Why CISOs Shouldn't Report to CIOs

In the past, Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) primarily focused on safeguarding an organization’s computer systems and data. However, with the surge in cyber threats and the rapid evolution of technology, the role of a CISO has significantly expanded to encompass the protection of the entire organization.

CISO vs. CIO: Clarifying Titles and Roles

While at a cursory glance, the titles "Chief Information Security Officer" (CISO) and "Chief Information Officer" (CIO) might suggest a hierarchical relationship, this perception is a bit misleading. The shared "Chief Information" prefix could easily lead one to mistakenly think security, as denoted in the CISO title, is a subset of the CIO's oversight and domain. Such an assumption, however, is a misinterpretation. In reality, their roles are distinct and of equal importance. The CISO focuses on the protection of data and information systems, while the CIO focuses on implementing and managing the technology infrastructure.


A study by the Ponemon Institute reveals that 34% of CISOs report directly to the Chief Information Officer (CIO). This statistic is concerning, as it implies a potential underestimation of the CISO's critical role.

Divergent Responsibilities of CISOs and CIOs

There are compelling reasons why CISOs should not report to CIOs:

  • Differing Focus: The CIO manages the organization's technological infrastructure, whereas the CISO prioritizes cybersecurity.
  • Contrasting Priorities: CIOs often aim for cost-effectiveness and efficiency, while CISOs focus on risk management and data safeguarding.
  • Timeline Discrepancies: CIOs might push for swift IT rollouts, while CISOs ensure thorough security evaluations.
  • Varied Risk Appetite: CIOs, keen on adopting new technologies, might overlook security risks, something CISOs are vigilant about.
  • Different Objectives: Both CISOs and CIOs juggle a blend of short-term and long-term objectives. CIOs plan and execute long-term technological initiatives that are aligned with the organization's business goals. They also deal with immediate, day-to-day challenges like system outages, help desk issues, and software deployments. Their agility in managing both strategic and daily IT needs is crucial. Meanwhile, CISOs strategize for the long-term security of the organization. Their immediate day-to-day challenges involve short-term tactical responses, especially when overseeing teams like the Security Operations Center (SOC). Prompt actions against emergent threats are critical. Each role carries out equally indispensable tasks, though different in terms of functional purpose in the organization’s overall well-being. 
  • Potential for Conflict: One of the most pronounced challenges in having the CISO report to the CIO is the potential for conflicts of interest. The choices a CIO makes—like opting for a particular technology or software—might directly clash with the CISO's security assessments. In situations where the CISO disagrees on grounds of security but is subordinate to the CIO, it can create a complex dynamic where the security concerns might be sidelined or not given due consideration. It's in these instances where an overarching authority, such as the board or a senior executive, becomes imperative to mediate and make informed decisions that balance both technological advancement and security.

Each role fulfills a different need of the organization. As set out in the bullet points above, this can lead to potential conflict. A clear definition of the scope of each role is necessary so that the strategic health of the organization is ensured. 

An Ideal Reporting Structure for CISOs

For a CISO's role to be most effective, they should report directly to the board of directors. This ensures the board remains informed about the organization's cyber risks. Furthermore, it grants the CISO access to essential resources, ensuring robust protection of organizational assets.

Setting Right, Realistic Expectations for the CISO Role

While the board must ensure that the CISO has the staff, budget, and authority to execute their role effectively, it's unrealistic to assume a CISO can prevent all cyber threats. While they play a central role in the cybersecurity framework, cybersecurity requires a collective effort. Also, the board shouldn't see the CISO as a solution to all IT challenges. The CISO’s mandate is to advance the long- and short-term strategic goals of the organization within the scope of cybersecurity. As outlined previously in this article, CISOs and CIOs have very distinct roles and the health of the organization is best advanced when these roles remain separate. 

Harmonizing Technology and Security in the Digital Age

As cyber threats evolve, so does the need to understand the unique contributions of both the CISO and the CIO. Recognizing their distinct mandates and ensuring appropriate reporting structures helps to achieve a necessary balance between technological advancement and security. In this digital age, organizations that discern and act on these roles' nuances will be better positioned to protect their most valuable assets.

Pete Slade
March 15, 2022