HR’s Rising Stars: A visionary leader inspiring a ‘culture of career’ at ESPN

Dayana Falcon describes herself best with one word: visionary. And for good reason.

In her three years as talent mobility manager at ESPN, Falcon built more than a dozen talent programs from the ground up for ESPN employees—including award-winning experiences that are now being scaled across the entire Walt Disney Company, ESPN’s parent company. It’s also work that secured her a place on Human Resource Executive’s 2024 HR’s Rising Stars list. She received the award, one of five this year, during the Elevate People, Ignite Change (EPIC) conference this week in Las Vegas.

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Falcon says her accomplishments have been driven by her ability to bring a forward-thinking strategy to fruition.

“I’m about 29 years out in my head,” she laughs. “There’s nothing wrong with focusing on hitting goals in the day-to-day, but I like thinking about how we help people accelerate forward with momentum. If you have that long-term vision, you can articulate the details vividly of your future goals; then you can work backwards.”

Igniting ESPN employees’ ‘culture of career’

That philosophy has been key to the innovative work Falcon has done to build a “culture of career” for ESPN employees. It is rooted in her belief that talent professionals have an obligation and opportunity to give all workers equitable access to career advancement.

It’s a lesson that she says was driven home by her own experience as a woman of color in corporate America, who has seen firsthand the disparate barriers to access some employees face.

“I was inspired [to pursue a career in HR] by the lack of equity that was happening around development,” she says. “We get caught up in fake rules sometimes—instead of thinking about the humanity behind things: people wanting to come together, build things, solve problems, leave the world in a better place.”

In particular, she acknowledges the power of “cross-pollinating” talent across disciplines through truly empowered internal mobility, a reality that she says talent professionals can bring to life by embracing emerging tech and prioritizing employee experience.

“The only way we can reach digital transformation is by going all in and investing in people to what growth means to them,” she says, “versus the boxes corporate America has had of ‘This is where you fit.’ The more we can expand that, the stronger we can be.”

With those goals in mind, Falcon conceived of ESPN’s Career Centers, in-person spaces—launching first in the Los Angeles facilities, followed by Charlotte, with plans in the works for the New York City location—used for everything from networking to team events to personal development opportunities. Tailored with input from each site’s employees, the Career Centers offer self-service “mini-experiences”—inspirational books, card decks, tablets with personalized content and access to LinkedIn Learning, VR headsets and more.

The centers enable employees to collaborate and independently work on development, with both approaches letting them take the lead.

“When you let the employee drive—through their curiosity—where they want to play a role, versus a top-down approach, the opportunities are literally limitless,” Falcon says.

That focus on career empowerment also underlies the Career Coaching program that Falcon pioneered in early 2023. Instead of investing in external coaches, the program leverages internal leaders, nominated by their peers, to serve as coaches for ESPN employees.

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“With the complexity of the Walt Disney Company and ESPN, it made sense for us to get internal career coaches because they know how to move around in the organization,” she says. “We could personalize helping people build these gameplans at scale, while also investing in our talent to learn this new skill of coaching to amplify beyond their mentoring skills.”

All ESPN employees have access to the coaching program, which is designed to match employees with coaches based on where they and their goals fit into five distinct career personas: career starters, who are onboarding or making a lateral move; career upscalers, as they focus on developing new skills; career shifters, who are looking to leverage transferrable skills to move across the organization; career returners as they ease back into their careers; and career accelerators, who are focused on becoming leaders.

Falcon—herself a career shifter who moved from an advertising agency to a marketing role at Disney before joining ESPN’s talent team—says the approach helps streamline goals for coaches and their employees. The program’s utilization of the Microsoft technology stack, which helps automate scheduling, further supports that process. Coaches are asked to dedicate up to four hours a month to coaching.

Between the coaching program and a speed networking experience, Falcon estimates ESPN employees have had access to more than 1,250 hours of coaching since the start of last year.

A global ripple effect of impact for ESPN employees

Falcon’s belief in the power of cross-pollinating talent has also inspired several other innovative programs. For instance, she convened a cross-functional team to design and execute the inaugural EXP Braintrust, which brings together high-potential talent to collaborate on building multicultural fan engagement. The experience generated more than 50 new business ideas and was highly rated by participants, 90% of whom said they learned something that would impact their future work at ESPN.

