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Who’s the boss? Trends in CIO reporting structure

CIO Insider

The CIO’s role in business strategy is ever increasing. Regardless of reporting lines, CIOs can maximise IT’s impact by aligning mission and brand with strategy, showcasing business acumen and building C-suite relationships.


As IT’s role expands beyond value preservation to income generation, CIOs are striving to balance critical business and IT operational tasks with innovative infrastructure and applications that enable disruptive new business models, generate top-line value and drive competitive advantage. With the unprecedented pace of technological change, it’s critical for CIOs to move quickly, with direct and unwavering support at all levels of the organisation.

Based on an analysis of three years of data from Deloitte’s CIO Programme, along with interviews with CIOs and other C-suite leaders, this CIO Insider examines trends in the CIO reporting line and reveals common characteristics of various reporting scenarios.1 It proposes that although a direct line to the CEO is often the optimal reporting structure for strategic technology leaders, other reporting models are viable, can add value to the organisation and may be required in certain scenarios. Regardless of their reporting lines, CIOs can and should elevate technology on the organisational agenda to be a strategic business leader.

CEO reporting queue: A growing trend that reflects IT’s evolution

A growing trend of CIOs reporting to CEOs reflects the impact of technology on business strategy. An analysis of more than 500 CIO reporting relationships finds that globally, nearly half (46 per cent) of enterprise CIOs report to the highest levels of the organisation. This trend towards the CEO reporting line is more noticeable in the United States, where a slightly higher percentage of CIOs (51 per cent) report to the CEO compared to global CIOs. (See figure 1.)

A year-over-year comparison shows the percentage of CIOs reporting to the CEO has been trending upward for the past three years. (See figure 2.)

A direct queue to the CEO is frequently observed when the CIO is leading the enterprise through a digital transformation. Among the surveyed CIOs who describe themselves as leaders of developing the organisation’s digital strategy, more than half (55 per cent) report to the CEO, compared to only about a quarter of CIOs (27 per cent) who describe themselves as supporters of developing digital strategy. The majority of supporters (51 per cent) report instead to the CFO. (See figure 3.)

Seventy-seven per cent of CIOs who report to the CEO indicate their organisations have some level of digital strategy. Furthermore, in organisations with enterprise-wide digital strategies, 38 per cent of CIOs report to the CEO, while only 8 per cent report to the CFO. However, when CIOs say digital is not an organisational priority, far fewer of them (25 per cent) report to the CEO and many more (27 per cent) report to the CFO. Even in organisations where there is a chief digital officer (CDO) responsible for leading and executing the digital strategy, 74 per cent of CIOs indicate both the CDO and CIO report into the CEO.

CIOs are also more likely to directly report to the CEO in industries that are experiencing profound technology-driven transformation or disruption. Expectedly, for example, more than half of the CIOs (55 per cent) in technology, media and telecommunications companies report to the CEO. Nearly the same percentage (54 per cent) of public sector technology chiefs—who are at the forefront of technology-focussed initiatives such as consolidating infrastructure, engaging citizens and automating manual processes—report to the organisation’s head. And life sciences and health care businesses and providers are leveraging technology to develop innovative ways of delivering the best patient outcomes and reducing health care spending; half of the CIOs surveyed in this industry report to the CEO. (See figure 4.)

Non-CEO reporting lines: Relationships outweigh reporting structure

Even though the percentage of CIOs reporting to the chief executive is increasing, globally more than half (55 per cent) still do not report to the CEO. Some CIOs view the so-called “optics” of not reporting to the CEO as negative—and indeed, there may be some potential points of contention associated with reporting to the CFO, COO, or other business leaders. For example, technology may be viewed as operational instead of strategic or it may take a back seat to other concerns. Some companies may seek to fill a perceived gap in strategic technology leadership by bringing in a new technology leader, such as a CDO, to report directly to the CEO. For these and other reasons, the leader of an executive search firm says that when the firm is recruiting a CIO to report to the CFO, a whole segment of the talent pool can be expected to pass on the job.2

This is potentially a missed opportunity. Reporting structure may drive the perception of the CIO within the company, but it shouldn’t prevent an IT leader from being strategic or driving change. And in fact, CIOs that don’t report to the chief executive can still be viewed as critical strategic business partners—they just have to operate different levers to maximise organisational influence and strategically elevate IT. Corporate strategy and individual circumstances, relationships and personalities are often more important than industry norms or other metrics.

Some CIOs who report to the CEO say that depending on their scope of responsibilities and number of CEO direct reports, the chief executive’s attention to technology is too fragmented to be valuable. In other instances, CIOs who report to CEOs who haven’t identified technology as strategic to the business may find it more valuable to build trusted relationships with other business leaders. Building relationships across the C-suite to foster technology advocates who understand the impact of technology can far outweigh lines on an org chart.

CFOs: Influential allies with a common mandate

The relationship between CIOs and CFOs is often symbiotic—both executives have a common mandate to drive company performance by balancing top-line contributions with bottom-queue efficiencies. The CFO often wields substantial organisational influence and can be a formidable ally who helps rally CEO and board support for technology investments. The percentage of global CIO respondents reporting into CFOs has remained steady for the last three years; in 2018, 28 per cent of those surveyed said they report to the CFO.

