Q&A with CFL chair Jim Lawson on the commissioner search

As chair of the CFL’s board of governors, Jim Lawson has been inundated with many individuals interested in the Canadian Football League commissioner job; his phone rang three times with potential candidates calling during our conversation.

“I get new people almost every day,” Lawson says.

This is the second time Lawson has been through the process of spearheading the search for a commissioner. Ultimately, he’s trying to help build consensus among the board because it’s their choice in the end.

Chief executive offer experience is a big part of the job specification along with being a strong leader, and an individual who knows and loves the CFL. In this interview, Lawson provides details on where the commissioner search stands, what’s gone on and when the new commissioner of the CFL could be announced.

Justin Dunk: What has happened so far in the process?

Jim Lawson: With our nine governors, there really isn’t anyone that’s come forward that isn’t pretty well known to one or more of them. We’ve both approached people and been approached. There were as many as 30 under serious consideration – legitimately qualified people – and through a process of elimination we came up with a short list and we’ve been going through interviews with those people. The process is moving along and we’ve had a professional firm help manage. It was a case of screening against the job spec, a heavy emphasis on CEO experience, understanding a professional sports league, football experience and for me personally, passion for the Canadian Football League, which I think is what the fans and governors want. They want someone who loves this league as much as they do.

Dunk: What’re the criteria a new commissioner needs to meet?

Lawson: We are clearly looking for CEO experience. This is a league that revenue is very dear to the league right now in terms of how to grow revenue, but also we need someone that is a proven leader, you generally get that out of a CEO. We have major contracts on the horizon, cyclically in this business, broadcasting, players association, renewals and relationships with our current sponsors. There’s been a slight shift towards someone with that CEO and financial acumen. It’s going to be someone who is a great leader of people and who understands and has a passion for the CFL. That’s come through and when you have 30 great people you can get more picky with trying meet those qualifications.

Dunk: What did you or the board learn from going through the process with Jeffrey Orridge because his term was shorter than expected?

Lawson: I really do think he moved the needle on a lot of good things. As far as we look at future challenges of the league, there’s just more of an emphasis this time around on the CEO experience.

Dunk: How will the board whittle the group down from 30 candidates to one person who gets the job?

Lawson: We’ve narrowed it to around 10 people that we screened through interviews, checked informal references on and that’s where we’re at today. The sheer evolution of the process means it starts to accelerate once you start to get down to a short list because people are deciding whether they want to leave their current job.

Dunk: Is the board looking for a candidate to blow them away in the process to secure the role?

Lawson: We spent a lot of time as a board understanding what we needed to meet future needs, that was really important. That was a critical step, building consenus on what that job specification will look like. Once you have that it’s a game changer in terms of helping to screen people. There were great, very qualified people out there who love the league, are well known, but once you decide that job spec it makes it easier. We all agreed on the job spec. Concurrently with me receiving an influx of people, we were nailing that job spec. Then you get into the interview process, we’ve agreed on a set of a dozen questions that as a selection committee makes sure we are consistent, they do relate a lot to the vision for the league. When you get to this level, proven CEO’s who have a passion for the CFL, in addition to them doing their homework and preparing for the interview, you get some pretty darn good answers. The questions are insightful and perceptive as to are we getting the type of leader that show that they’re strategic and have a love and passion for the Canadian Football League. There’s been no shortage of excellent people. It’s a highly, highly sought after role in this country, which is enlightening to me. This board spent a lot of time deciding on what they wanted for the future and that was the measurement.

Dunk: When can we expect a new commissioner to be named?

Lawson: I wouldn’t want to put a date on it, but my expectation is that we’ll have someone in place in July.

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