To recognize the innovative work already underway across the organization, Falcon designed and launched ESPN’s first All-Star Showcase in 2022, which has since gone global. Designed as a bracket-type tournament, the experience allows teams to put forth their most innovative work for peers to review and vote for the projects that best target four key company priorities: audience expansion, direct-to-consumer, quality storytelling and innovation.

Falcon said the teams’ excitement as they put their “best-in-class” work on display is infectious.

“Our employees are looking at this virtual gallery and it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? We did what?’ ” she says. “The power of the collective work behind our company priorities is a vision to behold.”

During the three-week competition before the All-Star Showcase broadcast, finalists are tasked with campaigning for votes, leading with strategy to demonstrate the impact of their work.

The production of the show itself involves Falcon’s collaboration with more than 20 departments across ESPN and this year, she engineered the introduction of digital green room tech BrandLive to drive an interactive, high-quality global broadcast experience.

This year, more than 2,100 employees—nearly half of the company’s workforce—engaged in the experience, which earned a 4.9 out of 5 rating.

“I cry every year at the end of the show,” she says. “It’s so much beautiful energy and emotion. Everyone’s cheering each other on. It’s like a cultural pep rally.”

Falcon calls the showcase her “proudest” contribution throughout her career thus far—largely because of its visible reverberations of impact. For instance, the 2023 winner was journalist Ivana Negrão, who created the first-ever women’s soccer show in Brazil, boosting female audience growth by 40%. As part of her prize, Negrão was brought to the U.S. for a “four-day, VIP career-on-steroids experience,” Falcon says, where she shadowed senior execs and worked with the lead producer on coverage of the NCAA women’s Final Four. ESPN was the only network with someone on the ground who spoke fluent Portuguese, which allowed Negrão to interview NCAA star Kamilla Cardoso.

“That was such a moment of impact for inclusion—the pride she had in getting to interview this Brazilian player,” says Falcon, who noted Negrão also got to attend the WNBA draft. “She had the career experience of a lifetime. And all of that wouldn’t have happened without the showcase.”

Advancing equity, opportunity for next-gen talent

The All-Star Showcase furthers Falcon’s goal of providing equitable access and opportunities to talent across the company.

These are also core goals of her work at her alma mater, the University of Florida. Falcon sits on the board of the University of Florida Foundation and started the nonprofit Gators Unidos to connect generations of Latino UF grads.

Being able to network with, mentor and serve as a role model for Latino talent coming into the workforce through Gators Unidos, Falcon says, is her way of “paying it forward” to the institution. It was there she started laying the foundation for her career, found community in her sorority and even met her husband; together, they have the college’s colors, blue and orange, on their wedding bands.

That Falcon became a first-generation college graduate made her connection to the university even stronger, she says.

Looking ahead, Falcon, who describes herself as a “super tech-savvy experimenter,” says she’s eager to keep playing with tech—she has her Copilot for Microsoft 365 license—and is leaning into her early career experiences in advertising and marketing to continue to use analytics for talent success.

“I think everyone needs to be leveraging and experimenting with AI for all facets of business, especially in the talent management world,” she says.

Rising Stars judge Heather Vogel, chief talent officer of Children’s Home Society of Florida and a 2023 inductee into HRE’s HR Honor Roll, says she was particularly impressed by Falcon’s use of technology to advance talent strategy, including her “ingenious use of chatbots, power apps and AI to her innovative creation of virtual worlds for collaboration, celebration and play.”

“Dayana shows that by harnessing the power of emerging technology to create global employee connection, belonging and purpose, HR can move beyond today and shape a robust future of tomorrow for employees,” Vogel adds.

Falcon plans to maximize tech output to ensure talent is aligned with their potential and passions—in a way that drives business strategy forward.

“I want to help change the way companies invest in talent,” she says, “to bring it back to a form of inspiration and empowerment instead of complex bureaucracy. If somebody has a dream, we should be helping them get there.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].