CIOs reporting into finance may experience deeper scrutiny of technology budgets, business cases and return on investment, especially on projects with significant investments and protracted timelines. In organisations in which the CIO reports to the CFO, the allocation of IT budgets to day-to-day operations is slightly higher (60 per cent) than in those in which CIOs report to CEOs (53 per cent) and these organisations also spend less on business innovation and incremental business change. (See figure 5.) Nevertheless, reporting to the CFO can prove to have plus points—if CIOs can work hand in hand with the organisation’s financial leader to demonstrate the value and impact of technology, they naturally find themselves with a tech advocate in their corner.

COOs: The focus turns to business processes

While the number of CIOs reporting to CEOs and CFOs has respectively increased or remained stable over the past three years, the number of CIOs reporting into COOs has decreased. Only 11 per cent of global CIOs surveyed report into operations. The percentage of CIOs that report to COOs is highest in the financial services industry (25 per cent). Perhaps because technology is so integral to their business operations, financial services organisations benefit from embedding CIOs closely to the COO.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, CIOs who answer to the COO are significantly less likely to focus on driving business innovation and strategy (27 per cent) compared to CIOs that report into the CEO (42 per cent). Furthermore, these CIOs currently spend a majority of their time focussed on IT operations (40 per cent).

In these situations, IT may be seen as a shared services—and CIOs may have to counter the perception of IT as a tactical order-taker. However, in the event that an enterprise-wide business change is required, a COO reporting line can help CIOs with the challenging task of engaging business leaders to reach agreement on common technologies, architectures and processes.

Boards: Access to leadership—and leadership concerns

Deloitte data suggests that reporting to the board or executive committee is less common in the United States than in other parts of the world. Only 10 per cent of global CIOs surveyed report to the board—and no US CIOs surveyed indicated a board reporting relationship.

CIOs who report to the board or executive committee can gain the advantage of visibility and access to leadership, yet interactions may be infrequent. And unless they reset expectations, these CIOs may find themselves focussing on top board-level concerns such as cost, cybersecurity and risk at the expense of innovation and business transformation.

Key takeaways

As CIOs contemplate organisational structure and how to make the most of reporting line and relationships with business leaders and key stakeholders, they can consider the following:

CIOs can be strategic regardless of reporting line. CIOs that don’t report to the chief executive can still align strategically to business objectives and lead technology-driven business transformation. As long as they report to an influential business leader who understands, supports and advocates for technology as a key component of corporate strategy, the needs of the business, board and shareholders will ultimately percolate down to the CIO. Ultimately, what really matters is that the CIO—and by extension, IT—has a seat at the strategic table.

Aligning mission and brand with business strategy can foster consistency. Before the IT team and strategy can be aligned with corporate strategy, the CIO’s mission and brand must reflect business needs. For example, does the business need the CIO to serve as an operational disciplinarian, a leader of business transformation, or a driver of technology-enabled business strategy? Aligning mission and brand to the needs of the business can help crystallise the CIO’s vision and bring clarity and consistency that will filter through to the IT team.

Business acumen can bring credibility. CIOs who complement their technology expertise with strong business skills and industry knowledge can understand business issues and challenges and help identify potential technology-driven solutions. Demonstrating business know-how can help CIOs—especially those that don’t report to the CEO—raise their profiles and gain a seat at the executive leadership committee table.

Relationship-building can help CIOs be more strategic. Regardless of where the CIO reports, it can be important to cultivate significant executive relationships with the CEO, CFO, COO, other key C-suite occupants, board members and other functional leaders. Develop a relationship road map that takes into account personality, motivation and expectations and includes planned, formal and informal interactions. Furthermore, CIOs can enable their IT teams to create relationships to drive confidence and develop trust at all levels across the organisation.

The proof is in the IT delivery pudding. Delivering consistent, reliable and efficient technology to the business is the prerequisite to influencing business strategy and getting a seat at the table, regardless of reporting relationship. If the outcomes of technology initiatives do not add value to business objectives, the CIO reporting relationship ultimately will not matter.

CEO reporting is mandatory in many situations. In organisations where the CIO is leading digital strategy, it’s critical for the CIO to report to the CEO. Digital transformation requires buy-in, support and active involvement from the chief executive. Technology change is often the most straightforward aspect of digital transformation; it can be far more challenging to tame organisational resistance. When digital transformation, technology-driven innovation or disruption, or other technology-focussed initiative is a key business initiative, CIOs may find it easier to garner necessary resources and drive cultural change with the direct support of the CEO.

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Khalid Kark heads the development of research and insights for the CIO Programme, and is based in Dallas, Texas.

Anjali Shaikh leads the Research and Insights team for the CIO Programme, and is based in Costa Mesa, California.

Caroline Brown is a senior writer for CIO Research and Insights and CIO Journal, and is based in San Francisco, California.

CIO Insider is developed by the Deloitte CIO Programme’s research and insights team. The authors would like to recognise and thank Allen Qiu for his data wizardry and diligent efforts in analysing our data set.

Cover image by: Molly Woodworth

  1. Data for this analysis was taken from the forthcoming Deloitte 2018 Global CIO Survey, to be published in the summer of 2018. The year-over-year analysis incorporated data from Deloitte’s 2015 and 2016–2017 global CIO surveys.

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  2. Martha Heller, “Why the CIO reporting structure matters,” CIO Magazine, July 26, 2017, accessed March 28, 2018.

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