Catherine Hernandez-Blades, Success with Purpose
By Melissa Barrera
Growing up on the bayou just outside of New Orleans, Catherine Hernandez-Blades had one dream – to be a broadcast journalist. In fact, while all the other girls her age were dressing up in plastic tiaras and ball gowns, she was interviewing whomever she could, with fake microphone in hand and wearing a fedora with PRESS written on it like comic-strip reporter Brenda Starr. That dream provided the drive she needed to earn a full-ride scholarship to college so that she could pursue a degree in journalism.
By the time she was a junior in college, Hernandez-Blades was waking up at 3 a.m. every weekday to produce a television program called “Good Morning, Acadiana,” in addition to taking a 21-hour course load. She realized that in order to reach the top of her field, she would have to live a life with no holidays and no days off, but these were sacrifices she was more than willing to make in pursuit of her goal.
All of that changed, however, after she witnessed a burned-out news director go off on an offensive rant that resulted in a very public and unpleasant situation. Hernandez-Blades had an epiphany: she realized that she did not want to find herself in a similar situation 10 or 15 years down the line.
“That was the catalyst for me to give up pursuing this dream I had my entire life and move into something that would allow me to thrive, not just survive,” she shares.
This “God-whisper” changed the trajectory of her life and led to her career in public relations.
Throughout her career, which she metaphorically refers to as a jungle gym and not a ladder, Hernandez Blades has worked for and represented a variety of different industries, from aerospace and defense giants Raytheon Technologies and Lockheed Martin to insurance leader Aflac, and eventually Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), finding success at each place. When asked for the source of her success at such a varied list of companies, she says, “There was no secret handshake. While I changed industries – whether it was financial services, aerospace and defense, or running a government agency, I always played to my strengths, which were to run a communications function, to run a marketing function, and to understand the business side of how business gets done.”
She realized that as the leader, she was going to be working longer and harder than everyone else if she wanted to make an impact on her team and organization.
In her current role as senior vice president of marketing and communications at SAIC, HernandezBlades is passionate about enhancing, protecting, and growing the brand and reputation of the company. She is responsible for an expansive list of services including branding, advertising, social media, digital transformation, public relations, corporate social responsibility, and environmental social and governance.
“We have a great reputation as a company for solving hard problems and being an ethically sound company,” she shares. “Those are the stories that I get to tell that hopefully inspire a positive action or outcome as a result.”
Her team also provides change management, focusing on “changing some minds by changing some hearts and inspiring them to act.”
With more than 25 years of experience, the Emmy-winner and PR News Hall of Famer brings to this position a wealth of knowledge and expertise. Today her work has been recognized by her leadership.
“Catherine brings a deep understanding of how factors like SAIC’s culture, people and brand will play a critical role in helping our company to succeed and grow,” says Michelle O’Hara, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at SAIC. “After just a few months at SAIC, she is already raising the bar for us in terms of how we communicate our company’s exceptional story both within and outside the company. Her focus on supporting the business while elevating discussions around issues like diversity and inclusion and corporate responsibility are enhancing the way we are viewed by our customers, our workforce and the public in general.”
While all of that seems like a heavy load for one person to carry, Hernandez-Blades is able to bear the weight of it because she has followed in the steps of a man she calls “the most remarkable leader she has ever known” – Jon Jones, her boss during her time at Raytheon.
“What made him so special was that he gave everyone a voice in staff meetings,” she explains, “My vote counted just as much as Tommy Kennedy’s (who would go on to become Raytheon’s CEO, though at the time was her peer), even though I wasn’t a rocket scientist and we were a company of rocket scientists.”
His appreciation for her voice as well as his emphasis on putting all of his leadership team on equal footing while expecting nothing less than excellence from them gave her the confidence to become the leader she is today. Thanks, in part, to his example, she has surrounded herself with a diverse team that can support her in making decisions and prioritization. Also like Jones, excellence is the standard she sets for her team; however, she also makes it a point to be a compassionate leader. She encourages her team to prioritize family, and when significant life events arise, she says, “I’ll roll up my sleeves and drive out of that ditch with them, whether it’s personal or professional,” a sentiment that is much appreciated by team members.
While excellence is her standard and success her expectation, Hernandez-Blades has experienced obstacles and challenges as she’s navigated through her “jungle gym.” She was often underestimated, seen as too young or too inexperienced to succeed. Other times, she was working in a male-dominated industry where there were very few people who looked like her – young Latina/Native American female from the south. There weren’t a lot of networks or support for someone like her. She’s quick to say she doesn’t think the lack of support from those around her was always intentional but rather more of a result of their lack of exposure to someone from such a diverse background being successful in the roles she filled. “At the end of the day, it is all about results!” she says, “Put those points on the board, and people will pay attention.”
Her drive to succeed and stellar work ethic are just a few of the Latina character traits that have helped shape Hernandez-Blades’ life. Other include faith, discipline, food, and music.
“I was sent to schools run by nuns, convent schools, pretty much my whole life,” she shares. “And I was taught that with faith, anything is possible, and I believe that.” Hand-in-hand with faith is discipline. She believes it takes a great deal of discipline to understand the importance of hard work from an early age, which in turn highlights the role of food and music in the Latino culture.
“Any culture that truly celebrates food and music knows how to celebrate life and celebrate success,” she shares. “I think that one of the reasons that I can be so demanding in terms of excellence, in terms of performance of my team and myself and how I show up at work is because we know how to step back and take time to celebrate the successes.”
When asked what words of wisdom she could share with Latinas looking to enter a similar career path as her own, Hernandez-Blades offers the following advice:
· Pick your battles – know when to fight and when to let go.
· Be a life-long learner.
· Respectfully challenge inappropriate boundaries and protect your own.
· Be the person that people want to work with and you’ll be the person that people want to work for. When people know they can depend on you as a colleague then they will also be able to depend on you if they were on your team.
Her last piece of advice? “Always be excellent.” If you need an example of what that looks like, she’s a perfect one to follow.
“I have not always gotten every job I’ve ever gone for, but I will tell you, every time I have not gotten what I thought I wanted, something better came along,” she shares. “Something better always happened, so remember that something good comes from every setback.”