our very inspiring stories of how we got from our childhood to our current leadership role. We have also been reading and discussing a book written by Valorie Burton called “Successful Women Speak Differently”. It’s a great way to learn about each other and support one another as we develop and grow as leaders. It’s one of my favorite meetings so I make it a priority in my busy schedule.
I am also a founding board member of an organization called “The Security Advisor Alliance.” In our formative years, we would go to high school STEM programs and speak to students about cybersecurity to encourage them to consider going into the field. As a female leader, I tried to emphasize the importance of my role and to encourage girls to learn more about it. There is a shortage of females in the cyber security field and it’s important to educate them about the opportunities at an early age. I have participated in curriculum development and Capture the Flag activities that the Alliance leads in local schools.
I am also on the Minnesota Women in Cyber and Evanta event planning committees. I speak at those, and many other cyber events, to promote women in security opportunities.
How has your day-to-day changed amidst COVID-19 both professionally and personally?
My day-to-day work experience has not changed. I was already working remotely and leading a team of remote security professionals. COVID-19 affected me personally at first, as there was so little known about it and not much to do in the winter in Minnesota; I rarely left the house. I am an avid golfer and was grateful that the golf courses opened up in early May. Both my kids live nearby and I am able to see my six grandchildren (with another on the way!). I am fortunate that there has been very little impact to me and my loved ones.
What resources or support has been offered to you by your company during this time?
Marsh & McLennan has been extremely supportive. They have shown great leadership and empathy to the colleagues of our organization, providing resources to those who have been impacted by the closing of schools and daycare facilities. In addition to setting up a hardship fund for colleagues whose families have suffered a financial setback, they have also assured us that if we test positive for COVID-19, we can take the time needed to recover. I have been so impressed by the company’s commitment to not letting anyone go during the pandemic and how we have handled this difficult time. I am proud to be part of the Marsh & McLennan family!
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
Don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. Push yourself to learn and grow. You are the one in control of your own destiny.
What advice do you have for women in your industry who want to take their career path to the next level?
Surround yourself with strong leaders. Learn, adapt and be willing to take chances. Find a mentor or advisor that you can trust to provide guidance and good advice. Stay strong, stay focused and continue to expand your network. There are very few female leaders in technology and cyber security, so we need to stay connected and support each other in order to advance in our careers.
Cyber security is a great field with many challenges and I am so thankful that I have been given the opportunities that I have. I truly love what I do!
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