What Is a CISO?

A CISO, or chief information security officer, is a senior-level executive who oversees an organization's information, cyber, and technology security. The CISO's responsibilities include developing, implementing, and enforcing security policies to protect critical data.  

What does a CISO do?

The exact responsibilities will vary by organization. Traditionally, a CISO focuses on developing and leading the information security program. This involves protecting the organization's assets, applications, systems, and technology while enabling and advancing business outcomes.

Other duties may include, but are not limited to:

  • Developing and implementing secure processes and systems used to prevent, detect, mitigate, and recover from cyberattacks
  • Educating and managing technology risk in collaboration with business leaders
  • Building and driving a cybersecurity strategy and framework, with initiatives to secure the organization's cyber and technology assets
  • Continuously evaluating and managing the cyber and technology risk posture of the organization
  • Implementing and managing the cyber governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) process
  • Reporting to the most senior levels of the organization (the CEO and board of directors, or equivalent)
  • Developing, justifying, and evaluating cybersecurity investments
  • Developing and implementing ongoing security awareness training and education for users
  • Leading cybersecurity operations and implementing disaster recovery protocols and business continuity plans with business resilience in mind
  • What is the difference between a CIO and a CISO?

    The chief information officer (CIO) is the organization's most senior information technology executive. The CIO sets the vision for the overall IT security strategy and oversees major IT initiatives, like digital transformation projects designed to keep the business agile and resilient.

    The CISO attests to the compliance and security of the CIO's technology implementations. Although many CISOs report to the CIO, that organizational structure is now considered to be a conflict of interest. More and more Fortune 500 companies have made the CISO coequal with the CIO. In these companies the CISO may report to the chief technology officer (CTO), the chief security officer (CSO), the chief risk officer (CRO), or even the chief operating officer (COO) or chief executive officer (CEO).

    Regardless of the exact reporting structure, the CIO and CISO should collaborate and communicate regularly. Their cooperation can help the business continually improve its security posture.

    How is the CISO's role evolving, and why?

    The role of the CISO is expanding rapidly and becoming much more impactful. CISOs interact more frequently with other C-suite executives—such as the CEO or chief financial officer (CFO)—as well as the board of directors on a near-continuous basis.

    Many CISOs lead high-level discussions about security strategy and help business leaders understand trends and risks that impact the organization. A CISO is expected to weigh in on everything involving the organization's technology risk. This can include securing the remote workforce, leading cybersecurity GRC, and proactively managing security operations.

    Businesses tap a CISO's expertise about security complexities involved in accelerating digital transformation, moving to the cloud, securing the supply chain, and shifting to remote and hybrid work. They also are called on to report on security and compliance measures to stakeholders and regulators.


    Why hire a CISO?

    Do all businesses need a CISO?

    All businesses require a security leader who is responsible for overseeing technology, information, and data security—even if that person doesn't have the title of CISO.

    Almost all midsize firms and larger enterprises have a CISO in their C-suite. Smaller businesses may not have a technology executive with the title of CISO, but most will have a staff member—such as the director of cybersecurity—who handles those responsibilities.

    Some small or startup organizations find it more efficient to outsource the CISO role. This approach can help the company protect its intellectual property and data, along with its IT infrastructure.

    What value does a CISO bring?

    Organizations benefit from a CISO's broad view of security. This technology leader understands how various aspects of security relate to the IT systems, devices, and networks upon which the business operates and relies.

    A CISO applies his or her unique perspective on security to identify security risks and recommend strategies to manage them. Successful CISOs can also take complex security issues and describe them in nontechnical language that helps leadership and other key stakeholders understand the potential impacts—good or bad—of those issues.

    What does a CISO do in a typical workday?

    There is no typical or structured workday for a CISO. The job is complex and demanding. The specific priorities a CISO must focus on can change daily, especially as new risks emerge or if the organization experiences a data breach or other cybersecurity incident.

    A CISO's workday in spent in continuous interaction with subordinates, peers, and superiors. They must communicate frequently with subordinates to provide mentoring and to consistently convey the organization's cybersecurity philosophy and to see that projects are aligned with the cybersecurity outcomes required by leadership. CISOs must collaborate continuously with their peers to ensure that cybersecurity policies and procedures are in alignment with the business missions and operations of the enterprise. And there must be ongoing discussions with superiors in order to imbue cybersecurity into the business processes and outcomes of the enterprise.

    What skills should a CISO have?

    The path to becoming a CISO is varied and ill-defined. It is equally important to understand the technological underpinnings of cybersecurity as to understand effective management principles. There's a decades-old adage that cybersecurity encompasses people, process, and technology (PPT). A CISO needs to learn about all of these.

    A passion for information technology and a commitment to continuous learning are essential for success as a CISO, but so is understanding how to lead people.

    CISOs should be familiar with leading security standards from NIST and ISO. Many CISOs also possess IT certifications such as the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) from (ISC)2 or Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) designations from ISACA. Other certifications are available, but certifications are just one of many qualifications for a cybersecurity professional.

    Because the CISO role is becoming more high-profile, these professionals must have strong management, communication, leadership, and negotiation abilities. Business acumen is a valuable skill as well, as it helps CISOs better understand how technology and security support business goals.

    Additionally, given the trends toward digital transformation and remote and hybrid work, CISOs need to understand cloud and application security. They also need to be aware of the potential security risks associated with emerging technologies like automation and machine learning.