A CISO (chief information security officer) is a company's senior executive responsible for developing, managing, and implementing its organization’s security program and improving its cybersecurity posture. The CISO oversees the information security programs, protects organizational data and assets, develops IT infrastructures, builds security teams, and handles the overall IT security of the company.

CISOs are regarded as expert security professionals on the same level as C-level executive roles that report directly to the CEO. As the organization’s information security leader, the main goal is to maintain strong cybersecurity operations and guide security initiatives.

Depending on the industry or the organization's size, a CISO may also play multiple roles with different responsibilities, like meeting regulatory requirements, assisting in company operations, and making business decisions related to IT security.

To become not only a CISO but instead a successful one, you need years of technical experience, team management capabilities, strong leadership skills, and a deep understanding of industry-related compliance standards and regulations, among many other qualities. This article will discuss what makes an effective and successful CISO and how aspiring cybersecurity professionals can become better technological innovators and leaders.

Learn more about CISOs here.

The Difference Between CISOs, CSOs, and CIOs

The CISO (chief information security officer), CIO (chief information officer), and CSO (chief security officer) are high-ranking C-suite positions that play critical roles in an organization’s cybersecurity. Because CISO is a broad role in an organization, the term is often used interchangeably with CSO and CIO or sometimes even the Vice President (VP) of Security.

Although CISOs, CIOs, and CSOs have similar responsibilities, they serve as collaborative counterparts for figuring out cybersecurity initiatives and must communicate to avoid conflicting responsibilities.

  • CIO - CIOs typically have a more general and wider scope than CISOs and CSOs. They are more involved in the strategic planning of technology and security, as well as maintaining IT operations and leading new digital programs for the company.
  • CSO - CSOs often deal with less technology and more corporate security. They may also help with the security of employees, products, and general operations. In some cases, CSOs may manage both IT and corporate security.
  • CISO - The CISO’s job mainly focuses on cybersecurity and is more specialized in information and data security. They are in charge of designing the organization’s IT infrastructure and overseeing the development of specialized security programs, such as Vendor Risk Management.

Skills of a Successful CISO

A CISO must have the right skills and experience that match the level of responsibilities and duties that are required and expected of them.

Successful CISO skills MUST include the following:

  • Strong leadership and communication skills
  • Expert knowledge of information systems, network security, and disaster planning processes
  • Extensive cyber risk management and incident response experience
  • Administrative and human resource skills
  • Budgeting and financial planning skills
  • Industry-related decision-making experience
  • A broad range of IT expertise
  • Knowledge of government legislations, regulations, and compliance standards
  • Ability to develop and implement security policies and teams

Primary Responsibilities of a CISO

The primary responsibility of a CISO is to push a company’s cybersecurity agenda strategically by providing the organization with valuable technical insight and expanding on company goals with their deep knowledge of IT security.

One of the CISO’s most critical qualities is detecting, assessing, and prioritizing potential cybersecurity risks. They are also responsible for monitoring downtime in the aftermath of both minor and major cybersecurity incidents, estimating the total cost, and analyzing their financial impact.

Additionally, the CISO must onboard various organizational stakeholders, mobilize the required financial resources, and create essential partnerships with third-party vendors and security professionals.

Their responsibilities can be summarized into the following:

  • Develop resilient cybersecurity strategies and programs to protect the organization’s data, assets, and resources;
  • Monitor organizational attack surfaces, and prepare for cybersecurity incidents
  • Implement appropriate controls, and approve end-to-end IT security operations
  • Ensure the security technology used by the organization works as intended and the processes of the technologies do not pose a risk to the company
  • Manage documentation for compliance and create security strategies
  • Increase the resilience of their company’s vendor security program
  • Manage human resources, governance, and run training programs for employees
  • Onboard relevant stakeholders
  • Pave the way for the overall cybersecurity vision

What Makes an Effective and Successful CISO?

Besides managing risks, data security, and overseeing IT security infrastructure, a good CISO needs certain qualities that separate them from other business leaders in the field of cybersecurity.

In the past, a CISO’s roles usually included scanning vulnerabilities, reviewing code, and monitoring attack surfaces. Today, CISOs continue to deal with evolving cyber threats, but they must also take on a broad set of crucial business responsibilities and management decisions.

According to a Gartner survey, only 12% of CISOs are considered "highly effective.” The main role of a CISO is already difficult, and juggling business responsibilities and technical duties pose a significant challenge.

However, an effective CISO doesn’t necessarily have to excel on a technical level. In some cases, it may be more important to have the key character qualities of a highly communicative, creative, and innovative leader.

