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The CXO of the Future with Bill Schlough
There is no doubt that we are living in unprecedented times, with some industries feeling the impact of the COVID-19 more acutely than others. And unfortunately, that includes our much beloved sports. This week on Mayfield’s CXO of the Future Podcast, Gamiel Gran talked to Bill Schlough, Senior Vice President & Chief Information Officer of the San Francisco Giants about the challenges they face and the key role that technology and innovation play during these extraordinary times.
Since Bill’s arrival in 1999, the Giants have been recognized as one of the most innovative teams in sports, playing a pioneering role in the world of HD video, mobile content, ticketing and payment systems. Wireless connectivity has been a primary focus since 2004 when AT&T Park became the first sports facility to provide free Wi-Fi to all fans. Bill’s team has also implemented numerous proprietary analytic tools which have helped secure three World Series titles so far this decade.
Like many kids, Bill aspired to be a professional athlete. However, he ended up following the path that his parents, both working in tech at the time, set out for him. They encouraged Bill to focus on math and science, to go on to college, and get an engineering degree. But through it all, including several moves, sports remained Bill’s biggest passion. He did his undergraduate work at Duke, while studying engineering he continued to enjoy sports (“even though [he] wasn’t great at anything”). When he graduated in 1992, unemployment was at its peak, so Bill mowed lawns, delivered pizzas and eventually started his “real” career as an IT consultant. He found his way into a career in sports with an opportunity to work for World Cup soccer in the Bay Area. And at that time, he decided that it was the industry he wanted to be in for the rest of his life. He went back and got his MBA and has never left the sports industry since.
First CIO of a Sports Organization
Bill went to work for the Giants in 1999, back when the team was building Pacific Bell Park— now Oracle park.
“The Giants were going from being a small company that was losing money to doubling their revenues overnight. The team brought in consultants to support that growth and they created the position of CIO. It was the first sports organization in the US or any sport league or team to have a CIO. So that was my title in 1999 and it’s still my title today. The Giants were really ahead of their time in terms of looking at technology as a strategic enabler for the business. Even today there are some sports organizations that don’t recognize the strategic value of technology.”
Bill has only been a CIO for sports in the sports world—never for a tech company.
“Our product is not technology here at the Giants. But my team are still experts on emerging tech and that has evolved quite a bit over time. I think it’s more empowering to be a CIO of a non-tech company than it would be at a tech company. My focus is much more on the business side and how we leverage technology to drive the business. That’s been a philosophy for us for a long time. It’s all about how we use technology to drive revenue.”
Culture is something that Bill is very passionate about.
“When I joined the Giants fresh out of Business School, it was like coming into a family business. They were kind of a ‘Just Do It’ type of company that focused less on planning and more on executing. What drives our CEO is our culture of being the first to do things. The Giants have the first privately financed ballpark, are the first team to go fully digital with our tickets, and so many other things.
“But we didn’t really have objectives and values, and that’s the way I like to lead. So, I took my team and created a culture within this Giants culture. We created a unique bond and the entire organization ultimately adopted some of our concepts. We created strategic objectives and measured our performance based on those objectives. It’s something that I’m really proud of.”
Taking Risks with Innovation
Innovation is part of the Giants’ ethos and it comes from the top.
“The Giants’ ownership is made up of successful executives from the Bay Area who made their money through innovation and through doing things no one’s ever done before. I’ve never had to force innovation on anyone. Our CEO, Larry Baer, has that mindset and he surrounds himself with executives that rarely turn over. I’ve been at the Giants 22 years and I am still employee number 42 out of 250 full-time on the business side. But there is no attitude of complacency or ‘resting on your laurels’ and savoring our three World Series championships. We’re always looking for new ways to innovate and drive our business forward. At a time like this when we are not making any money because the fans aren’t coming to the stadium, we can focus on innovation, and that’s what we’re all doing.”
Going Beyond the Role of the CIO
When Bill came to the Giants 21 years ago as CIO, he never could have imagined that he would be sitting in the same chair in the same office with the same title 21 years later.
“As a person who grew up moving constantly, I needed to keep moving and taking next steps. My boss Larry Baer recognizes that we are a baseball team and not a startup that’s going to become a multibillion-dollar operation. But he keeps his executives motivated and encourages us to spread our wings beyond the definition of our job description, so that we can support the community in different ways. This philosophy adds lot of additional value to the community and reflects favorably upon the Giants’ brand. My work with the San Jose Giants was great example of that. I took a leave and was CEO down there for nine months and now am Chairman. I also take leaves for the Olympics every two or four years. These kinds of opportunities for me and for other Giants executives have allowed us to broaden ourselves even if our jobs titles stay the same. As a result, we have continued to perform well and remain loyal to our organization.”
