TEDxToronto 2019: Mark Cohon, Chairman of Toronto Global and Former Commissioner of the CFL

Mark’s long history in the business of sports saw him as a former executive with Major League Baseball International (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and most recently, the 12th Commissioner of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Now as the chair of Toronto Global and the Juno Awards, Mark is known for building successful Canadian brands, and through them, the reputation of Canada.

(To see Mark live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

What was your first “million-dollar idea”?
When I was 10 years old I had a few shares of McDonald’s stock. Every quarter, I would get a cheque for about 25 cents from the dividends. I wrote to the worldwide CEO of McDonald’s that they should allow people, by checking a box of their share forms, to automatically direct their dividends to charity if they wanted to. He liked the idea but rejected it because it would be too much paper work for the company. I bet billions could be raised for charity. Maybe I should revisit the idea using technology today?

What’s the wildest idea you had to sell somebody on? How did you do it?
When I was the Commissioner of the CFL, for the 100th Grey Cup I wanted to create a Grey Cup fan march where fans got to carry the Grey Cup down Yonge Street to the Rogers Centre before the game.  The CFL owners thought I was crazy. They said people would drop the cup and no league allows fans that type of access. I still did it. 20,000 fans showed up for their chance to carry the cup. U.S. sports media wrote that the U.S. leagues should copy the idea to bring their fans closer to the game.

Name a big idea in your lifetime that you can’t believe never took off?
Four years ago, I partnered with my brother and Cirque du Soleil to create a new immersive entertainment idea called Rise.  It was Tough Mudder meets Disney in a traveling Cirque show, where you are a participant in 100,000-square-foot travelling obstacle course made out of containers with actors as your guide. While a very cool idea, we could not raise the $50-million to produce the experience.

Name one thing, as a society, we aren’t spending enough time thinking about? What would be a good first step?
The economic disparity between rich and poor and the widening gap that is happening. I would take people out of their comfort zone to expose them to the challenges facing millions of people today. Try to have a rallying cry and define solutions that involve both our political leaders and the private sector to tackle these challenges.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day-to-day work? How do you take it on?
Because I chair four different organizations and I don’t have a daily operating role my biggest challenge is not on a daily basis. My bigger challenge is the evolution I have gone through from being a CEO to being a Chair. I miss being on the hot seat as the CEO or leader of an organization. My challenge on a daily basis then is finding the right focus to determine and uncover my next big move.

Where do you look for inspiration?
It is simple, my father. He is 82 years old, he has had a successful career but more importantly he has led a life of giving back. As the founder of the Ronald McDonald Houses, every week he takes his two therapy dogs into the Toronto Ronald McDonald House to sit with kids for several hours. He constantly inspires me that in work and life you have to be hands on.

If you could achieve one goal in the next 18 months what would it be? And why?
Determining where I use my experience and energy to lead my next big thing. While I have a great life and love Chairing Toronto Global, the Juno Awards and being a partner in one of the fastest growing spirits companies in Canada, I have more energy to give in a true leadership capacity. Filling that hole in the next 18 months would be my goal.

(To see Mark live on the TEDxToronto stage on October 26th, purchase your tickets here.)

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