Here are the 8 most important qualities and qualifications that make an effective and successful CISO that will allow them to excel in their role of managing and protecting their company’s data, assets, and systems.

1. Extensive Cybersecurity Background & Technical Expertise

Firstly, a good chief information security officer with a CISO certification possesses the right expertise and technical background to understand how to utilize the company’s resources and technology to protect its data, assets, and systems. Additionally, tech-savvy CISOs need a firm grasp of the changing cybersecurity threat landscape. The right knowledge allows them to design, create, and implement the right security measures and proper security infrastructure that suit the organization.

A CISO must also understand present challenges in their industry’s digital landscape and have an unwavering ability to evaluate threats, make informed risk decisions, employ organizational resources, and take on future cybersecurity challenges.

The growing industry trend of expert analysts getting promoted to executive teams is no surprise due to the growing knowledge base of cybersecurity. Successful CISOs should already have strong technical cybersecurity and IT knowledge that may help them move up on the company’s ladder.

2. Strong Leadership Skills

As the leader in information and digital security of their respective organization, a great CISO must demonstrate impeccable leadership ability. Other executives, cybersecurity leaders from other companies, and the team that works under them will all be looking to a CISO for direction, leadership, and advice.

Very few people will question the decision-making and knowledge of a CISO, which means that the decisions they make will also fall fully on them if things do not go as planned. Being a strong leader means taking ownership of every decision that is made while understanding the weight and responsibilities that comes with their position. In addition, the decisions that they make also affect many groups of people, meaning that a successful CISO needs to stay unwavering and authoritative.

3. Clear Communication Skills

While having a solid cybersecurity background and deep technical expertise is crucial, it’s not enough for someone to become an effective CISO. CISOs must also possess excellent communication skills to present their ideas, strategy, and plans in a clear, concise manner.

CISOs with good communication skills can translate complex cybersecurity concepts into simpler terms to help executive teams make better decisions or help employees understand best security practices.

CISOs have both an advisory and strategic role, and they must articulate their ideas clearly, especially to employees, the board of directors, senior managers, and other stakeholders, who often are individuals with little technical knowledge and non-IT backgrounds.

4. Organizational & Project Management Skills

CISOs often handle multiple responsibilities or projects that may sometimes overlap or carry unexpected outcomes that conflict with their busy schedules. The best CISOs should have strong organizational skills to set priorities, create plans, establish workflow processes, and determine cyber strategies.

CISOs should have a clear vision and sharp organizational skills beyond simple planning and scheduling — they must organize their time to ensure security projects are effective, timely, and aligned with the organization’s main objectives.

5. Team Building & Team Management Skills

One of the biggest responsibilities of a CISO is to build an effective team around them to help achieve organizational goals and manage day-to-day operations. Understanding people at a personal level and how they can contribute to a team is just as important as any other skill.

Depending on the organization, CISOs often manage teams of dozens to hundreds of IT professionals. In order to manage large teams, they must also determine the right leaders to put in place at the director and manager levels to help create an effective workplace.

6. Good Sense of Ethics and Code of Conduct

CISOs must maintain a good sense of ethics and understand that there is a code of conduct for someone in their position. For example, an ethical CISO that understands the importance of customer data privacy must ensure that it’s well-secured, even from employees, clients, service providers, or themselves.

Even if there is pressure from external parties to reveal confidential information, CISOs should never risk compromising their ethics. Policies that are put in place must be adhered to completely and CISOs must lead by example in doing so.

7. Having a Proactive and Innovative Mindset

Cybersecurity is not just about mitigating cyber threat risk — it’s about looking ahead to the future and anticipating what threats may come. This means that CISOs must stay updated with the latest trends in the threat landscape, which allows them to take action and prepare for cybersecurity threats that may arise.

For a proactive approach to security, a CISO must always be prepared with a plan and strategy to deal with future threats. Security infrastructures must be constantly updated, security policies need to be revised, risk assessments should be continually performed, and security training must be reviewed consistently to ensure that there is a plan for everything.

8. Strong Business Acumen and Industry Understanding

A good CISO needs to be business-savvy as much as they are tech-savvy. According to Gartner, one-third of a CISO’s effectiveness is evaluated based on their business acumen and the prowess to create business value.

CISOs need to focus on discussions about how the company’s security initiatives align with business goals and having an in-depth understanding of the industry they work in is essential. Their ideas can have a significant influence on company executives and stakeholders.

Cybersecurity innovation is critical, and CISOs must always be on the lookout for improving their company through cybersecurity while justifying the value of their department in alignment with market trends and industry standards.

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