Developing the Next Generation of Leaders
“We are an incredibly tenured organization. I’ve been here for 21 years, and most of the executives have been here longer than me. At some point, the next generation will step in. Larry is looking for ways to develop new executives with rotational programs. There are several opportunities for that in the Giants organization. In addition to our spring training facility in Arizona, the Giants oversee and own a good chunk of our broadcast operations with NBC Sports Bay Area. We’re doing a massive real estate development right next to our ballpark and are giving rising stars and executives ways get involved in those big projects that will strengthen and expand their leadership capacity. We like to promote from within, so when those openings come up, we want the next successor to be ready to rise to the occasion as opposed to having to go outside to find that that talent.”
Career Turning Points
“One of the moments that was a real turning point in my career was when I worked at the Olympics in Torino, Italy. When I got there, my boss took me out to dinner and said, ‘OK Bill what are you looking to get out of this?’ I told him ‘I’m here to kick butt. You’ve got me 24/7.’ He said that’s great but that’s not why he was there. He told me he wanted to enjoy the experience. ‘We’ll get a lot of stuff done but we’re also going to enjoy it.’ For him, that meant going every night after work and getting to know the locals. That wasn’t my style. Even in college I preferred training for a ski race over going out to socialize. I just liked to get stuff done. He said ‘No, we’re are going to balance that’. So he took me out to enjoy the nightlife, and I learned a little Italian and met a lot of people. I was way out of my comfort zone, but I learned the importance of building relationships on the job. And at the Olympics, when things went wrong, when all the processes and preparation and everything we had done to get ready went out the window, all Roger had to do was pick up the phone and call one of the people he had built a relationship with. His example was a huge turning point in my life and my career. Now I prioritize talking to people and getting to know them and spend less time checking off tasks on the to-do list.”
Leadership Through Difficult Times
“I have a pretty consistent approach. I am committed to being completely honest with folks and communicating with them even when we don’t know what’s coming. I tell my help desk that when there’s a problem without an immediate solution, we should continue to communicate that we’re working on it rather than leaving people hanging.
“I don’t think we have the answers of what baseball is going to look like in the long term, but we’re optimistic that we will gradually move back toward full stadiums. The good news is there are other ways that people can watch baseball, but we need to create a safe environment for our players to continue to compete. In the meantime, we continue to put our people first during a crisis where our revenues are down 80 plus percent. I’m so appreciative of having an ownership group that has the wherewithal and the desire to put people first.”
Five Takeaways for the CXO of the Future
- Kick butt and give 110 % in everything you do. Make it a mindset.
- Always be looking for ways to get outside your comfort zone.
- Be real, be vulnerable.
- Invest in relationships.
- Enable the success of every single staff member. Remember the Jackie Robinson quote: “Life is not significant except in its impact on other lives.”
Bill Schlough currently serves as Senior Vice President & Chief Information Officer of the San Francisco Giants and Chairman of the Board of the San Jose Giants.
Since Schlough’s arrival in 1999, the Giants have been recognized as one of the most innovative teams in sports, playing a pioneering role in the world of mobile connectivity, video, ticketing and payment systems. The Giants were the first team to provide free Wi-Fi to all fans beginning in 2004, and Oracle Park is currently the home of the largest video board in California and first 4K-capable screen in MLB. Schlough’s IT team has also supported the baseball operation in implementing an array of proprietary analytic tools that helped the team secure three World Series titles in recent years.
An Olympic enthusiast, Schlough served on the committees for San Francisco’s bids to host the 2012, 2016 and 2024 Olympic Games. His event experience includes assignments at the 1994 World Cup along with Olympics in Atlanta, Salt Lake, Torino, and PyeongChang. Previously, he worked as a consultant with Booz-Allen & Hamilton and EDS. More recently, Schlough served as Interim President of the Giants’ Class A San Jose affiliate and was appointed to the team’s board as chairman in 2012.
In addition to his Giants and Olympic activities, Schlough has served as a board member of Junior Achievement of Northern California for the past 15 years. He is also an avid supporter of Junior Giants, raising over $150,000 thru speaking appearances and other fundraisers. Schlough was inducted into CIO.com’s CIO Hall of Fame in 2017, was named Trace3’s 2016 CIO Outlier of the Year, InformationWeek’s 2012 IT Chief of the Year, and is a Sports Business Journal’s “Forty Under 40” alumnus.
A San Francisco native and Ironman triathlete, Schlough holds a Mechanical Engineering degree from Duke University and an MBA from the Wharton School. He resides in Los Altos with his wife, Erin; sons, Xavier and Quinlan; and father-in-law/role model, Jerry.