IT Leadership Roles Defined (CIO vs CTO vs IT Director vs CISO vs IT Manager)

There are a lot of IT leadership roles out there, and the distinction can get quite murky for leaders who are looking to include IT at the executive table or dabbling into their first major IT initiative. As time goes on technology titles continue to proliferate including: IT Manager, IT Director, VP of IT, CIO, CTO, CISO.. what do they all mean and which role is the best fit for your needs? Below we provide a definition on some of the most critical technology roles that organizations from 50-250+ must consider to stay relevant and outperform peers.

Mindfield Consulting is an essential strategic technology partner for Planet SHIFT Inc., providing valuable guidance, forefront thinking, and sustainable solutions that help us delight our clients. As a change agent, I rely on their partnership to unlock the possible, and their work has never disappointed me in almost a decade. Including Mindfield in our clients’ projects enhances the credibility of our brand, and we work together to reinvent businesses.Eileen


cio vs cto

First, we can quickly clear up the confusion around CIO vs CTO, and then effectively remove CTO from the discussion.

A CTO, or Chief Technology Officer, is a role you often see in businesses that sell their own technology, or have customer-facing technology that is critical to their success. Examples include a business that designs and sells software, or a business that provides managed services to clients and uses technology to deliver those services.

In this context, the CTO is responsible for that customer-facing technology. They will often have software architects, developers, business analysts and product owners in their team. And they will have close connections with the marketing department.

In contrast, the CIO, or Chief Information Officer, has overall responsibility for the internal IT function, which includes the technology and data systems that the company uses in the course of their business. They will often work closely with the CTO, but it is a more inward looking role and is quite distinct.

For the purposes of the rest of the discussion, we can drop the CTO because unlike all the other roles, they are not really focused on the internal IT function.



cio vs ciso

Like a CTO, a CISO, or Chief Information Security Officer, has a very distinct role in an organization. As the name suggests, the CISO is responsible for information security in an organization. It is a role often mixed in with CIO or IT Director positions, but really it should be separate and distinct. Why you ask? Because of an inherent conflict of interest.

The CISO is responsible for the security of the organization’s systems and data. Their priority is on ensuring that data is protected and that compliance is met. In contrast, a CIO is responsible for IT performance. They need to ensure that the IT function is delivering what it needs to enable the business.

If you give the CIO responsibility for data security, there may come a time when they need to do a trade-off. Should they give the organization the tools it needs to succeed by sacrificing the security of its data? This is an important discussion that requires experts with clearly differentiated interests and incentives (the CIO and the CISO) with a mediating and decision making party, the CEO.


CIO vs IT Director vs IT Manager

CIO vs CISO vs IT Manager

While there is a lot of overlap between these roles, we can make some generalizations. These generalizations are more likely to be accurate the larger the organization. We go into more depth below about how the size of an organization influences IT leadership roles.

Generally speaking, an IT Manager is focused on operational leadership. They often still fulfill a technical role alongside their managerial duties, and are often promoted directly from technical roles. IT Managers often receive little training in their management responsibilities and almost none in effective governance.

IT Directors bridge the gap between the operational IT Managers and the strategic CIOs. They have usually been promoted from an IT management role, which in turn was a promotion from a technical role. So they are often quite technologically capable, although they are probably not hands-on with technology anymore. Their close proximity to technical resources and projects should help them stay relatively up to date on technology, even if their technical skills might be a little rusty.

IT Directors can be considered IT leadership generalists. They can do a passable job across the gamut of IT leadership responsibilities, but don’t have all the expertise. The most common areas of development at this level are IT governance and learning to align IT strategy with business goals.

A CIO is a senior IT leader with overall responsibility for the internal IT function. They usually operate entirely at the strategic level and should have an excellent understanding of the importance and role of effective IT governance. In many cases they will have been promoted through IT, so they may have some IT credentials. But in most cases they won’t have been hands-on with technology for many years, and because technology moves so fast, this can result in them feeling quite out of touch with their technical skills and experience. In some cases, a CIO will be a non-technical business leader who got promoted to CIO having shown an aptitude for understanding the strategic significance of technology and the intersection of technology and the business, and so have no technical capabilities at all. The most important role for a CIO is being able to plot a technology course that empowers the organization, and being an internal champion for the strategic importance of IT.


Distinction between Small and Large Organizations

The distinction between small and large organizations is important. A large organization will likely have a very complex and hierarchical IT team, whereas a very small organization will likely have no IT team at all. In the middle, you’ll find a lot of variety, usually characterized by hybrid IT teams where a small number of people attempt to wear all the hats, and often struggle as a result. As IT gains both strategic and operational significance in organizations, this can lead to problematic gaps in skills, and experience that can have significant negative consequences for an organization. It is a brave organization that decides not to have specialist finance knowledge across the board, but many of these same companies will attempt to function with little or no internal IT capabilities.

In a large organization, they will probably have multiple levels of IT leadership, starting with a CIO who is responsible for strategic management and interfacing with executive leadership, down to  IT Managers, responsible for operational management and supplying the interface with technical resources. Then between them you will likely have a layer of IT Directors, or middle managers, who make tactical decisions and provide the transition between the operational and strategic management.

In a small-medium sized organization, you’ll typically see a single IT leader reporting into a non-technical executive. This IT leader will be trying their best to cover the whole gamut of responsibilities but will need to pick and choose where to focus their limited time. And unless an organization has found one of those rare IT leader unicorns who really has both the capability and capacity to do everything to a high standard, then the organization will suffer as a result.

Arguably in the worst shape are the very small organizations who forgo any internal IT leadership altogether, perhaps relying on an outsourced IT service provider to run helpdesk and do the odd implementation. The rise of Cloud services has enabled this by democratizing IT services. Now, anyone with a credit card can deploy business software in a matter of minutes, without having to know anything about IT infrastructure, security or data. Organizations like these have a major gap in IT capabilities that will stifle their ability to keep pace with their more technology-enabled competitors.


IT leadership Roles - Mindfield Consulting



Virtual IT Leadership | Virtual CIO

Virtual IT Leadership and Virtual CIO

For organizations that have a gap in IT leadership, typically organizations from 1 to 250 employees, there are an increasing number of virtual IT leadership options available out there. Most commonly, these are marketed as Virtual CIO (vCIO) services.

Most vCIO services focus almost entirely on the strategic side. Often, this is a result of the consultants offering this service having been CIOs themselves for many years and no longer hands-on with the technology. And technology moves so fast, their technical skills and knowledge gets out of date really fast. It is therefore important to understand where your gaps are and make sure you find the right service to fill it. This can be a challenge for business leaders and executives who don’t already have a great understanding of what a well-run IT department does.

That’s why at Mindfield, our vCIO program covers the entire gamut of IT leadership, from the operational to the strategic. And we ensure that our Virtual CIOs also do technical engagements so that their skills stay up to date. So, unless you’re sure you only need coverage at the strategic level, or understand exactly what you are looking for, we recommend finding a program like Mindfield’s that covers the whole range of IT leadership capabilities. Check out our article on virtual IT leadership for more information.


Your Next IT Leader

Hopefully this article helped to clear away some of the confusion surrounding the various IT leadership roles. An IT leader is more relevant than ever given our connected and remote working environment, for those looking to take the next step in bringing on a leader refer to our  IT Director interview guide. If you’re interested in learning more about vCIO services, check our article on virtual IT leadership.

If you have any questions or are interested in a virtual IT leadership engagement, please submit an email below and someone will be in touch shortly.

    *By submitting you agree to the Mindfield  Terms of Use.

    Request Consultation

    Error: Contact form not found.

    Mindfield Insights

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.