From Catcher to Pitcher – How a CIO Earns a Seat at the Head Table

CIOMy friend Dan Roberts of Ouellette & Associates, an IT professional development firm, recently sent me a link to a CIO article, “Should CIOs still care about business strategy?” As a 20+ year CIO and former head of corporate strategy, I believe there is no doubt that an effective CIO eats, sleeps and breathes business strategy. Without concern for business strategy, the IT leader is not truly a CIO.

But there is more to the CIO evolution than just thinking strategically.  The CIO is never entitled to a seat at the head table.  That privilege is earned.  Your CIO must behave strategically to align the IT organization with the business and earn the opportunity to sit at the head table.

Catchers and Pitchers

The CIO article describes “Catchers” and “Pitchers”.  “Catchers” are not strategic and are dictated to by business leaders.  “Pitchers” have a seat at the head table.  (Ironically, in baseball the catcher is arguably the most strategic thinker on the field but we’ll put that aside for the sake of the metaphor in the CIO article).

The “Catcher” approach, defined in the article, is, in my opinion, for IT organizations that have not earned the trust of the business and in which the CIO is not a member of the leadership team. It describes a business that does not understand the value of technology.  This is a business that may be at risk of being disrupted by more forward thinking competitors.  And it describes a CIO that has not yet transitioned into a business leadership role.

The “Pitcher” approach, defined in the article, describes an IT organization that is aligned with the business. And it describes a CIO that has earned the trust of his or her executive peers.

Making the Transition

So how can your CIO make the transition from “Catcher” to “Pitcher”?

Having successfully executed numerous, complex IT turnarounds, I’ve often described that IT performs three key functions. We maintain existing technology while supporting our customers.  We enhance existing technology.  And, at the pinnacle, we participate in business transformation through technology.

The “Catcher” is generally stuck in the maintenance arena. Here's one simple example. The CIO keeps the systems running and delivers a low level of customer support.  Programmers and network engineers are called upon to resolve support issues, distracting them from necessary system enhancements.  The help desk becomes a call center that simply escalates every ticket.  Business customers lose confidence in IT.  Issues take too long to get resolved, resolution is too expensive, and necessary enhancements never seem to get completed.  This CIO does not earn the trust and respect of the executive team and is rarely trusted to engage in business strategy.  Does the "Catcher" describe your CIO?

But, what if the “Catcher” could think and act strategically, focused on what IT really does for the business.  What if the “Catcher” could implement some customer service best practices?  What if those programmers and network engineers took the time to show the tech support folks how to resolve issues so those issues never got escalated again?  And what if the tech support folks did the same for the help desk team?  Suddenly, the help desk is resolving issues on the initial call.  Customer satisfaction numbers skyrocket.  And, all of a sudden, the programmers and network engineers have the time to complete required enhancements and upgrades.  The business starts building confidence in IT because the business is getting what they need to execute their strategy.

The CIO can now get more involved in the business rather than firefighting to keep the systems running.  He or she can share with the business how IT customer service has improved and how system enhancements are being addressed.  And the CIO can spend his or her time discussing business opportunities.

In due time, confidence crescendos — in IT and the CIO. And then it happens.  A senior business leader invites the CIO to lunch to discuss a new idea.  And the CIO, who has developed a strong focus on the business customer, can support the business leader’s idea from a strategic perspective without discussing bits and bytes.

After a few of those episodes, the CIO finds himself or herself participating in strategy sessions. Now, he or she can introduce fresh ideas and disruptive technologies that can transform the business – and do so with the attention and respect of his or her executive peers.

That CIO has transitioned from “Catcher” to “Pitcher” in, perhaps, a couple of short years. And the business has a new opportunity to build competitive advantages through the effective use of technology.

What You Can Do

If your CIO is a “Catcher”, think about why he or she is not at the head table. Consider how he or she can measurably improve customer service.  Contemplate how he or she can free up resources to deliver the enhancements the business really needs.  And think strategically about why your IT function exists – to keep the lights on or to enable and transform the business?

Your CIO can grow from “Catcher” to “Pitcher” and earn the privilege of transforming the business.  Go ahead and challenge your CIO and support the effort to transform IT into a true strategic partner.


Larry Wolff is an Area Managing Partner with Fortium Partners, LP. He has more than 20 years of CIO experience, specializing in IT-business alignment, IT transformation, strategy, merger integration, and disruptive technologies.