Tonya Harris Cornileus leads ESPN’s efforts to attract, develop, and retain diverse talent at all levels.
Like most professionals working in this field, Tonya Harris Cornileus didn’t plan on a career in talent development. She received her undergraduate degree in broadcast media and believed that would be her path. But her intended temporary stint as a teacher at an inner-city middle school in Miami, Florida, turned into a lifelong pursuit of helping others to learn and grow.
“My fate was sealed at that point. I understood the sense of reward that a person can feel when you're helping someone develop and realize their goals,” she says. “I knew at that point that whatever else I did in life, I wanted that same sense of satisfaction.”
Today, Cornileus is vice president of development, inclusion, and wellness at ESPN, where she serves as an integral member of the HR senior leadership team. Since joining the sports media giant in 2009, she has led the team that supports the talent development, talent management, and culture needs of some 7,000 employees around the world who fulfill traditional staff functions (for example, accounting) and serve as marketing representatives, content creators, journalists, and on-air talent.
Taking a partnership approach
Cornileus was hired to oversee three functional areas: learning and leadership development; talent management matters such as succession planning and performance management; and organization development, which encompasses change management and culture.
To develop programs and support for those areas, she and her team work in constant communication with the company’s various lines of business. She explains that they take an integrated and collaborative approach to identifying talent at different levels, pinpointing necessary skills, and building experiences that will develop all employees’ skills and leadership.
For instance, the Workforce and Workplace of the Future initiative is led by a cross-functional HR team, for which Cornileus serves as the executive sponsor. The group has strategic conversations with senior leaders to examine how the business is changing and to identify critical or pivotal roles.
She says the group works together with business leaders to find answers to such questions as: How is the business evolving? What are the roles that we will need now and into the future? Whether they exist today or not, what capabilities are needed in the future?
Her team uses information gleaned from those conversations to uncover what types of workforce programs and workplace environments will help ESPN attract the talent it needs to excel. Then the team concentrates on creating and championing experiences that will upskill workers and nurture their careers. That includes providing formal training, coaching, and mentoring, as well as identifying project-based opportunities that people can participate in as a way to develop their leadership skills and gain broader exposure across the company.
“It's not just about creating programs. It’s about thoughtfully crafting an experience that develops the employee and benefits the business,” she says.
Sometimes that means partnering with other organizations, such as Cornell University for e-certificate programs on topics like digital leadership. What’s more, belonging to the broader Walt Disney Company enables ESPN to access an expansive range of talent offerings. Not only are learning programs from across Disney open to ESPN employees, Cornileus says her peers in similar roles throughout Disney “work together to create, advise, and inform on various talent development strategies.”
A key benefit to this approach, she asserts, is that it gives ESPN employees exposure to the entire breadth of learning and career development opportunities within the Disney enterprise. “We believe that we are not only developing employees and leaders for ESPN; we’re developing Walt Disney Company leaders. Employees can have an entire career at Disney because we have such diverse businesses and people can move around,” she says.
But Cornileus is quick to note that ESPN isn’t solely focused on developing leadership and soft skills among the senior ranks. The media company supports knowledge and skill development of employees working at all levels, in all lines of the business.
For example, the content division has a steady stream of individuals just starting their careers. For this cohort, the talent development team collaborates with production leaders to provide talent management and development experiences for the NEXT program, comprised of more than 200 production assistants who are typically joining the organization right out of college.
Again, partnering comes into play, and ESPN works with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies to deliver training on 21st-century journalism skills such as ethics in media, storytelling, and creating content for cross-platform distribution. Meanwhile, ESPN teams with other industry organizations—such as Women in Cable Telecommunications, Women in Sports and Events, and the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications—to provide employees development and networking opportunities.
Where learning and inclusion connect
Two years ago, diversity and inclusion as well as employee wellness were added to Cornileus’s purview. She believes that move strengthened ESPN’s ability to be more strategic with its talent and culture programs.
“Integration of learning and leadership development, talent management, OD, diversity and inclusion, and employee wellness is an incredible opportunity for us to provide holistic solutions for our people and our culture,” she explains.
As a prime example, Cornileus points to a new offering: the Partnership Program. Centered on women’s leadership development, this 18-month program provides rising female leaders access to targeted assessments, coaching and mentoring, and sponsorship. Further, leaders across ESPN and Disney serve as guest speakers, presenting information that aims to build participants’ business acumen.
Cornileus notes the value participants gain from the program’s exposure to the C-suite and sponsors: “Sponsorship is about identifying your advocates in the organization. A sponsor is someone who knows of your work, knows of your potential.”
She adds that although ESPN believes a direct manager should be an employee’s sponsor, employees also need advocates in the company who have different vantage points. She imparts that exposure to other leaders and the C-suite opens up opportunities for individuals to expand their profile and gain new sponsors.
To craft the content and experiences for the Partnership Program, the talent development team works with ESPN’s Executive Women’s Forum. It is an internal affinity group that Cornileus co-chairs and includes women at the senior level.
A similar program is geared toward developing midlevel leaders, and it aims to over index on people of color. MORE (mentorship, opportunity, readiness, exposure) uses formal training, mentorship, sponsorship, and exposure to ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro and his senior staff to strengthen high potentials’ skills and knowledge and boost their prospects for growth and advancement. The program’s initial cohort concluded over the summer, and a second began this fall.
