What leadership means to the HR head of an 88k-strong workforce

When she became senior vice president and chief people officer at MarshMcLennan—a global professional services firm based in New York that specializes in risk, strategy and people—Carmen Fernandez jumped from overseeing the needs of 3,000 workers at Mercer consulting firm (a business unit of MarshMcLennan) to overseeing the needs of 88,000 global employees. A bit risky?

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Not really, she says. Fernandez, an HRE Top 100 HR Tech Influencer for 2022, says the work of any chief people officer comes down to focusing on culture and people, no matter if you’re handling 500 people or 50,000.

She says her role, which she has held since January 2021, is in an “exciting space” that involves consequential issues ranging from climate challenges and cyberattacks to inclusion and diversity. HRE spoke with her recently about scaling up her job performance and her plans to make a global impact by growing and investing in the company’s people and culture.

HRE: What was one of the first areas you tackled in your new role?

Fernandez: One of the first things I did was use it as an opportunity and moment to reflect on the pandemic. It was really an incredible experience to spend thoughtful, intentional time with our leadership team to ask what was it that made our connection with clients and colleagues able to thrive and serve. We really broke down what it meant to be a humanistic leader—lead with both economics and empathy. We spent several months developing the MarshMcLennan leadership mindset, which is really grounded in humanistic leadership. It’s comprised essentially of five pillars that exemplify what it means to lead. We rolled it out to our top 200 leaders. We embedded it in our talent management and succession planning programs. Now it’s part of our lexicon.

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HRE: So far, what impact has this philosophy made on the organization?

Fernandez: This was the first time we had a common language for leadership. COVID actually broke down a lot of barriers across the organization. It became much flatter, much faster, more connected. Even though we weren’t spending time together physically, we were more connected—virtually.

HRE: What are you focused on now?

Fernandez: The ability for our organization to do future backward planning, commit out to five or seven years. What’s required of the organization in terms of technology and skills that will move the needle of the organization? Cultivating a pipeline of diverse leaders is something we are all very focused on.

HRE: You are a big student of leadership. How are you leading HR?

Fernandez: We do outside-in reviews. We look at megatrends. What do our clients need most from us? Do we have the right talent to deliver that? What are the key issues? Am I doing my job or the job that needs to be done? Then there’s a bottom-up review. We have a multi-generational workforce and need to understand the ways we connect to make sure we’re developing them with the abilities and skills needed to serve our clients. By evolving the support of our people’s growth and development, we will continue to make an impact.

HRE: What other skills do HR professionals need to enhance?  

Fernandez: The ability to diagnose the needs of a group by asking the right questions is really key. We can do a better job of that. Leaders rely on HR to diagnose and bring in expertise to help tackle issues. We need to ask the right questions, actively listen, diagnose the situation and then come back to the table with, “Here’s what really matters, here are some ideas to help move the needle.” Right now, HR has an incredible opportunity to make an impact in areas that play a part in leadership table conversation. When I walk out of a leadership meeting, a huge portion of the conversation is around wellbeing and inclusion. This is prevalent. We need to step into this role and play it with confidence.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: How do you influence the company’s leaders?

Fernandez: I’ve been able to influence them by diagnosing what really matters—what are the key issues?—and [demonstrate] the ability to solve issues. That’s really what it comes down to.

HRE: I noticed something on your resume that’s rather surprising. While you’re a first-generation American with family roots in Spain and the Dominican Republic, you’re also a flamenco dancer.

Fernandez: I’ve been dancing flamenco since I was a little girl. I spent about a year in 2003 as a flamenco dancer while living in Spain. It’s part of the Spanish culture that [involves] a Spanish guitar, drums, castanets and clapping.

HRE: Any other passions you want to tell us about?

Fernandez: I’m really passionate about leadership. I’m a big believer in learning and growing, doing things better and leading with inclusion. The important part is [figuring out] what questions you’re looking to answer. Without the right questions, you’re not making an impact. Make sure you’re spending your time and resources in the right places to get the right value.

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected]