Name: Araceli Fernandez
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Current Title: Senior Associate at Partners in Performance (PIP)
Professional Experience: PIP, Athena Consulting, Foster Wheeler Corporation, and Fluor Corporation
Education: B.A., Architectural Engineering at University of Texas at Austin and MBA at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
What is the greatest professional lesson you've learned to date?
“Obtaining "buy-in" is the key to success.” You can work extremely hard and have the most innovative solution, but if your team or client is not on board, it will never work. Numerous times, I have seen the repercussions of not having "buy-in" impact the success of even the best ideas. On one side, I have spent countless hours designing something that was never used. On the other hand, I have let things perish as I never used them for their intended purpose. Both resulted in a heavy time loss with little or no benefit to me or my teams.
The best "buy-in" practitioners I know have a strong set of soft skills and are methodical at aligning teams before investing too much time in an idea. They write out the problem, draft a solution, and refine the solution with those that may be impacted. Throughout that iteration, they have individuals that not only agree the solution and approach are correct, but also commit to doing things to help move the project forward. Interestingly, it is in the commitment phase where an individual's true position comes to light. People either become fully vested and generate even better suggestions to improve the overall solution, or refuse to support the idea at all, leading you to find other options. It is in that commitment phase where the roadblocks that would have prevented the solution from being implemented are broken down.
What has been your greatest professional failure to date and what have you learned from that experience?
My first job out of university, my network consisted of my direct team, a few departments I interacted with, and other new hires. The people were great and we got along very well. It was a solid circle, but it was a small one. Two years in, the company lost a major client and had to downsize. After several rounds of layoffs, the reduction continued as existing projects ended and no new ones started. Managers were shuffling people, placing them in other areas to 'save them' until a new project kicked-off. At one point, my manager and I had a chat. There it came to light that he was having difficulty sending me to other area because other managers did not know me. In that moment, it dawned on me that I had never made an effort to interact with other upper level managers, and as a result was in danger of being laid off. That was a grave error. A few weeks later, I was let go. Thankfully, I was able to find a new job at the same time I was let go. But that conversation has always stuck with me and I vowed to never put myself in that position again. Always, always, always, go above and beyond your immediate professional circle to make connections with other people both inside and outside of your current company. Developing those relationships is important because they may one day play a factor in where you end up.
What issues have you dealt with being a female person of color in corporate America and how have you overcome these challenges?
When I worked in the oil and gas industry, I noticed my male counterparts would often get selected for field assignments and I would not. This was quite frustrating to me as I felt the better learning experience was out at sites. I made it a priority to befriend people who went to the field and expressed my interest to absolutely everyone. If you heard the word 'fieldwork' in the office, it was closely followed by me saying 'can I go?'. This tactic worked quite well as I obtained a strong group of supporters who urged others to let me go. Eventually I received my shot and made sure to help any other women in my group that had a similar goal.
Now, I continue to work with companies where women and minorities are grossly underrepresented. Sadly, I expect this to continue for the coming years because change in my field comes slowly. That said, I continue to push and seek opportunities to not only give myself chances to explore new spaces, but also create opportunities for the people behind me to do the same. As more and more progressive thinkers enter the space, I’ve found a noticeable increase in their support of diversifying the industry. With their support, I am hopeful change can be accelerated going forward.
What resources, professional or personal, have you leveraged to ensure your career is progressing?
I like to remain relevant on news and express my interests to fellow colleagues so that 1) I am in a better position to be selected for projects because I am staying sharp and knowledgeable about the field and 2) others can keep me in the loop when they hear of potential opportunities I may enjoy.
To do this, I read the news to stay up to date on businesses and disruptions in the market. I also like to scroll through our company intellectual property documents which contain research on industry, companies, services to obtain more in-depth understanding of things that peak my interest. If there's an article that I like, I try to connect with the individual who wrote it to talk about their experience. Most are willing to give a few minutes of their time to talk. I also reach out to my mentor and mention the areas I am interested in and she/he puts me in touch with people they know in those areas.
Do you have mentor? If so, how did you select this person or people?
I have two types of mentors: formal and informal. The formal one, called a Development Leader (DL), is officially selected by me at my company. As the title suggests, this person is responsible for supporting my professional development. As such, I selected a DL that I trust and admire that is a few levels above me. Someone I feel comfortable sharing my aspirations with, whether they be within or outside of my current company. Someone that I feel cares about me as a human being and can provide emotional support during stressful times. They are a friend, adviser, supporter, and role model.
The informal one, called a Coach, varies and is often multiple people at the same time. These people provide one-on-one guidance and problem solving support. When selecting this person, level does not matter, but competency and proximity are key. She/he has to know the subject better than I do, bring a new perspective, and/ or be on the same project. When I identify someone I think will make a good Coach, I approach them and say something along the lines of "I heard you have great experience in X. I am new to this area, do you mind if I come to you for advice throughout this engagement? I would love to get your input on my work." Depending on their answer I either have found a Coach or must continue searching for a new one.
My experience here has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had coaches who have helped me develop both hard and soft skills as I continue to build my career. They’ve helped me navigate the tough times and also patted me on the back during some of my more successful points.
What advice would you give a young adult who is about to start their first job post college
Communicate frequently with your manager and peers. In consulting, managers won’t know how hard you are working or provide guidance that you need if you do not speak up to tell them. As you perform tasks, check-in at least once a week (sometimes more) and provide progress on your efforts. A quick "these are the highlights of my week and these are the lowlights / emerging issues I'm experiencing" can suffice. This helps your manager be able to course correct and intervene early on while things are still manageable. The last thing you want to hear is "if you had told me earlier, we could've done X." Communication is the key to starting your career off on the right foot.