Tom Higgins: leadership truths from football to business

The CEO of the Canadian Football Academy talks about why team building, leadership and motivation are so important

Tom Higgins is CEO of the Canadian Football Academy and a former coach in the Canadian Football League.

Tom Higgins

What is the Canadian Football Academy and what does it do?

Higgins: The CFA was born of an idea between me and Tony Fasano. We wanted to promote youth football in a positive, safe and skilful way. It was important to us to foster the growth of the sport by using the skills and knowledge we have acquired from years in the football profession.

The CFA is going into its fourth year of operation. Our primary focus has been to encourage development of young athletes. We run summer football skills camps for youth ages 12 to 17 focusing on safe play, technical skills and the mental approach to the game.

In addition to the skills camps, the CFA holds combines for football youth where they are tested in seven skill areas just like the CFL and NFL, as well as being able to meet and talk to university coaches. This gives them and their parents an opportunity to navigate the possible steps from high school to university if they are considering a university career.

We have also held six-week off-season coaching clinics in an intimate and intensive environment. Each week the focus is on a different coaching position.

Lastly, we have a leadership program that we tailor to the needs of the coaches and their sport. We have four directors: myself, Tony Fasano, Randy Chevrier and Bruno Lindia. Recently, we were awarded the privilege of working with the Nike Coach of the Year coaching clinics..

What are some of the key characteristics of a leader?

Higgins: There are three characteristics I look for in a leader and expect of myself in that role.

The first is you must do the right thing on a consistent basis. By doing the right thing consistently, you’re building trust. Without this one ingredient, you’re doomed to fail.

Second, everything you do must be done to the best of your ability. This shows your commitment to excellence.

Lastly, one of the biggest problems in today’s society is that we have strayed from the Golden Rule: treating others the way you want to be treated. Treating people in a respectful and dignified way shows that you care. A leader who has the trust in his employees, and has a commitment to excellence and caring for them, is on his way to being a dynamic, successful leader.

What are the key mistakes coaches and business leaders make?

Higgins: Mistake 1: Coaches and business leaders don’t understand what business they’re in. Whether you’re coaching football or building widgets, that’s not your business: your business is the people.

Mistake 2: Either not having a vision or not sharing a vision. If you don’t share the vision, it’s hard for people to buy in. The key is making the people feel that they’re part of creating the vision. When a whole team or company buys into the vision, success becomes a byproduct.

Mistake 3: Not creating the right culture. You can’t create the culture if you don’t have the three components of the leader characteristics: trust, commitment to excellence, care.

Mistake 4: Not all coaches and business leaders know how to lead. It’s the old adage: are leaders born or can they be trained? I believe leaders can be trained through mentorship and through succession planning. On a broader scale, what can people learn from sports, playing and coaching, that they can translate into the business world? Playing or coaching sports teaches dedication, discipline, teamwork and how to be mentally tough!

What are the plans for the future of the academy?

Higgins: Go big or go home! We plan to continue to grow the company. It was a big break to be accepted into the Nike Coach of the Year program and be awarded the title of clinic directors. Nike Coach of the Year has been prominent in the U.S. for over 40 years so we’re thrilled that they have the trust in us to grow the business in Canada.

We’re starting with two clinics this year, hoping to build on more as the years advance. I’m very fortunate to have so many contacts across Canada on many levels of football and right now it’s all about reaching out to them to get the word out that these clinics will be running. We hope to have a successful start so that there is a good basis to build on.

We will also continue to offer our skills camps and combines with the hope that they also will grow as our reputation flourishes.

On a personal level, I’m still and always interested in returning to the football field. There seems to be the thought that I’ve retired but that’s far from the truth. How can I possible retire when I haven’t worked a day in my life? Currently: between jobs!

I’m thoroughly enjoying speaking for businesses and teams, usually on topics of team building, leadership and motivation.

– Mario Toneguzzi


higgins football leadership business

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