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Conference Recap: 2016 Paladin Award Recipient Mike Fernandez on Achieving Diversity

October 25, 2016

Mike Fernandez, chair of global corporate and financial practice of Burson-Marsteller, believes his career has been “a bit of a dream…some might even say the American dream.”

In his speech titled, “Diversity Requires a Bias for Action,” which he gave at yesterday’s Networking Lunch during the 2016 PRSA International Conference, Fernandez discussed his upbringing as the child of a Hispanic father and White mother, who “faced many an indignity” growing up in California.

Despite going against the recommendation of a high school guidance counselor, who urged him to go to a junior college and then on to state school –– “as many Latinos and people of color do,” –– Fernandez went on to graduate from Georgetown University and serve as CCO for five of America’s largest companies.

“It seemed to me that my guidance counselor was selling me short…on account of where he thought a young man with a ‘Z’ at the end of his name belonged,” Fernandez said.

Moving beyond theory

“Our diversity challenge in the PR profession needs to move beyond the theory, and all the studies and our best intentions. It needs to be about our practice –– or our very practice as PR professionals will suffer,” Fernandez said.

He explained how he turned down various opportunities early in his career in areas such as diversity recruiting and multicultural marketing and public relations.

“I wanted to advance my career, but I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed.”

“Diversity is not easy,” Fernandez added. “If it were easy, America’s smartest people –– entrepreneurs, engineers and computer scientists in Silicon Valley –– would have figured this all out, and would not be struggling to recruit and retain minority and female talent the way they are.”

About 6.5 percent of PR leaders are represented by ethnic and racial minorities, despite the same groups accounting for nearly 35 percent of the U.S. population. At that rate, it will take more than 30 years for the two to mirror each other.

“It is not just what we say, it is how we say it, and what we do through our actions that matter,” Fernandez said. “How we answer the phone, how we greet people in public, whether we make people feel comfortable or stressed, and how we treat people through a broad array of non-verbal cues, all of it communicates.

“We need to be both intentional and, at the same time, better understand that our actions may be undercutting our intent.”

Fernandez offered two lists, one for diverse professionals and one for leaders, on how to improve diversity:

For diverse professionals:

  1. Be careful to be the owner, rather than the victim. It’s much more powerful to say “I make things happen” rather than saying they happen to me. 
  2. Strive to better understand other parties, just as you hope they understand you.
  3. Find mentors among senior people you respect, and don’t wait for someone in HR to assign you one.
  4. Network with people and peers who you can learn from. Networking does not mean showing up to a social event. It means engaging in ways that enhance your understanding of the craft and the world.
  5. Understand the business and politics of your firm or company. You need to know how business decisions are made, and what issues, activities and strategies matter most to the profitability of the firm.
  6. Master your craft. To succeed, you still have to work harder than others.
  7. Turn your birth circumstance and your experiences into a competitive advantage. Speak up, and provide your point of view.

For leaders:

  1. Reduce the cost of candor on the issue of diversity, and create a more welcoming environment.
  2. Continue to provide more scholarships, internships and mentorships and hire more diverse candidates.
  3. Be sure to more seriously address retention and development. Diverse talent needs to not just be there, but engaged in the firm’s most precious work.
  4. Set goals and hold yourself and your managers accountable. By requiring teams to surface at least two diverse candidates for every opening, this improves the manager’s line-of-sight to diverse talent, and ultimately improves numbers.
  5. Readjust job descriptions to broaden your normal candidate pools so that your opportunity to hire diverse candidates improves at every level.
  6. As Nike says, “just do it.” We just need to hire more, develop more and that includes at the very tops of our organizations.
Renée Ruggeri
Renée Ruggeri is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. Originally from Warwick, N.Y., she has bachelor’s degrees in English and journalism from the University of Richmond and a certificate in publishing from New York University.

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