Former CFL commissioner shares his values of leadership

Mark Cohon visits Red Deer to address agriculture industry

  • Feb. 10, 2016 3:32 p.m.

Mark Cohon, best known for his transformation of the Canadian Football League (CFL) as commissioner, stopped in Red Deer recently to speak with agriculture industry stakeholders on leadership and passion in business.

“I really wanted to drive home my family experiences because I know the (agriculture) industry is very much family driven. The industry is also difficult because of the demands of customers and I think people need to know what they do is important,” Cohon said.

“That kind of drives you through on those bad days – I had many bad days in the CFL, but I also realized that what I was doing was important.”

Appointed as commissioner of the CFL in 2007, Cohon revolutionized the marketing technique and relationship of the league with its fans, reviving the industry in Canada. He stepped down from his position in January 2015 to pursue new challenges in his career, which include working with the World Wildlife Fund.

Most recently, Cohon was also appointed chairman of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), the committee in charge of the annual Juno Awards for the Canadian music industry.

His father is the founder of McDonald’s Canada and Russia, and Cohon chose to share some of his experiences in his own business endeavours, as well as lessons learned from his father.

“I ran an institution that means a lot to the country and when you think about the grower and growing industry, I don’t think people appreciate enough what farmers and growers mean to this country. I think there needs to be a bigger dialogue around it,” Cohon said.

He explained in his presentation that although he had not worked as a grower, farmer or retailer in agriculture, he felt his experiences in leadership roles and lessons learned would be valuable to the audience.

“We all have to serve customers. Whether you are a grower trying to sell to retailers or distributors, or if you are a retailer like Loblaws or Sobeys, you all have to serve customers and create a strong and trusting relationship with that customer,” he said.

“In the CFL, it was about engaging the fans and bringing them closer to the CFL. I learned the value of strengthening relationships at a very young age from my dad.”

He shared anecdotes of watching his father engage the customers of McDonald’s restaurants and developing relationships with staff members. Cohon said these moments meant a lot to him and served as a reference in later years for how to develop strong relationships with customers and business partners.

“I really learned a lot from my father in terms of engaging customers, working with employees and creating an authentic connection in your business,” he said.

Throughout his address, Cohon returned to his theme of three business pillars – pride and passion, creating strong relationships with customers and consumers, and demonstrating leadership. He said these are all necessary assets in any industry, from agriculture to sport to music.

He explained simple gestures can go a long way in business development and strengthening an industry. As an example, he shared a story of how he personally called CFL fans – many of who didn’t believe it was the real CFL commissioner calling – and thanked them each personally for their dedication to the league.

Cohon learned these gestures from his father, who would often personally engage with his McDonald’s customers and ask them questions about their service, opinion and suggestions. Cohon even used this lesson to invite fans of the CFL to suggest rules to be changed, and eventually changed four rules in the league according to recommendations.

He said opportunities like these are what helps any industry grow stronger, and what creates a relationship between producers and consumers.

“I think you have to engage the retailer. At the end of the day, it is in a retail environment where a consumer really interacts with the product that people are growing. I think the retailer has to be part of that dialogue,” he advised the crowd.

“I’m on the board of the World Wildlife Fund and some of our dialogue is on things like sustainable fisheries. We talk about how Canadians want locally sourced product, farm-to-table restaurants – these sorts of things. The role that growers and farmers play in that is interesting for me to talk about.”

Towards the end of his presentation, Cohon stressed the importance of leadership in any industry. He said growing and food production is a valuable industry and that he hopes more people recognize the importance of the industry impact on their day-to-day lives.

“Set a vision for your organization, for your team or your business – even if it’s a small organization or family business. Set goals for who you want to be and get everyone to buy into that vision,” he urged.

“Even though you have to have a great team around you, the most important thing about being a leader is to lead or get the hell out of the way.”

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