The Page Role Models: Mike Fernandez

U.S. CEO

Burson-Marsteller

Tell us a little about your personal journey. Where do you come from?

I like to say that I'm an American nomad. I was born in Long Beach, California. My background is Puerto Rican and Cuban. My father had lots of odd jobs when I was young and I ended up moving quite a bit and living in various communities in four states around the country. I attended eight different public schools. It was a challenge at the beginning, but it ended up being a good thing for the career that I found myself doing today. It gave me more understanding of different environments and cultures and helped me to adapt to new situations.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to Georgetown University. It was a combination of scholarship and work-study. I went there initially to the School of Foreign Service. Most of what I studied was government, international relations and economics. I'm the first Fernandez in the family to get a college degree.

What attracted you to a career in public relations?

In many ways, the career kind of found me because it was a synthesis of many the skills that were developed both in school and by my series of internships and jobs in and around Capitol Hill.

How did you reach the position you now hold?

During the post-Watergate environment, I got involved with different political and analytical jobs, like creating political marketing tools. That same analytical work became useful for another side experience that I had to help with election coverage for National Public Radio in 1976 and 1978. Those experiences, combined with writing book reviews for the Washington Monthly, culminated to the point where ultimately I ended up becoming a US Senate press secretary at the age of 23. At the time, I was the youngest to hold this position. From there I kept working in communications, marketing and public relations at Kodak, an insurance company and others, until I came to Cargill, where I was Corporate VP.

What particular professional challenges did you face as your career progressed, and how did you overcome them?

In the beginning, when I ended up wanting to get an internship on Capitol Hill, it was not easy given that my family background was pretty modest and we were not very well politically connected. I kept knocking on doors, and no matter how much I showed people what I could do in terms of reading and writing research, they would say: "Who is your mommy, who's your daddy?" After looking for a job for week, I got one doing research and writing because of the way that I connected with the guy who was interviewing me. He had baseball memorabilia and I started to identify with what he had up on the wall. We talked about baseball for 40 minutes. At the end of it, I was hired without talking about the job. Sometimes getting what you want is about identifying more directly with the audience that you are interacting with. In this case, having that common bond was enough to make him look and appreciate me differently. But I still had to prove myself at the job.

Were there personal challenges as well?

There were times in my career that, in the hallway and even in meetings people wouldn't think of me as Hispanic and would make an insensitive joke or tell a story. But I guess that one of the great things that my father told me was that life is not always fair and there are going to be challenges. He used to say: "In America, everyone has the right to be an idiot and the idiot is the replaceable one." I would say that in a more polite way like: "It's their fault, it's not your fault, so keep marching on." When I became a press secretary on Capitol Hill, there was only one other Latino, Rafael Bermudez, and neither one of us came from states where there were lots of Latinos. It's also interesting that for my first opportunity to become a Chief Communications Officer a CEO who was Mexican-American hired me.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in attracting more people of color to careers in public relations and corporate communications?

On one level, as leaders in the communications field, our skins may be different colors, our family culture may come from elsewhere, but many of us have gone to schools that are thought of as being elite schools and that's not the norm. On the one hand we have got to get the corporate communications world and the agency world comfortable with the notion that maybe you need the higher talent that doesn't check all the boxes. Sometimes we put too many requirements on the job that we are looking for. If somebody has some basic skills and has the drive, maybe we give them a shot. The other side of it is those of us who come from a more diverse background. We have also to realize that is not just getting in the door that matters, you need to constantly prove your worth and, like my father told me, we can't be oversensitive. We need to realize that there will be insensitive people and we need to drive through that. We need to constantly think about how our unique knowledge and experience can be helpful to the business that we are working for.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young professional today what would it be?

You can't give up, you got to be persistent and look at other avenues. If you want to come to this profession, your communication skills don't need to be good, but great, and you need to be committed to listening, learning and evolving. One of the greatest lessons that I got was from Dr. Benjamin Mays, someone who was an unpredictable mentor for me, when I was invited to his office. He said: "Never stop learning." It's vitally important that, particularly for people with different backgrounds and perspectives, to continue to be curious. We need to ask questions and be strategic about how what we know from our experiences is going to help the organizations that we are with. It's not enough to be creative, you have to be strategic and also need to help the organization to better understand people with diverse backgrounds and diverse markets. We need to be able not just to influence others, we need to listen and be approachable ourselves and talk as authentic communicators and look to solve problems.