Editor’s note: In 33-plus years at ESPN, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications Chris LaPlaca has been a part of the evolution of a company that has changed the way sports are consumed. Today, his job takes him to all corners of the company – where he is fortunate to meet and work with colleagues from all walks of ESPN life. What makes ESPN different? In this recurring column, Chris will shed light on those answers through the eyes of the people he encounters every day, but that most fans rarely get to meet.
From Baghdad to Bristol
Joe Callahan is a career diplomat who has worked for the U.S. government around the world including in Baghdad during a dramatic year that included the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein.
Today, by virtue of earning The Executive Council on Diplomacy’s Lawrence S. Eagleburger Fellowship, he is on a one-year assignment with ESPN, helping us to better navigate our business in global markets.
“From top to bottom, the people here are very nimble and forward-thinking,” Callahan said. “Everybody is looking for what’s next, not just checking the box on what they have to get done that day.”
A U.S. Department of State employee since 2003, Callahan, 34, has lived and worked in Mexico City, Washington, D.C. and Croatia; his next assignment will take him to Bogota, Colombia, in late Fall 2014.
The Eagleburger Fellowship is granted to only one diplomat a year after a rigorous application process. The Executive Council of Diplomacy’s (ECD) primary mission is to provide opportunities for diplomats like Callahan and companies like ours to share ideas and gain a greater understanding of foreign business practices and cultures. The Fellowship is named in honor of former Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, who was a leader in providing support for American business in global markets.
When Callahan, a Massachusetts native and Skidmore College graduate, was informed of his selection, he interviewed with several outstanding ECD member companies. Along the way he wondered if he could expand the list of companies he could interview, and the answer was “yes.”
ESPN, Amazon, and Zappos were added to the list, Joe said, “because I wanted a company that interested me management-wise. . . their culture, how they managed people, their process, etc.”
Serendipity stepped in and with ESPN’s prior relationship with the State Department through espnW’s Global Sports Mentoring Program, Callahan and ESPN became a “match.”
To say Callahan is taking the bull by the horns for ESPN International would be an understatement. By the time I first met him, he had already sat with more than 100 company leaders. I was the 110th person on his outreach tour. (I didn’t know if I should be impressed by his initiative or offended I didn’t even make double digits on his list… I went with impressed. This is a guy who gets after it).
“People have fun here,” Callahan said. “They are doing what they love to do. It’s not a job to them – it’s a career. Everybody is very knowledgeable.
“I know a lot about the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins,” he said. “But I came here and found out I really don’t know anything about sports in comparison to the people I’ve met.”
While here, Callahan will contribute to the X Games and our World Cup efforts in Brazil later this year. He has also made it his personal mission to learn as much as he can – and contribute as much as he can – to our entire company. One example: Joe provided expert visa advice to ESPN The Magazine when they were looking to send reporters overseas.
“Things move fast here and people are not afraid to take risks,” said Callahan. “If an idea is well thought out, it can come to life. If it doesn’t work, ESPN is not afraid to pull the plug. It’s an approach that has worked well for the company.
“I am also impressed by how many people, if they have done their job well, are encouraged to jump to other parts of the company if they wish to,” he said. “That dynamic is not something that exists in a lot of other places.”
That’s high praise coming from a man who has been to a lot of “other places.”
The Name Game
At last count, we were aware of 27 children in the U.S. who were named after ESPN (I remember helping to arrange an appearance by Dick Vitale at an early birthday party for the very first child we knew about…not surprisingly, Dick called him a true ESPN “Diaper Dandy”).
Very recently, through Twitter, we learned of something that takes the name game one step further – the story of a young girl named McKendry Walsh, who 12 years ago was named after our own SportsCenter and event anchor, Chris McKendry.
McKendry’s dad, Shawn, is a huge sports fan, but most especially bleeds the colors of his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. He is an avid ESPN viewer, and when his wife, Lisa, was pregnant, he pitched her on naming the baby McKendry if it was a girl. He had always thought the name was distinctive and he had seen a lot of Chris on SportsCenter. Shawn admitted it wasn’t an overnight sell – “It took a little arm twisting,” he said.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago. Chris, who returns this week from the Australian Open, her husband and their two boys returned to their Manhattan hotel room after taking in a show. She was scrolling through Twitter @CMCKENDRY_ESPN to catch up on things and noticed a tweet from McKendry, who was recently allowed an account by her parents.
One of the first people she followed was Chris, saying after a few tweets between the two of them, “My dad loves ESPN, and he saw your name, and decided to name me that.”
— Chris McKendry (@CMCKENDRY_ESPN) December 22, 2013
At first blush, Chris assumed McKendry was named after someone in the Walsh family, but after quickly learning the truth, she had another immediate thought:
“Thank God I’ve had some staying power so her father doesn’t have to explain to everyone he named his daughter after someone who used to be on ESPN, but we haven’t seen her in a long, long time. That would be horrible for him!”