A Call to Action: Mike Fernandez on Achieving Diversity Goals

July 1, 2016

Mike Fernandez
Mike Fernandez

Mike Fernandez recently retired from Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., where he served as corporate vice president, corporate affairs for the past six years. Prior to Cargill, he served as a CCO for five companies, including State Farm Insurance and Kodak.

This past April, the PRSA Foundation named him as its 2016 Paladin Honoree, for inspiring change in the PR profession.

Here, Fernandez talks about driving leadership and reaching diversity goals:

What are some strategies that have driven your leadership success?

Bring the outside in; too many organizations are inward-facing. The job of a leader is to make sure the organization has a good strategic line of sight as to what is happening in the marketplace, in the broader external world, that might prompt an adjustment to strategies and tactics in what competitors are doing and what analysts, customers and critics are saying.  As Emerson wrote in his essay “Circles,” “The field cannot well be seen from within the field.”

Inspire your team; don’t tell them what to do. Ask probing questions that spark greater curiosity. This turns what you were thinking into something infinitely better. Without good questions, organizations — and humankind — don’t advance very far.

Be judicious in matters that impact people. As a leader, you have to be willing to make the tough decisions; at the same time you have to be respectful and supportive of people. In work situations, you must do your best to empower people and trust them to do the right thing, while holding them and the organization accountable. A colleague I once worked with used to say, “Nose in and hands off.”

What are your biggest leadership faux pas? What did you learn from them?

Mistake one was assuming that because I was a successful U.S. Senate press secretary that I would naturally be successful leading a small corporate communications team. The problem was that in my political job I only had to please one person — the senator for whom I was working. 

At Kodak, I had to learn how to work with and get buy-in from a coterie of business leaders, lawyers, accountants, HR, marketing and sales people. I quickly learned how to effectively collaborate and drive decision-making across multidisciplinary teams.

Mistake two was assuming that all corporate cultures are the same, and what worked in one place would work easily in the next. I have now worked for six different corporations and each has a distinct culture and different sensibilities about how various activities are done. When one transitions from one organization to another, get a good fix on its culture to determine how best to help the business and its leaders succeed.

Is the PR profession doing enough to reach diversity goals?

I covet the day when none of us has a diversity and inclusion unit because we will have achieved our aim, and the profession will recognize that diversity is not just good to do, but is a competitive advantage. 

While we’re not there yet, we have seen improvements since I became only the second Latino to serve as a CCO in a Fortune 500 company, 20 years ago. But the pace of change is still slow, particularly when it comes to more senior roles in agencies and corporations.

What do we need to do as leaders? 

  • Reduce the cost of candor associated with diversity
  • Continue to invest in research, scholarships, internships and mentorships, and hire more diverse candidates
  • Address the retention and development of our diverse employees
  • Set real goals and hold ourselves and our managers accountableReadjust our job descriptions so that our opportunity to hire diverse candidates improves at every level.

Please tell us about an inspiring leader (or leaders) whom you followed, and what made them so effective?

I have had the great fortune to work with several inspiring and effective leaders. Two quickly come to mind: Sol Trujillo, who was the CEO at US West and my first boss as newly-minted CCO, and Greg Page, who was chairman and CEO at Cargill and was the last one to hire me as a CCO. 

Sol was like the internet: hyperactive and always on. He was always focused on how the outside world could upset our plans and always looking for an opening to gain competitive advantage, and he encouraged those who worked with him to think as if they were running a campaign against our own company. It kept us on our toes, focused and ultimately achieving well beyond expectations. 

Greg asked lots of questions, enjoyed candid debates and invited those around him to think anew. In hiring me, he looked to transform a large privately-held company that historically had responded to media inquiries with a “no comment” into a more open, transparent and engaged company. As he would express: “In a world where nothing can be hidden, you best not have anything to hide.”

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).


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