Tonya Harris Cornileus has implanted a culture of individual accountability for learning and development at sports media company ESPN.
On July 14, 1978, father and son Bill and Scott Rasmussen took a major leap in making their dream of an all-sports cable TV network come to life, spending $91 to incorporate the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, now known as ESPN.
The Rasmussens couldn’t have known what they were getting themselves into — they knew virtually nothing about the cable television business. More than three decades later, ESPN is one of the most influential sports media companies in the world, with eight domestic cable networks, 300 full-time radio affiliates and a portfolio of multimedia and other business entities globally.
According to an oral history of the company, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, the venture started as a seat-of-the-pants operation, with a crop of young reporters, anchors and sports fanatics following their passion with little idea of what they were doing or where the company was headed.
Tonya Harris Cornileus, ESPN’s vice president of learning and organizational development, also found her way to the company by following her passion — first in media and teaching; then in organizational and individual development — even though she, too, didn’t exactly know where it would lead or the success it would bring.
Cornileus drives the learning, talent management and organizational development function at the 3,900-employee media conglomerate, which makes its home on an expansive, 123-acre campus in Bristol, Conn.
She said her primary mission is to drive a culture at ESPN where learning is entrenched in the day-to-day experience for every employee in every division. This can be a challenge given how quickly global news, broadcasting, radio and entertainment operates.
“ESPN moves at a speed that is remarkable,” Cornileus said. “Certainly in my career, I don’t think that I have ever been with a company that moves as swiftly as ESPN. So the appetite for curiosity and growing has to be inherent in the DNA of the people that work at ESPN.”
Maintaining an edge in corporate learning and development, in an industry already at the fore of content delivery and digital media, comes with its pluses and minuses, according to Bouvier Williams, vice president of learning and leadership at Viacom Media Networks, whose brands include MTV, Comedy Central and BET.
On the plus side, big media companies are already in the business of producing and delivering content, Williams said, giving learning leaders the advantage of having content delivery and digital technology experts in-house to adapt those tools for learning.
On the other hand, working in global media, where customers’ tastes, technology and content are constantly in flux, makes it challenging for a learning leader to sustain a development culture that is relevant to business needs.
Cornileus said her natural curiosity keeps her abreast of the industry enough to see how learning and development fits in. That curiosity keeps her from staying cooped up in her office each day. Instead, she makes it a point to experience the different components of ESPN firsthand — whether it’s having a development discussion with a corporate vice president or sitting in on an early morning production meeting for ESPN’s flagship program, “SportsCenter.”
Her diverse professional background also has prepared her well.
A Teacher at Heart
Cornileus graduated from the University of Florida in 1985 with an undergraduate degree in broadcast operations, now known as telecommunications. From there she took on a number of internships with television and radio stations, though she remained unsure if a long-term career in media was what she wanted. “I had an interest in it,” she said. “But just coming out of undergrad, I wasn’t really sure exactly what I wanted to do.”
Coming from a family of teachers, Cornileus took a job at an inner-city school in Miami teaching junior high students English and some journalism. Although she had previously told herself she would never teach, Cornileus said the experience was gratifying — it might have been the spark, she said, that put her on track to become a learning professional.
“What I found in working with students out of the inner city was that education and learning was their path to what they thought was a better life,” Cornileus said. “Helping them shape that was very rewarding for me.”
Cornileus taught for about eight years in different school systems, as her ex-husband’s military career kept the couple on the move. While stationed in Germany, Cornileus moved away from teaching to help coordinate military training. Upon returning to the U.S. Cornileus resumed school teaching, but said she wanted to explore how her skills transferred to the corporate environment.
Her first job came in 1996 with telecommunications firm Innotrac Corp. as a training manager. After two years with Innotrac, Cornileus was recruited into a position as a regional director with Aegis Communications Group, a consulting, training and education firm. Cornileus worked at Aegis from 1998 to 2004, eventually being promoted to vice president of training and organizational development.
“It was during my time at Aegis Communications Group where I really thought, Hey, I’m going to be in this space for a while, I really love what I’m doing,” Cornileus said. “I’m working with individuals, I’m working with teams, I’m having influence on senior leaders in the organization.”
While at Aegis, Cornileus enrolled at the University of Georgia to get a graduate degree in education, human resources and organizational development; in 2010 she completed her doctorate in the concentration. To complete the doctorate, however, Cornileus said she needed to move into a role that required less travel — Aegis had her on the road often.
That role came in 2004 with Turner Broadcasting as director of executive development and organizational effectiveness, a move that allowed Cornileus to link her passion in learning and organizational development with her interest in media and to simultaneously complete her doctorate.
