The Art of Communication

Whether Mike Fernandez is traveling the globe, talking to customers and colleagues, or handling a crisis, his affable manner has won him much favor and many friends over the years. It’s a good thing too, because his work in corporate communications, marketing, and government relations demands the skills of someone well versed in the fine art of communication. Now corporate vice president of Cargill, Incorporated, a global food, agriculture, and risk-management firm, Fernandez traces his rise from modest beginnings to the top of the corporate ladder.

“I love asking questions. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it keeps my blood pumping,” says Mike Fernandez , corporate VP of Cargill, Incorporated.

What is a typical day like for you?
[Laughs] Well, there’s never a typical day. One day you might be talking to colleagues in São Paulo, Brazil, and Singapore, participating in a lecture at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs [at the University of Minnesota], discussing issues with senior management, and then catching a plane to China; another day you might be arriving from India, hosting a town hall with a US senator, e-mailing reporters, and on a conference call with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

Describe your favorite part of the job.
I love learning. Love working with smart people who are passionate about ideas and the work they do. And I love asking questions. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it keeps my blood pumping.

Where did you grow up? What is your background?
I’m an American nomad. My father worked with the military exchanges (PXs and BXs), so we lived in several states and I attended nine schools from kindergarten to high school.  But I’m of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. My dad grew up in Spanish Harlem (in New York) and my mom in an orphanage in South Carolina.

Who or what inspired you to become who you are today?
Books and family—I read a lot as a kid. My mom took me to the library every week. We’d discuss politics at the dinner table. And I kept a scrapbook about places that intrigued me from Tanzania to Argentina. My grandfather was also a great influence. While in college, I’d get notes of encouragement from him along with a $5 bill. He called it the incentivo to keep me working.

Where did you go to school?
An athlete in high school, I turned down Division I football scholarships to follow my passion for all things international and attended Georgetown University.  At age 19, I was doing research on Capitol Hill —and getting paid!  By the time I was 23, I was press secretary to a US senator (Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings).

Working on Capitol Hill sounds exciting and interesting! What was that experience like?
It was. From my first job at the US House of Representatives’ Democratic Study Group (DSG) working on the first post-Watergate election laws to working for Fritz Hollings, I had a ball and never stopped learning. Even went to school at night earning a master’s in accounting from Georgetown.

That seems like a huge commitment of time and energy. How did you stay motivated?
My father and grandfather inspired me. Each worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. Each knew given our heritage and name we might need to work a bit harder to succeed. Even though I was living in some rarefied air in DC, I kept that focus and kept working.

You have written for top executives and handled some major communications crises in your career. What do you think is the key to success?
Never stop learning. Find what you are passionate about and continue to learn all you can about it. Be curious, ask lots of questions. The Jesuits used to tell us, “The questions are more important than the answers.” I truly believe that. Whether you are managing a crisis or pursuing a passion, good questions matter.