‘You decide what success looks like’ says ESPN executive


Real learning occurs when you step outside of your comfort zone.

This was one of the leadership lessons Rosalyn Durant, ESPN senior vice president for college networks, imparted during the 16th annual Huck Boyd Lecture at the K-State Alumni Center Thursday morning.

After working in affiliate sales for ESPN for seven years, Durant said she had the opportunity to take a promotion with the programming department to help oversee the network’s partnership with the NBA.

Although she was interested in the job, she said she was unsure about making the move since the network was only months away from negotiating a rights agreement with the league.

“That made me a bit nervous,” Durant said. “Not that I didn’t think I couldn’t learn a ton in this position … but I had grown rather comfortable. The thought of starting over was scary.”

Fear of the unknown

Durant said it was the thought of leaving her comfort zone that made her hesitate.

“I knew the department that I worked in,” Durant said. “I knew the people. I knew the personalities. I came to know this business. This would require me to start all over again. That made me nervous.”

She said she put together a list of pros and cons to help her evaluate the opportunity.

“What do you think the biggest con was?” Durant said. “It was fear; fear of the unknown. Fear of not knowing what I was doing and trying something very different. Fear was one big (con), but it was just one and my pros list was really long. So I made a decision that day that I would never let fear alone stop me.”

Durant applied for the promotion and received it a few weeks later.

“It was one of the smartest decisions I ever made,” she said. “It changed my career trajectory … It taught me that I could indeed thrive outside of my comfort zone.”

Changing definitions of success, failure

After putting together a new show that had a DJ and comedian for the ESPN U network that was pulled off the air, Durant said she was disappointed because it did not work out the way she planned it to.

“Did that mean it was a failure?” Durant said. “Did that mean I was a failure? No. That same comedian is serving up great content on SportsCenter. We kept the DJ and brought the DJ onto other studio shows … That show helped expand our thinking about how we could serve sports fans. It wasn’t a failure, because a lot of good came out of it.”

Durant said she believes failure depends on how you view things.

“You decide what success looks like for you,” Durant said. “You decide what is failure. You decide what your success specifically looks like and what path you’re willing to take to get there.”

What leadership means

Durant said she believes good leaders make people better, and learned a lot about leadership by watching others.

“I study everyone,” she said. “Some of my best leadership experiences have been from people who I did not think were very good leaders. They taught me what not to do.”

Surrounding herself with people with various views and backgrounds is something Durant contributes to her success as a leader.

“I need diverse thinking,” Durant said. “So when we talk about this idea of diversity, it’s not just about what the room looks like, but it’s also about the inclusion. One of my mentors has said, ‘In order to find a good idea, it takes a lot of ideas.'”

On women, minorities joining sports journalism business

To Durant, part of the appeal of working at ESPN was the amount of women who held management roles within the network.

“I looked around at the company and I saw women and I saw people of color who were in higher positions,” she said. “Before me, there was another woman who managed our NBA property. The person in our company who manages our day to day with the NFL is a female.”

Although diversity exists at ESPN, it could still be expanded upon at other organizations, according to Durant.

“I’ve walked into rooms outside of ESPN, on behalf of ESPN, where across the boardroom I’d be the only woman or the only person of color,” Durant said. “I just like to believe that hopefully others seeing the diversity that comes at ESPN will help encourage conversation around diversity at some of the other places.”

She said women should take the lead and apply for roles in sports journalism.

“I encourage the young ladies just to take a chance, to know that you are good enough,” Durant said. “You are good enough, and to surround yourself with people who are going to encourage you and support you.”

While serving as an intern for the network, Durant got her foot in the door by sending a note to the company president asking to meet. He agreed and they met for a great conversation, according to Durant.

“He said, ‘What are you doing after graduation?'” she said. “I said, ‘I’m going to work here at ESPN.’ He said, ‘Oh great, so you have it all lined up?’ I said, ‘Nope. So if there’s anything you could do, I would appreciate it.”

Roundtable discussion on social media, sports journalism

After her address, Durant joined a roundtable discussion about the role of social media in sports journalism.

Tim Fitzgerald, editor and publisher of GoPowercat.com, said he often has to remind journalism students that tweeting alone is not what reporting is about.

“Talking about sports on Twitter isn’t being a reporter,” Fitzgerald said. “You can spend all day on Twitter talking about sports, but you’re still not a sports journalist. You’re just talking about sports.”

George Schroeder, national college sports reporter for USA Today Sports, said that social media cannot replace actual reporting.

“The basic tools of good journalism have not changed and they’re not going to change,” he said. “You have to be able to report. You have to ask the questions. And then you’ve got to be able to put them in all the different forms (of social media) we put them in now.”

Durant said she thinks Twitter has helped develop interest in strong reporting.

“I don’t think Twitter has diminished the interest and good storytelling,” she said. “Not all sources are created equal. So I may hear this news break by one source, but I keep looking to see what a trusted source has to say.”