Six Questions with an Ethics and Compliance Officer: Antonio Fernández

March 15, 2018

Q1: How long have you been working in the ethics and compliance field? 

I'm a lawyer by training and have been practicing law since 2000. I spent the first five years of my career working at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, focused primarily on the regulation of nuclear power facilities. After that opportunity, I spent the next five years at two different utilities companies, before eventually joining General Electric's nuclear energy business as their Chief Compliance Officer. While there, I focused on regulatory compliance, third party risk management, organizational culture, and other aspects of the compliance program. I worked there for five years before being offered the role I have now as the first Chief Compliance Officer at PSEG, a diversified energy company based in Newark, NJ that's been in business since 1903. My focus today is on modernizing and growing our compliance program. 

Q2: What did you want to be when you were growing up? 

From a young age, I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. There are many lawyers in my family, including my uncle, who taught me that being a lawyer is an admirable career focused on serving others who need help. Early on in my legal career, I was focused on international legal work. Now, in my time in compliance, the most appealing and impactful aspect is the focus on building an ethical culture. 

 

With such a strong focus on tone at the top and tone from the middle, it's important to remember that compliance officers need to be leaders and set the tone for everyone else.

Antonio Fernández

Chief Compliance Officer, PSEG

Q3: What are some of the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job? 

The most rewarding part of being a Chief Compliance Officer is seeing your hard work pay off and the fruits of your labor manifest themselves in different, unexpected ways. When I started this role, I was the first person to ever be PSEG's CCO, so I was creating a program somewhat from scratch. Building a team, hiring into new roles, promoting people, changing the code of conduct, and having a front row seat to see how all of those things actually impact our people is very rewarding. 

For example, last year we spent a significant amount of time conducting in-person training for every leader in the company - managers, supervisors, etc. Thousands of people. That training was focused on what they should do when someone comes forward and says “I have a question. I have a concern. Something is bothering me.” Over the holidays, I spent time with my family in Puerto Rico and visited the PSEG crews helping with the relief and recovery efforts. Two of the supervisors in our crew had attended my training sessions and approached me to thank me for the training in person. Having people you don't really know share their positive compliance experiences is really special. 

As a compliance officer, my biggest challenge is prioritizing my time and resources and exercising good judgement when you have competing interests and priorities. You're never going to get to everything on your list, and sometimes certain projects have to wait, so the hardest decision can often be 'what deserves my attention, and my team's attention, right now?' You are always managing that balancing act, because like any other organization, you have to operate with the resources that are available to you. It makes you more thoughtful in your approach to the job because it requires you to really think about what's most important in that moment.

Q4. What are three important traits a Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer should possess? 

  • Intellectual curiosity: The compliance field is very broad and changing constantly, so it's difficult to be a CCO and know everything. The ability to quickly absorb and learn new information about your business and become a subject matter expert across a number of topics is very important. You have to be a 'learn it all', not a 'know it all.'
  • People skills: The CCO needs to be really good on the soft skills. There is a common misconception by many employees that compliance is a barrier to be overcome, so being able to influence others and work well with people across departments is very important. It allows you to be perceived by your peers, senior leadership, and board as someone that has an important role to play and has value to add and plays a large role in building an effective program. 
  • Leadership: With such a strong focus on tone at the top and tone from the middle, it's important to remember that compliance officers need to be leaders and set the tone for everyone else. You need to be perceived and recognized as a leader who can move and inspire people. The core functions of our job require us to work with other people on a daily basis, so those leadership skills are critical in helping to persuade people to do things they may not always want to do. Compliance is a team sport.

Q5. If someone wanted to get more involved in promoting ethical behavior in their organization today, what could they do? 

In the utilities and industrial space, there is a very strong analog to safety. A lot of the effort to drive safety culture are efforts that pre-date compliance, culture, and integrity initiatives. The safety performance of companies, early on, had issues with fatalities and injuries, so there were clear and measurable indications of a poor safety culture - today, you don't see that anymore. What has changed is that everyone in the organization talks about safety and every leader makes it clear and behaves like that it's important to them.

From the most senior levels down to front line management, everyone decided that safety was important and that they would all do everything they could to keep people safe. Once they all aligned on that as a value, and a collective mission, it made executing on that idea much easier. My industry's focus on safety culture has really evolved to where we are honest about misses and use them to help improve things in the future. The same changes and approach can be applied to compliance and integrity. It's a great playbook to drive cultural change, but that change takes constant effort and takes time to make it happen. 

Q6. What advice would you give to recent college or university graduates and other professionals who may want to pursue a career in ethics and compliance? 

Be open to taking chances and measured, calculated risks, and never be too proud to do a certain job. If you're always open to learning something new, experiencing different things, and picking up new skills, then you're moving the ball forward, even if it doesn't feel that way in the moment. The path of your career isn't always linear and upwards - it goes sideways, backwards, forwards, and ultimately, with a little luck and perseverance, it ends up where you want to be. 

 

ABOUT ANTONIO FERNÁNDEZ

Antonio Fernández was named PSEG's chief compliance officer in April 2016. In this role, he is responsible for overseeing PSEG's compliance program, which involve managing PSEG's respected ethics and compliance group and its highly successful NERC compliance group. Mr. Fernández joined PSEG from General Electric (GE), where he served as GE Power's global ombuds leader and executive counsel. During his five years at GE, he held various roles of increasing responsibility in GE's compliance program, serving as chief compliance officer for GE's nuclear business and as GE's corporate ombuds leader.

Mr. Fernández started his career at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)'s Office of the General Counsel through its Honors Program. While at the NRC, he worked on a variety of issues relating to the licensing and operation of nuclear power plants. Mr. Fernández then served as nuclear counsel for Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), where he oversaw all legal matters related to PG&E's nuclear power plants. After PG&E, he joined NextEra Energy as senior attorney, where he counseled NextEra's nuclear fleet on all matters, including licensing, acquisitions, security, NRC enforcement, employment, environmental and complex commercial transactions.

He earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Dayton; a Juris Doctor degree (Order of Barristers) from St. Mary's University School of Law and a Master of Laws in international and comparative law from Georgetown University Law Center.