Focus Brands GC Lauren Fernandez on the importance of playing to Your strengths and keeping things simple
By Nancy Flagg
The top recommendation that Lauren Fernandez gives to young professionals is to know yourself: be humble enough to understand your strengths and weaknesses. Work hard on bettering yourself but also follow a course that accommodates your interests and your strengths. Over her own education and career, Fernandez has not been afraid to take a different path if it resonates with who she is at the core. Her career success, far from being hindered by taking a path less traveled, has instead flourished. Today, she serves as General Counsel at Focus Brands, the parent company for such brand names as Auntie Anne’s® Pretzels, Carvel® Ice Cream, Cinnabon® Cinnamon Rolls, Schlotzsky’s® Deli and McAlister’s Deli®.
Playing to Strengths
Growing up in a household where her parents nurtured what was special and different about each of their four children certainly helped Fernandez to be unafraid of nonconformity and of going her own way. In college, in addition to completing the honors program and an English degree, she also self-designed an international major combining three minors: marketing, business administration and Spanish. Her ambitious studies led her to study art and architecture in Spain which proved to be one of the best experiences of her life. “It was such an eye-opener to live overseas and to be in a culture that connected to pieces of my Cuban family…I experienced things that were considered normal in my family that I had never thought of as being Hispanic or Cuban,” said Fernandez.
Fernandez had her first job at fourteen, trying on a number of different areas of interest from marine biology to law firms to political campaigns. But after years of enjoying the strategy and grassroots marketing of state and local politics, for graduate school, Fernandez sought to leave her home state of Florida for a top JD/MBA program. At Emory University, she said that she felt different from her law school classmates, but discovered in those perceived differences lay her unique strengths, including a strong business mindset and a preference for learning by doing. She decided to play to her strengths, working several jobs and internships throughout graduate school. After graduation, she decided to forgo heading into a career in marketing and instead headed for the boutique intellectual property firm Gardner Groff. In a smaller, expertly focused firm, she knew she would get greater exposure to the partners and clients, whole still getting the best training in legal fundamentals. “I was incredibly fortunate to work where mentors gave me additional responsibility when i earned it, not based on my number of years out,” said Fernandez.
Fernandez considers herself lucky to have had advisers and mentors at the law firm who recognized and encouraged her strengths early in her career, especially in her partners and later several of her colleagues and supervisors at CIBA Vision. In this first in-house position, her supervisor gave her opportunities and responsibility for projects that again, were based on her capability and not necessarily her tenure. Along the way, Fernandez says she has not been shy about her smiling personality. She has gravitated towards employers who valued her sense of humor and nurturing qualities as a leader; and they did not try to fit her into a traditional role. Fernandez is adamant that much of her success is due to these supporting mentors, and also the the incredibly high-functioning teams she has been apart of. Fernandez appreciates all they did for her and pays it forward by creating opportunities for others, and defending her team.
Leader as Guardian
As a leader, Fernandez sees her role as much more than just being the person who organizes, directs and inspires people to reach goals. She sees a vital part of her job as a guardian of the team environment and culture. Focus Brands has a fun, family-oriented feel and when new people are brought on board, she makes sure that they are a good fit for the culture, said Fernandez. “It’s a well-oiled machine we’ve got going here- but it runs with living, breathing people. I have to protect that,” explained Fernandez.
She maintains that balance daily by making sure that while they work very hard, “we take what we do very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” This spirit is captured in the department award for being flexible, helpful and going above and beyond. The award is a spray-painted “Golden” Gumby figurine. Fernandez came up with the idea after watching an awards show on TV, and took to a moment of crafting. Now it’s a coveted award that’s now passed from team member to team member as they recognize a teammate who’s done something exceptional.
As a leader, Fernandez has a collaborative, emotionally-connected and nurturing style that supports a positive and fun work environment. She is a fierce defender of that style and the environment it helps create, but the high priority she places on it came from some tough lessons learned as her management responsibility rapidly grew from seven to over twenty people over two years.
Fernandez learned a “humbling” lesson; while personal style can be absolutely vital to her leadership success, it can also be a pitfall.
When pressure and understaffed relative to a rapidly growing workload demand, Fernandez said that her solution to the situation was to maintain the same service level standards by personally working harder. She “kept a sprinting pace for months to the point of exhaustion.” At the same time, she noticed the team’s “morale was tanking” but could not figure out why. Fernandez asked her staff for candid feedback about what was going wrong and heard that under stress, her normal supportive and communicative leadership style went out the window. She engaged in some coaching and learned from that under stress, becoming a “field marshal” personality type leader who was all about “a general triaging and getting the troops all in a line.”
This dichotomy in style of leadership, along with the frantic pace, left some wondering if her normal style was less than genuine. In addition to undermining her connection with the team, Fernandez learned that when her staff followed her example and thinking they also had to row the boat at an “impossible pace.” She thought she was only picking up the workload slack, but she was also unintentionally causing her staff to overwork themselves, and it was making everyone miserable, said Fernandez.
“There were ramifications for the precious things about our team. All that work and energy we put into building an extraordinary team and helping them to be happy…” was all coming undone, explained Fernandez.
Few leaders have the courage to seek frank feedback from their team, but Fernandez followed her instincts, graciously accepted the comments and made conscious changes in her approach. Her take-away points learned from the experience included:
Prioritize people. An important part of being a leader to Fernandez is prioritizing her workload to include regular department meetings, quarterly outings, and blocking out one hour every day for staff only drop-ins and making it clear that she is a servant leader who is there to invest in staff.
Keep communicating. Fernandez believes that if she had just taken the time to tell staff what was going on, she could have saved everyone a lot of stress. The communication should be in a calm, cool and collected manner, added Fernandez.
Be a defender of resources. Fernandez believes that “leaders must fight for the right staffing and right bandwidth” not just to get the work done, but more to protect the team from ramifications that threaten the culture that had been so carefully constructed.
Bestowed versus an Earned Seat at the Table
Fernandez is not only a leader of her staff but also a leader in the company by virtue of her position as General Counsel. She has an seat at the executive table and reports directly to the CEO. That seat is bestowed upon executive staff but Fernandez says that the seat is meaningless unless she has earned the respect and trust of those at the table. Over the last two years, she and her legal team have worked to form trusted relationships and are now true partners in the business.
She has always approached her work with a business-centric mindset. When she interviewed with the Focus Brands CEO for the head legal job, she explained that she saw the legal function purpose as one of being a service to the business. The legal department’s job is to explain to the business units the risks that are associated with what they want to do and give them advice to help them make good decisions. “We’re teeing it up in a business context,” but leaving the decisions to the business leaders where it belongs, explained Fernandez.
When Fernandez began at Focus Brands, there was no central legal function but two separate legal departments from acquired companies. She set out building a team which currently includes over 20 members. To create a department to custom fit the business need, Fernandez traveled extensively to meet with colleagues in the company and find out what their problems and concerns were and how a legal department could help them. After her consultations, she assembled her team and the principles under which it would function based on the identified needs of the business. But despite laying the groundwork for being advisors for the business, it took time to become a valued partner in the organization. “Anyone can smile and shake hands, and that’s a great thing to do… as a start. But it’s showing up over and over again that builds trust and relationships,” said Fernandez.
Fernandez says that she is proud that her team embodies the principles of excellent customer service. The credo for the department is simple: they listen to the internal clients, deliver simple and elegant solutions and do what they say they are going to do every time, said Fernandez.
Whether choosing a career path, serving as defender of her team culture or earning a seat at the table, Fernandez acts with integrity and a resolve to follow the path that is right for her.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
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