Those programs “spotlight our overall talent and leadership pipeline strategy to strengthen that midlevel leader readiness for advancing into more senior roles,” says Cornileus. They also underscore her team’s commitment to inclusivity.
“When overseeing succession planning, for example, the talent management team considers all plans from a D&I standpoint and then targets their strategy and solutions,” she adds.
MORE and the Partnership Program demonstrate their continuing efforts to evolve talent development at ESPN to align with business and talent priorities, says Cornileus. Prior programs, such as the Executive Leadership Exchange and Center Court, attended to the more senior levels of the company.
She explains that the Executive Leadership Exchange was focused on improving the innovation processes at ESPN and the skills of high-potential executives at the vice president and senior vice president levels. Center Court, a four-quarter format, concentrated on preparing leaders identified through succession planning for expanded and next-level roles at the company.
With such internal and external programs, Cornileus notes that the talent development team is fully supporting the senior leaders’ development needs. However, she and her team identified a gap between midlevel leaders’ development and ESPN’s D&I efforts.
“We determined that it was important for us at this time to focus on our midlevel leadership and to have some targeted offerings for women and professionals of color,” she explains.
“Between the Disney and ESPN offerings, we’ve always offered programs for midlevel leaders, but we want to double down because of the volume of leaders we have at that level and it’s where we see we can make the greatest strides in strengthening our diverse leadership pipeline.”
Under Cornileus’s leadership, the D&I and talent development teams are also coordinating initiatives that pair industry know-how with ESPN’s endeavors to attract and develop diverse talent. The company actively engages with the industry’s journalism conferences, including the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the Asian American Journalists Association.
Beyond diversity to belonging
ESPN has a straightforward approach to D&I. “Diversity, to us, is the fact. You either have diverse representation on your teams or not,” Cornileus states.
Meanwhile, inclusion is the act. “That’s an action that you’re taking to deliberately include people of different races, gender, location, and more. You’re deliberately seeking out and including diversity of thought and perspective,” she adds.
There’s also equity, which Cornileus points out is about ensuring the organization is meeting its D&I goals. “We want equity of voice, equity in decision making.”
To achieve greater equity, the talent development team explores questions around what a certain group may need. The result of those queries are targeted development programs for employees of various diversity dimensions.
But just being diverse, inclusive, and equitable isn’t the whole story. “It’s about belonging,” she explains. “Belonging is the feeling.”
Cornileus says there is an aspect of the company culture that “greatly values interpersonal connection.” That connection and sense of belonging shows up in multiple ways; it also “empowers the voice of all of our employees to contribute to creating the culture that we all want at ESPN,” she states.
For example, the company has nine thriving employee resource groups, with about 2,500 employees participating in at least one group. The ERGs represent ESPN’s sports fans, who are widely diverse, including women; people of various races and ethnicities, ages, and abilities; veterans; and LGBTQ, among others.
Cornileus explains that the ERGs are “embedded into the content-creation process. So, from a business side, their perspective is really valuable.” More importantly, they play “a big role in helping to foster a culture of community and a culture of inclusion and belonging,” she notes.
ERGs are an example that “not everything is about knowledge and skills; there’s culture.” She adds that “the context in which people work impacts how successful and effective they could be.”
Involvement leads to empowerment
More than a year ago, Cornileus’s team launched what it calls inclusive conversations. While these employee-led dialogues can be about any topic of interest, the initial goal was to define “what inclusion really means at ESPN.”
When COVID-19 surfaced, though, conversations centered around how people were dealing with the pandemic. Then as racial and social unrest increased, employees started having related conversations.
Since the spring, employees have participated in more than 50 virtual inclusive conversations. “Employees were speaking up about their pain, their frustrations with where we are as a country, in terms of our race relations,” Cornileus says. “But they also illuminated some of the areas where we have opportunities as a company.”
She shares that the Executive Diversity and Inclusion Council, comprised of the president and approximately 35 senior leaders, and her team quickly responded by updating previously drafted action plans around insights that came out of those conversations. They also altered existing and upcoming programs. For instance, about three years ago, ESPN knew that it wanted to focus in on representation, culture, and inclusion, so all employees participated in unconscious bias training.
Now, Cornileus says, the company realizes that “unconscious bias training is a good starting point because it creates an awareness that we all have biases, but it leaves many people asking, ‘Now, what do I do?’”
The answer is new programming on conscious inclusion that will highlight some of the issues that the talent development team heard during the inclusive conversations. The team is starting to pilot new programs on specific topics such as microaggressions, focusing on what they are, how they show up in the workplace, and how to root them out and replace them with microaffirmations. Team members also plan on addressing broader themes such as how managers can foster more inclusive behaviors among their employees.
Cornileus believes that sort of work feeds into an underlying philosophy of hers: People support what they help create.
“It’s something that I was taught very early in my career. It’s something that has guided me as I work in and across teams and organizations,” she says. “So, when leaders ask ‘How inclusive can we be?’ I remind them that people will support what they help create.” The message is clear: Let your employees help you create the inclusive culture where everyone feels they belong.
She applies that attitude to her own career. “Helping an organization create a culture that develops its people is my passion. That’s what I love doing.”
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