Cornileus spent five years with Turner, broadening her skills in areas such as talent management and executive development. In 2009, she was recruited to take on her current role with ESPN — a move that allowed her to marry her love of learning and media with yet another passion: sports. Aside from Cornileus being passionate about the Florida Gators, her alma mater’s football program, her son plays football for the University of Miami Hurricanes.
“It would seem like I planned all this out very deliberately,” Cornileus said. “I didn’t, but I am very deliberate. I know what I want to say ‘yes’ to, and I have a good sense of what I would say ‘no’ to. And when the offer came from ESPN … it was very compelling to see how everything I love came together in my career.”
The Ball Is in Your Court
Cornileus acknowledged the challenge of managing development for ESPN’s diverse employee base. She said the company’s growing business in international markets such as Latin America compounds the task.
Yet being able to tackle tough issues is one of the primary reasons ESPN hired her, said Paul Richardson, ESPN’s senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer of Walt Disney, ESPN’s parent company.
Richardson said Cornileus’ “personal integrity and the fact that she was someone who was willing to take on tough issues” really stood out during the interview process. It also helped that she came from a sports family.
One of the first initiatives she implemented at ESPN required that every employee in the company put together an individual development plan (IDP). An IDP, Cornileus said, is a mechanism for employees to think about where they are in their careers, what areas they would like to grow into and how they plan to get there.
Previously, such plans were optional, even though many employees still participated. Now every employee is required to put an IDP together, and Cornileus said at least 95 percent of ESPN’s employees have an active IDP recorded. These plans are audited and supported through the learning function.
Cornileus said ESPN, like other companies, takes the traditional 70-20-10 approach to learning, where the majority of targeted employee development happens on the job, while 20 percent comes from informal learning and 10 percent from formal courses.
Under Cornileus the learning function aims to drive greater engagement in its classroom experience with ESPN The University. Launched in 2011, the initiative has executives and division leaders in different business units serve as the faculty and teach courses about different areas of the business.
ESPN The University is effective because it not only helps drive knowledge about the broader nature of ESPN’s business, Cornileus said, it gets business leaders and executives active in the process.
“If I work in HR, I may know HR very well,” Cornileus said. “Or if I work in production, I know production very well; programming, etc. But I [as an employee] might not know how all of these pieces fit together to make the whole of ESPN.”
The function also has developed ESPN’s Leadership GPS, a navigational tool employees use to track their leadership development progress. The Leadership GPS helps employees set development goals while providing guidance on what internal development tools — job shadowing or courses, such as those offered through ESPN The University — are available and appropriate to help them reach desired levels of leadership.
“The Leadership GPS offers employees and managers the opportunity to really focus in and know, OK, if I’m at this level in the company, I have these responsibilities, I’m trying to grow my skills at this particular area, then these are the types of experiences, types of assessments, as well as the types of classes, that might be of great interest to me and my development,” Cornileus said.
Then there is Center Court, a development program for ESPN’s high-potential employees. Center Court focuses mostly on higher-level strategy and enables employees considered ripe for future leadership roles to experience different parts of ESPN through job rotations and enhanced exposure to the company’s president and executive team.
“There’s a greater emphasis on moving our people around, rotating them and getting them experiences across the entire company,” Cornileus said of Center Court, “instead of just in their vertical core area of experience that they may have started in.”
To garner support for each learning and development program at ESPN — and to include other key business stakeholders in the design and planning process — Cornileus developed a learning and organizational development advisory board.
The board, which meets quarterly and is co-chaired by Cornileus and ESPN’s executive vice president of administration, is made up of senior leaders and vice presidents from different areas throughout the company. Every learning initiative at ESPN is driven through the advisory board for input, Cornileus said, in an effort to make sure all development aligns with the broader needs of the business.
The Employee Learning Council is another supportive body at ESPN. It meets six times a year, provides the learning function with input and feedback, and co-plans programs with Cornileus and her team.
“All of our business units are represented [through these groups],” Cornileus said, “So we’re getting an understanding on what the business strategies are for their respected departments or divisions — what are they trying to focus on? How should the learning be matched up?”
To support her own development, Cornileus said she tries to maintain an academic approach to her job, constantly searching for something new to learn — whether it’s to help her in her role at ESPN or on a personal level.
“I’m a perpetual learner,” she said. “… Right now, I have a tutor in Spanish — not because anyone told me I need to learn Spanish, but because I have always had a desire to be bilingual.”
Cornileus said she constantly is seeking out colleagues in different divisions within ESPN to learn how different parts of the business work together. This could come through conversations over coffee with a finance or marketing executive, or while sitting in on production meetings or other strategy or programming sessions of ESPN’s various media units.
Richardson, Cornileus’ boss, said it’s this brand of collaborative spirit that has made her such an effective learning leader for ESPN, someone who has really captured the spirit of the company and integrated learning into it.
“We’re better because she’s here,” he said.